Experiencing painful sex

Words by: Lauren French, MSexol (Curtin) Australian Institute of Sexology and Sexual Medicine

As a sexuality educator and sexologist, I see clients daily who experience pain and the compounding effects that the stigma creates. Physically, they describe their pain as a sharp, burning, stinging, and stabbing sensation experienced on their outer genitals, inside their vagina, or even when they try and use a tampon. Mentally, they describe feelings of guilt within their relationships, feeling like they are broken or somehow less of a woman.

If this is sounding familiar to you, you’re not alone. Research shows us 1 in 5 vulva owners will experience painful sex at some point in their life, many suffering for years before finding an effective treatment. So why are so many of us dealing with this pain?

A common misconception is that first-time penetrative sex will hurt, though this is not always the case and shouldn’t be the case. What is actually happening here is if we don’t do adequate foreplay, work with our partner to get them to a high state of arousal, and use lubricant before penetration, our partner will probably experience pain. Yet, everyone takes this pain for the first time as fact, causing many vulva owners to not even realise the extent of their sexual pain until they find this ‘once off pain’ isn’t going away.

Sex should always be pleasure-focused; in fact, sexual pleasure is a human right as outlined by the WHO. Yet many vulva owners have spent years either gradually avoiding sex, or continuing to have sex but ‘pushing through the pain’. No one should have to be counting down the seconds until it's over. Gritting our teeth and baring it doesn’t help us, our pain, or our relationship.

When we keep having painful sex, we get stuck in a pain cycle in our brain, try to think of it as a pain feedback loop. You experience painful sex (ouch!), then your brain associates sex with pain, therefore the next time you go to have sex your brain tenses up, trying to avoid this pain it thinks is coming. Your pelvic floor tightens and BAM, sex is painful. Our brain and body are working together against us, causing painful sex all in the name of avoiding painful sex!