It’s more common than you think. Apparently 10-16% of women in North America experience this. But, we never talk about it. I’m Thirty years old and I’m only now getting help for something that I’ve ignored since I became sexually active, which was 11 years ago.
I have a condition called vaginismus, which is an involuntary tightening of the vaginal muscles upon penetration. I also have vulvar vestibulitis, which to be honest has been self-diagnosed. The latter condition is basically pain in the vulva region but it can take on many different forms.
So what does this feel like for me? When I first tried to have sex at 18, I couldn’t. It felt like there was no possible entry. In general, the entrance to the vagina usually stings and burns with penetration. This could be with something as small as a finger, or a tampon. I don’t like being fingered, and if someone is being attentive to my vaginal area during foreplay, they need to be really gentle- even my clitoris is sensitive and feels uncomfortable if its stimulated too much. Once fully inside (tampon or penis), the pain is usually relieved, for the most part.
How does it impact me? In my early twenties I was in a 3-year relationship and couldn’t talk to my partner about the pain that I was feeling. I would shut down and we wouldn’t have sex. Our sex life really suffered. Now, when I have sex with someone, I’m really upfront about it. I usually say a combination of the following: I need to take it slow, sometimes penetration hurts, or lube really helps. Which all feels amazing by the way, to be able to say all that.
What causes it? My research tells me that vulvar pain (vaginismus, vulvodynia etc.) can be caused by sexual trauma and pelvic health-related issues like reoccurring yeast infections. I have never been sexually abused, but the first time I had sex it was incredibly painful. And the guy kept going despite the pain. I had also had a history of yeast infections (which should be another blog post in and of itself) so that entire area is extra sensitive and at the time I first had sex it was really raw, inflamed and red. Sounds horrible right?
What can I finally do about it? Well, I recently went to the hassle free clinic for a pap and STI test, but also asked about treatment options for this issue. It’s all over their website (Do you experience pain during sex?)and it was the first time that I’d been to a doctor that validated what I was feeling around this. Gynecologists in the past have never attempted to help me with this so I didn’t even know that it was a “normal” condition. The Hassle Free Clinic diagnosed me with vaginismus and referred me to the Vulvar Clinic at the Women’s College Hospital. I won’t lie; I’m kind of excited to finally do something about this. I have learned that at the vulvar clinic they may suggest a variety of options. For one, you can actually get physiotherapy for loosening your vagina. You can this in combination with the use of a vaginal dilator set with which you are supposed to work your way up to the largest size. In addition to regular physiotherapy, kegel exercises where you practice loosening your kegel muscles instead of constantly contracting them have also been suggested. And finally, another treatment option that they may discuss with me is low-dose antidepressants which basically numb the nerve endings in the vaginal area so that you don’t feel as much pain. I really don’t want to be medicated for this, so that’s not an option for me. But do you remember that Sex and the City episode when Charlotte’s vagina was depressed? She had vulvodynia! Who knew right?
Finally, I was feeling so alone in my journey that I really want to start a self-help group for women experiencing pain during sex. I went online to start doing some research only to find out that one already exists. There’s a Toronto meet up group for women who experience pain during sex. The group has about 100 members and they meet regularly, bring in guest speakers and discuss various treatment options. I’m going to join! I feel pretty great about it.
Here’s to finally getting support, at Thirty, for painful intercourse. Hopefully by the time I have a stable relationship, I’ll be so healthy and relaxed down there that this won’t even be an issue!