According to a 2001 study in American Family Physician, as many as 60 percent of women claim to have experienced episodes of pain with intercourse, but many who have persistent, severe symptoms never seek medical attention. On top of physical pain, painful sex can have emotional consequences as well––an anonymous student on Whitman Encounters experiencing chronic painful sex described feeling as if she were “drowning.”
Seeking help with sexual issues can be difficult, but painful sex in particular is important to investigate. Good sex shouldn’t hurt, and when it does, it means something is going wrong––physically, psychologically or both.
Physically, there are multiple reasons why sex might be painful, starting with the most basic: insufficient lubrication. Unless you’re properly lubricated, bodies rubbing against each other is going to generate a ton of friction, especially on the sensitive tissues of the vagina and penis. Ow. Making sure everyone’s sufficiently aroused before having intercourse is an important way to avoid this, but when everyone’s turned on and still not fully lubricated, there’s a simple solution: lube.
Don’t be ashamed of lube. Especially among people who are new to sex, lube is often treated like a sex toy––a taboo option primarily for people who are really into sex. I don’t buy that. If you’re sexually active at all, then you should have a bottle of your favorite lube in your nightstand. It helps prevent uncomfortable sex, and also greatly extends the durability of condoms. Having lube on hand just shows you care about sexual comfort and safety.
Safety is particularly important, because painful sex can also indicate infections, including (but certainly not limited to) chlamydia. I interviewed Cynthia Fine, Community Health Educator at Planned Parenthood of Greater Washington and North Idaho, about painful sex, and she heavily stressed chlamydia, the most commonly reported sexually transmitted infection in the United States, especially among 18-25-year-olds.
“For 90 percent of women, there are no symptoms. Yet that infection can progress,” says Fine, and if it progresses far enough, it can cause pain and irritation.
Chlamydia is easily screened for and easy to treat, but it’s also easy to prevent. Particularly since chlamydia disproportionately affects the 18-25 age group, Fine strongly recommends that students use condoms whenever they have sex––and if you use condoms, you should use plenty of lube with them to keep things comfortable.
In addition to problems with lubrication and infections, painful sex may indicate a more complicated physiological issue like vaginismus (uncontrollable vaginal spasming). Doctors can help diagnose and treat these conditions, but Fine says if sex hurts, you shouldn’t leap to the conclusion that it’s due to a rare condition like this: “When you hear hoofbeats, you think horses, not zebras.”
Painful sex can point also to psychological issues, like feeling uncomfortable with sex. When you’re having sex, you don’t want to be tense at all; a tense mind leads to a tense body, after all.
Fine thinks creating a safe atmosphere is key: “Feeling safe with your partner, feeling confident that your limits will be respected, knowing that you can change your mind with your partner and they’ll respect you and adhere to that––all that is going to bring a sense of safety and trust so that you can relax.”
Greater comfort also makes arousal easier, which is the last area to investigate if sex is painful. If your partner isn’t getting turned on enough before sex, it might be a sign that you have more to learn about his or her body.
“Sometimes,” Fine says, “people make the mistake of assuming, ‘I’ve been with a sexual partner before, so I know how it goes.’ But each individual is unique.” By talking with your partner about what they personally enjoy, and by referring to resources such as sex ed textbooks and websites, you can equip yourself to better provide what your partner needs as well as creatively solve problems that may arise.
As intolerable as it may be, painful sex is not a condemnation to lifelong emotional and sexual dissatisfaction. It’s just a warning light, letting you know that something isn’t quite right. If you’re experiencing chronically painful sex, don’t despair––you are not alone, and there are solutions.