Good sex only happens when there’s mutual consent and mutual pleasure. But unfortunately, women often struggle to experience pleasure during sex and many actually experience significant discomfort and even pain. Sometimes, the pain can be so bad that intercourse isn’t even possible. (What about people who enjoy the kinky mix of pleasure and pain? Sex shouldn’t hurt unless you want it to. Period. Full stop.)
It’s hard to say for sure how many women experience sexual pain, but the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology estimates that three out of four women have pain during sex at some point during their lives. Sometimes the pain is temporary and sometimes, it’s long-term.
Why do so many women experience pain with intercourse, and what can we do about it?
There are many reasons women experience pain during sex. Genito/pelvic pain/penetration disorder is an umbrella term for several conditions that cause sexual pain. The two main conditions that cause sexual pain for women are vulvodynia and vaginismus. For some, the pain is mild, but for others, it can be severe. For instance, some women may be able to insert a tampon or tolerate a pelvic exam, but experience pain with sexual intercourse. For others, the pain may be so severe that they can’t sit for long periods of time or even wear tight-fitting pants. Let’s break it down.
Vulvodynia translates to pain in the vulva. (As a reminder, that’s what you see if you’re looking at the external genitalia.) When an area of the vulva becomes inflamed, it causes pain. Most of the time, there’s a physiological reason for this kind of pain.
Vaginismus happens when there’s an involuntary spasm of the pelvic floor muscles. The pelvic muscles are the ones you contract when you do a kegel exercise or when you’re holding in gas. In most cases, vaginismus has a psychological component. Women are more likely to experience vaginismus when they were raised in a sex-negative home, within a rigid religious or spiritual environment, or when they have a history of sexual trauma. The spasm is the body’s way of saying no to something that is consciously or unconsciously scary.
There are, of course, other causes of sexual pain. Women who are not adequately lubricated, which commonly happens among post-menopausal women or during breastfeeding when estrogen is low, may experience too much friction, causing pain with intercourse. Women may also experience pain as they recover from giving birth (whether they had a vaginal birth or a C-section), especially if they tore or had an episiotomy.
To read more and find out if it’s considered normal to have pain during sex, you can find the remainder of the article at HealthyWomen.org.