When we had our storefront, a customer once shared that she’d spent over a year in extreme vaginal pain that hindered her ability to have sex, yet she was continually told by doctors that there was nothing physically wrong with her. Finally, after much persistence, she found a specialist who discovered that the doctor who had performed her caesarian section had failed to sew back one of her ligaments after the surgery. Once properly repaired, this woman’s pain went away. Unfortunately, this story is one of many in which women have felt like their pain has been dismissed and consequently felt very alone in their struggle to heal.
According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, almost 3 out of 4 women experience pain during intercourse at some point in their lives. Historically there has been very little research or dialogue about dyspareunia (the clinical name for painful intercourse), but fortunately that’s changing.
Here are five resources for navigating painful sex:
Arousal. The average arousal time for a woman is 20 minutes. If you have experienced pain in the past during sex, your body will likely tense up in order to protect itself from further discomfort which means you will want to give yourself extra time for non-penetrative forms of pleasure - oral play, manual stimulation with a hand or toy, breast play, etc – before inserting a dildo or penis. Or, you may want to lay off penetrative forms of sex entirely for a while until your body can re-learn to associate intercourse with pleasure. See our blog post about turning foreplay into coreplay for a more in-depth exploration of this topic.
Lubrication. As you probably know, the sisters are big fans of lube. There are lots of reasons why you may not be as naturally wet you’d like – for example, if you’re breastfeeding, taking medication (including anti-depressants and birth control), going through peri-menopause or menopause. Adding some lube into the mix can help reduce friction and make penetration more comfortable. Just make sure you stick with vagina-friendly lubes that don’t contain parabens or sugars that might lead to a whole other type of pain!
Muscle tension or strength issue. There’s so much talk about Kegels in the media that it feels like we should all be spending our day clenching our PC muscles. But, for some women, this might be making things worse. We know a wonderful pelvic floor physiotherapist, Kathleen Shortt, who specializes in helping women who suffer from dyspareunia. As she explains, “The muscles of the pelvic floor can become overly tight just like any other muscles in our bodies. Not only can overly tight pelvic muscles result in pain and discomfort but they can also become weak. Muscles that don’t relax can’t strengthen. For example, if you continually kept your fist in a clenched position, over time the muscles would weaken. The same thing happens with the muscles of the pelvic floor. Tight, weak pelvic floor muscles can lead to problems such as urinary urgency, frequency and in some cases incontinence. For these muscles to be healthy and functional they need to have both suppleness and strength.”
Anatomical and physiological issues. If you’ve explored some of the suggestions above and are continuing to experience discomfort during intercourse, it might be helpful to consult a resource like When Sex Hurts to explore some of the other possible causes. The authors address a wide range of topics, everything from contact dermatitis to hormonal changes to sexual trauma. Other great resources include Healing Painful Sex: A Woman's Guide to Confronting, Diagnosing, and Treating Sexual Pain, and The V Book. You may also want to contact a pelvic floor physiotherapist like Kathleen, or Marie Wittman of The Art and Science of Balance who specializes in pelvic floor health by combining a number of healing modalities (we've worked with Marie personally by Skype and we've been really impressed with her expertise and approach). As we mentioned, for many women, pelvic pain can be caused by tight, weak muscles, but doing “regular” kegel exercises might not be helpful. Instead, a trained physiotherapist can help ensure you use dilators and strengtheners in a way that won’t cause more damage. They can also be invaluable in identifying exactly which muscles to target, since we have over a dozen individual muscles and ligaments in this area of our body. If you're looking for vaginal dilators, you can find a selection on our website here. We recommend the Vagiwell brand which come as a set of three or set of five.
Psychological challenges. If you’ve experienced trauma to the sexual or reproductive organs (not only the traumas of sexual violence, but also traumas like surgery, infections, miscarriage or abortion), it can be incredibly difficult for your body to associate that same part of your body with pleasure. There are a number of resources to help you with your journey, including Healing Sex: A Mind-Body Approach to Healing Sexual Trauma, Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom, and Wild Feminine. You might also want to explore a healing modality that resonates for you – therapy, coaching, energy work, or a support group.
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Kim & Amy Sedgwick love to discuss sex, periods, and all the other things we’re not supposed to talk about. The co-founders of Red Tent Sisters and ecosex.ca, they’ve been featured in every major Canadian news outlet and have become a trusted resource for women seeking natural (effective!) birth control, a more joyful sex life, and an empowered journey to motherhood.