While not something that many women feel comfortable discussing, according to Psychology Today, some 20%of American women—15 percent before menopausal, 33 percent after—will experience painful penetrative sex at some point during their lives. Unfortunately, the silence surrounding this, and indeed female sexual pleasure, can cause many to believe this is normal, or that they’re ‘broken.’
The best way to diagnose the cause of painful sex,of course, a visit to a gynecologist. As much as we may be tempted to self-diagnose with a visit from WebMD, it’s always best to get a professional opinion – trust us when we say your sexual well being is worth it! Often the solution is simple and effective, but involves a round of medication or a change in diet or lifestyle that are better left to the discretion of a medical doctor.
But if you’re freaking out and assuming the worst, check out our list of some of the most common causes of painful intercourse – then go see your doc!
Sexual Positioning & Lubrication
Sometimes uncomfortable sex is simply an issue of positioning. It can be that mobility issues make some positions painful without adjustments like pillows, or you may find that some simply don’t suit your anatomy. Some people are born with a tilted cervix, which make deep thrusting uncomfortable. This can be helped by making sure you get in an adequate amount of foreplay – we’re talking 20 minutes plus – which helps the entire uterus lift. This is actually a helpful tip for everyone with a vagina, as right after your period and immediately following ovulation, the sensitive cervix will harden and hang lower inside the vagina, making it more susceptible to being bumped during penetration.
However, if something feels not-quite-right even after you’re warmed up and well-lubricated, try a sex position that allows for more control over penetrative depth, such as receiver-on-top.
Speaking of lubrication, inadequate lubrication is definitely a common cause of sexual discomfort. Your vagina, when aroused, is built to make sure penises can enter it comfortably. This includes all the fun feelings we associate genital contact with, as well as physiological prep such as the expanding of the vagina (up to 200%!) and its lubrication.
If you’re not getting ‘wet’ enough during sex, there are a few possible causes, some which aren’t very serious at all. At the end of the day, if you’re otherwise healthy, there is no reason why not to incorporate a good body-safe lube into both your partnered and solo play.
STIs, or sexually transmitted infections, are generally spread through contact with another person’s genitals or sexual bodily fluids, but this doesn’t mean you’re in the clear if you avoid a partner’s penis or vagina or by strictly using condoms.
Some STIs, like herpes or gonorrhea, can be spread from mouth-to-genital contact, or from your partner touching their genitals with their hands and then touching you. STIs contribute to painful sex by irritating the tissue inside the vagina and around the vulva.
A prescription of pills coupled with a topical cream are usually enough to clear up infections, but it’s important to use barrier protection like condoms, dental dams and gloves with new partners AND get yourself tested regularly.
Even with perfect use (that includes during oral sex) it is recommended that you get checked for STIs every 6 months.
If you’ve dealt with excess yeast or unwanted bacteria before, you know the painful affect it can have on your sex life, and the same goes for urinary tract infections. Bacterial Vaginosis, yeast infections, and UTIs will all disrupt the sensitive balance of good bacteria and pH levels within your body, leading to uncomfortable itching and burning sensations.
The achy or itchy tissue are telling your brain that something isn’t right, and you shouldn’t ignore even if you think it’s ‘just’ a UTI. Similar to STIs, a visit to a health professional and a prescription are usually enough to kick the itching and pain within a couple weeks – during which you should avoid sex.
Sometimes sexual pain isn’t as easy to diagnose, and if you have otherwise gotten a clean bill of sexual health from your doctor, it’s possible that you suffer from vaginismus. Vaginismus means that during any type of penetration, ranging from tampon insertion to sexual intercourse, your vaginal muscles tightly contract, causing intense pain and a tearing sensation.
The potential causes are broad, and can be the result of sexual trauma, life changes such as childbirth or menopause, or even intense fear or anxiety about sex. It’s usually a combination of both mental and physical factors together that cause vaginismus to occur, which is why it is so little understood and often hard to diagnose. However, if you do suffer from vaginismus, a combination of counseling or sex therapy in conjunction with kegel exercises and vaginal dilators can help you reclaim your sex life.
Sex, with the exception of certain (and always consensual) BDSM practices, should never be painful, and if your partner is experiencing discomfort, it’s important to stop and get to the root of the cause, adjusting your sexual practices as necessary.