Illustrated by: Annie Kim

What’s the Deal With Painful Sex?

When I try and pronounce dyspareunia, the only real thing that comes to mind is despair or desperation –– and not just because those words mimic the sounds in my head. A diagnosis with a name that doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue makes it all the more difficult to wrap our heads around painful sex as a real health issue. For many women, simply discussing sex is taboo enough to make them stay quiet, regardless of whether something burns or aches after intercourse. 

Dyspareunia on its own is not enough of a diagnosis or answer as to why so many women feel pain before, during or after sex –– in fact, there are too many different reasons why. A quick Google search on ‘why sex hurts’ may result in things like vaginismus, endometriosis, lack of lubrication, irritable bowel syndrome, interstitial cystitis, pelvic inflammatory disease — the intimidating list goes on. The internet isn’t necessarily a glorified space where all is king; however, it has shed some light on the iniquitously ignored health issue that is painful sex. It’s also a beacon of hope for women who feel less than enough because they cannot perform sexually.

Before understanding this pain as a true health problem, I carried an ample supply of sexual anxiety. I feared my inadequacies brought on all the pain I ever felt. Nevertheless, that uncharted territory never kept me from being drawn to men I found attractive and the experiences that followed those impulses. 

Illustrated by: Annie Kim

Having sex was like a game of Russian roulette for me. I never knew what level of pain I’d have to endure. If I was lucky, it was a silent burn or discomfort. If I was not so fortunate, I’d usually cry alone on a bathroom floor, unable to walk because it hurt so bad down there, while simultaneously hoping the guy in the other room didn’t think I was weird or taking a shit. Because women don’t poop, and they are always virgins but fuck like they’ve been doing it for years.

As far back as recorded history can take us, women have been suppressed and defeated time and again. When it comes to sex, the female orgasm generally falls to the bottom of the priority list. Faking it and bearing it played a significant factor in too many of my sexcapades because anytime I’d tell them the sex hurts, they’d come up with an idea beyond vapid: just relax or try using lube. I can’t say I blame any of my partners for their ignorance or lack of genuine interest in my pleasure since it most likely stemmed from generations of misogynistic men wrapped up in their own hedonism.

Granted, there is also very little research on why sex can be painful –– even though three in four women will experience it. While boys hear about erections and sensual pleasure, girls learn to get ready for a painful and potentially bloody first time. From the start, women are hardwired to ignore physical distress, especially if they want to avoid being seen as a prude or tease. This very expectation of sex involving some discomfort leads women to believe pain is normal every now and then.

Although equality among the sexes is a more prevalent issue now, it hasn’t stopped women from faking their orgasms or staying quiet. Women still take hours to get ready for dates, and we partially have our hope for some sensual experience to thank. But then why fake it or throw all that effort out the window? More likely than not, we put up with too many things thanks to an ancient social bargain where women trade confining sex positions for congenial social ones. It might not always start this way, but too many times, if our libido is not collecting, we may turn to old ways of reasoning — tolerate discomfort and find satisfaction in our partner’s pleasure if the social conditions require it. 

This disconnect of feeling intense attraction and not always acting on it flawlessly was further complicated by my subconscious urge to blame myself or my partners. Of course, that sabotaged any chance at developing a meaningful relationship. 

Illustrated by: Annie Kim

A few years ago, my then-boyfriend and I decided he should head back to his apartment early, seeing as we were both feeling defeated and drained from our failed attempts. I dealt with our undeclared tension by pairing a glass of merlot with “Sex and the City” reruns.

“I have an entire file of women all with the same symptoms. Itching, stinging, burning. All of them think they have a yeast infection. It’s not. It could be vulvodynia,” Charlotte’s gynecologist said in episode two, season four.

That SATC episode “The Real Me” aired in 2001, but when I saw it by chance that pleasureless night in 2015, I couldn’t stop Googling ‘vulvodynia’ — and for years, that’s what I thought I had. In the midst of that dying relationship — due to apparent sexual incompatibility — I still felt comforted and less alone than I had in a long time. I felt normal because my ‘thing’ finally lived outside my overthinking and on actual doctor’s charts and lists of obscure diagnoses. My pain had a name.

Like all good things, that momentary relief didn’t last long. A bit of humor and irony is all the episode offered. One visit to the gynecologist later and I was yet again left with feelings of disappointment as she told me there was no cure for vulvodynia. She so innovatively suggested I try new ways to relax before intercourse and use a lubricant to make insertion easier. According to her, there was also no way to be 100 percent certain vulvodynia is what I even had. So, there was no use in “overreacting.”

Still, I had gained a new awareness. By tirelessly Googling vulvodynia, I came across tons of other stories and diagnoses around painful sex. It wasn’t until I started reading articles, listening to podcasts and engaging with online communities that I felt inspired to find a solution regardless of any potential letdowns. My hunt for answers brought on new anxieties as I curated a list of possible reasons that included sexually transmitted diseases, vaginal or pelvic infections, ovarian cysts, cancer and so on.

Tens of thousands of dollars in hospital bills and a few years later, I reverted to an answer I didn’t know I already had. This pain I felt — and still feel most days — was my body’s response to my anxiety, sexual trauma and reluctance to believe I was capable of a healthy and satisfying sexual relationship. As counterintuitive as it may sound, I was handicapping any possibility of a positive sexual encounter by thinking about my negative sexual encounters. Although the solution to my problem seems so blatantly obvious and easy to fix, it’s just not easy to exit the loop. 

When my vaginal muscles involuntarily contract, it’s vaginismus. When I feel burning, irritation and cramping, I call it vulvodynia. And when it’s a mix of these things coupled with major discomfort and bathroom hideouts, it’s dyspareunia. 

Finding the strength to realize my inability to have painless sex consistently starts from within is a step in the right direction. However, the battle of having that steady flow of pleasure is the only constant thing about my sex life. Like so many women who have undergone sexual trauma, it’s easy to let those moments and reactions subconsciously resurface in unexpected ways. For me, it’s sex pain or whatever fancy name you want to call it. 

For all the concerned do-gooders inclined to remind me or any other woman to simply relax, I hope this piece helps you realize that relaxing is as easy a feat as winning an Olympic gold medal is for some. 

As conversations about sex have become more mainstream, so too has the discovery that women who deal with intercourse pain are neither alone nor broken. Without the power and support of search engine results and communities, women, like me, felt alone in dealing with their inner-dialogue directing conversations of why they aren’t turned on or wet enough and ridiculous notions of libido-boosting remedies and how-tos. 

So, although painful sex is more openly discussed, it should not in any way be taken lightly. It is a real health issue that should never be ignored. Although it may take some patience and digging to find out what your sex pain is and where it stems from, just know you’re not the only one. Finally, we can find solace knowing it’s not just in our heads or that it’s not just a singular biological defect or fluke. 

I wish it were the world’s reflex to encourage women to listen to their bodies. It would be ideal if there was space for women to understand pain is not normal. Imagine a place so supreme it’s common knowledge that what feels good for men doesn’t always feel good for women. 

Unfortunately, those aren’t popular teachings we are graced with by society. Talking about sex, the pain or discomfort that follows it and all the other ‘cringey’ details is challenging. The open and honest dialogue we’re finally having around sex and sex pain is great, but next time we have the predisposition to judge a woman on why she didn’t instantly speak up about her distress, let’s also reckon why our society directed her for centuries to disregard the signs we’re blaming her for not recognizing in the first place.

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