You learn three things from working at a sex-ed center: few people have been given adequate sex education, most people are too embarrassed to learn more on their own time, and you can make raincoats out of cut-up condoms for the plastic dinosaurs you keep on your desk. And, while the third fact mostly contributes to your Snapchat stories, the first two facts contribute to a culture of shame and silence around sex, especially when people feel like they’re “doing sex wrong.”
While a lot of people experience vaginal pain during sex, the way we talk about sex keeps them from reaching out for help. If you’re experiencing sexual pain, you’re not alone (1/10 women report it) and there are some very common causes.
Disclaimer: I’m not a medical professional, just someone who gave out a lot of sexual advice and a lot of condoms.
1. Dryness: Lube isn’t just for old people, and it’s not just for anal sex, either. Everyone’s vagina is different, and sometimes, your vagina won’t produce enough natural lubrication to last you through sex. You’ll be especially prone to vaginal dryness if you’re under a lot of stress, or if you’re taking medication like antihistamines or antidepressants. Queen’s University Journal has a great guide to different kinds of lube, but here are some tips for the total beginner: water-based lubes dry out faster, silicone-based lubes will melt your silicone toys and, for god’s sake, don’t use tasty flavoured lube on your vagina unless you want a tasty flavoured yeast infection. Speaking of …
2. Infections: Your vagina might hurt during sex if you have an active infection; yeast infections, UTIs, chlamydia, and gonorrhea are all possible culprits. If you’re having frequent pain during sex, or itching, burning or inflammation outside of it, it might be worth dropping into your friendly neighbourhood Planned Parenthood for an STI test! And, because the fear of a positive result often stops people from getting proper STI testing, it’s worth mentioning that you’re not bad or gross or compromised if you have an STI. An estimated 1 in 4 Americans will have at least one STI in their lifetime; that’s a greater percentage of the population than left-handed people!
3. Insufficient arousal: Reading feminist sites as an impressionable pre-teen, I came across the phrase that trying to put something in your vagina without the proper build-up was like “trying to go down a 200-foot waterslide with no water,” a description that remains seared into my brain to this day. But it’s true; if your partner’s putting stuff up your vagina without any foreplay to, um, turn the water on, then sex is going to hurt. So if your partner isn’t waiting to make sure you’re aroused before putting it in, then have a chat with them about mutual pleasure and communication.
4. Vaginismus: this little-known medical condition, where a person’s vaginal and pelvic floor muscles involuntarily spasm on being penetrated, can make it really difficult to have penetrative sex. The causes of vaginismus can be both physical and emotional; kegel exercises help the physical side of the pain, while therapy helps with the anxiety or trauma that often underlies the disorder.
Even if you’re not specifically diagnosed with vaginismus, things like depression, anxiety, and trauma can lead to difficulties with sex. If you’re anxious during sex, or you’ve experienced trauma during sex in the past, your muscles might tighten up during sex, leading to pain. And one of the side effects of depression is decreased arousal, making it more difficult to get lubricated during sex.
5. Chronic Pain: Vulvodynia (also known as vestibular vulvitis) is a kind of chronic pain that makes it painful to put any pressure on the vaginal area. Its exact cause is still unknown and, like many other conditions suffered primarily by women, it doesn’t have a direct treatment. If you think you might have vulvodynia, head over to WebMD to learn more.
6. Anatomical differences: Something you don’t learn from the neatly-labelled diagrams in health class: not all vaginas (or penises) look the same. If you have an “imperforate hymen,” that basically means that your hymen is more-than-usually thick or tight, which can make sex difficult. Conditions like endometriosis, where uterine lining tissue starts growing on other organs, can cause pelvic pain when thrusting. If you’re having pain deep in your pelvis, you could also look into fibroids or ovarian cysts.
Main takeaways? Vaginal pain is relatively common, and certainly not something to be embarrassed about.
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Disclaimer: Bestie does not provide medical advice,