Have you ever shrieked or said ‘ouch!’ when trying to insert a tampon, having penetrative sex, or touching your vaginal area? Have you tried to suppress this feeling, blamed the pain on yourself, or told yourself that you must be the only one with this issue? Well there may be a name for what you’re experiencing and there are things you can do about it, because you don’t deserve to live with any pain. Let’s break it down.
Pain during sex
Pain with sexual activity, which can be recurrent or persistent, is defined as dyspareunia (Seehusen, Baird, and Bode 2014). This condition is often caused by other disorders, such as acute genital infections, pelvic floor muscle dysfunction, and endometriosis, as well as psychological factors (Alizadeh and Farnam 2021). This condition is estimated to affect 7.5% of people assigned female at birth in Britain (Mitchell et al. 2017) and approximately 10% to 20% in the US (Seehusen, Baird, and Bode 2014). Treatments can include biofeedback, pelvic floor physical therapy or vaginal dilatation, along with psychoeducation and psychotherapy.
For people with vaginas, it is often difficult to find a diagnosis and a treatment for this condition. Often, pain during sexual intercourse is dismissed, and medical gaslighting is common among those who suffer from dyspareunia. Pain is in fact underestimated, and medical practitioners often suggest patients to “relax” and that the cause of their pain is all in their heads, ignoring completely the potential physical causes of the condition. Since the condition is linked to the sexual sphere, it often comes with shame and stigma.
Side effects of dyspareunia
People living with this condition often feel pressured by the weight of gendered expectations, and may not feel confident in their sexuality. Some may feel broken, “less of a woman” (Facchin et al. 2021), or ashamed of communicating their pain with their sexual partner. In intimate relationships, it is fundamental to feel supported and understood, since feelings of frustration and dissatisfaction may be common, leading to negative consequences on the intimate sphere (ibid.).
Painful sex is not easy to live with. Shame and stigma become so present in your life that you forget that you are worthy of a positive intimate relationship. You unconsciously decide to neglect your needs, and become so afraid of becoming a burden for your partner that you either ignore your pain or set aside the idea to start dating again.
Or if you are not lucky to have a supportive partner, you internalise yourself being greedy, selfish, weak… and forget that your pain is not normal. When your doctors keep telling you that everything looks fine, that you should relax and drink a glass of wine, or that you should stop complaining, otherwise your partner will dump you, you want to believe them.
And five years go by, and you have learned to believe them so well that when you hear the word dyspareunia for the first time, you become your own personal gaslighter. “Am I that much in pain?” “Am I sure? Maybe I’m faking it.” You want to believe you are faking it, because it is easier than living with shame and stigma and the fear of reentering the dating world with dyspareunia on your side. That was my experience with a diagnosis of dyspareunia, but I know this is more common than one might think.
But no. This is wrong. There is nothing more wrong than believing you are broken. And you are not alone in this fight. What can you do to live with it?
Advice for dealing with pain
1. Seek medical attention and advocate for yourself.
Don’t let them dismiss your symptoms and remember you deserve to have your pain recognized.
2. Take time to process your diagnosis.
There is nothing to be ashamed about.
3. Communicate openly with your partner.
An open communication of your pain, symptoms and diagnosis – if you have one – is the key for good sex, even if you may experience pain. It’s also crucial to remember that sex is not exclusively penetrative, and pleasure can have so many forms. Don’t be afraid to explore!
One great way to explore is through pleasure journeys by afterglow (this website!). Here, you can learn about building a pleasure practice, communicating with your partner in bed, and so much more to empower you through your journey of exploring pleasure with pain.
In my experience, what has really helped was to find a doctor that after five years of dismissing, was ready to listen to me. With her, I have started pelvic floor physiotherapy, and this has helped exponentially to manage my symptoms. With the help of a psychologist, I have learned to accept my pain and to stop self gaslighting.
If you’re looking to learn more about living with chronic pelvic pain and to be empowered in this journey, check out our event on vulva and vaginal pain.
Want to try out the pleasure journeys series yourself? Use the code HERSTORY7 for a free 7 day trial to afterglow, and access pleasure exercises and advice from experts to help boost your sexual wellness.
60% of women are dissatisfied with their sex lives. We’re on a mission to change that
What if you didn’t have to search to find a body that looks like yours, a sex act that turns you on, or a guided exercise that helps you tell your partner exactly what you’ve been craving?
What if YOUR pleasure came first?
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About the author
Alessia is a gender studies graduate with a passion for sexual and reproductive rights. After her personal experience with delayed diagnosis of pelvic floor dysfunction, she became involved with Medical Herstory as their Director of Events, and she is now proud to advocate for people suffering from vulvovaginal chronic pain conditions