Sex can be a lot of things — great, mediocre, creative, spontaneous — and sometimes, especially for people living with certain conditions, it may be painful.
There are a lot of reasons sex can hurt. In some cases, if you have a past trauma or have been sexually abused, intimacy may be difficult. But there are physical reasons sex can be painful, too. Vulvodynia, endometriosis, pelvic floor dysfunction and vaginismus are just some conditions that can make intercourse painful for women.
For men, pain may be related to Peyronie’s disease, conditions related to the foreskin or other penile problems. And, of course, it’s not just conditions affecting your reproductive system that can cause pain. Chronic pain and fatigue related to other conditions can quickly ruin a passionate moment as well.
“About 25 percent of women will experience painful sex at some point in their lifetime, making the problem very common,” Stephanie Buehler, PsyD, a California-based sex therapist, told The Mighty.
If sex is painful for you, put the passion on pause and tell your partner immediately, Dr. Buehler said, adding, “there is absolutely zero reason to endure painful sex.”
Regardless of what’s causing your pain, don’t be afraid to speak if sex hurts. Talk to your partner, but also talk to your doctor to make sure nothing is up down below.
“Intercourse should never be painful,” Buehler said. If you experience ongoing genital pain, see your doctor. If you are told, ‘There’s nothing there,’ you need to see another doctor, she added. “Painful sex can be made worse by depression, anxiety or stress, but the pain is never all in [your] head.”
Just because penetrative sex is painful doesn’t mean you have to give up intimacy entirely. “Oral sex or using toys are fine if they don’t cause pain,” Buehler advised.
We asked The Mighty’s community how they talk to their partners about painful sex. Here’s what they had to say.
1. “Be open to communicating openly about both your partner’s needs and your pain levels. Also, learning to say when to stop is so important. It seems like it might be best to ‘push through’ and ‘sacrifice the high pain’ for your partner’s happiness or pleasure, but having sex with a price of increased pain isn’t the same as doing dishes or laundry with the price of high pain. Sex shouldn’t be a chore you force yourself to do because that doesn’t create a healthy relationship. It’s supposed to be something good you share with your partner.”
2. “When my husband wants sex but sees or hears me say ‘I’m in pain,’ he’s patient. I know men connect with sex, but they also like to be emotionally connected, too. So when it isn’t an option due to pain that day or week, I make up for it through emotionally connecting with him — telling him I desire him even when I am physically unable. Telling him how much I love him and what he means to me. Showing him affection as much as possible to know his touch is wanted and desired. Being playful for only a moment such as a slap on the butt, and quick unexpected kiss, or nice compliment to boost his ego a bit. Anything to make him feel my love emotionally when I cannot physically. Then when I don’t feel as much pain, I make up for it later.”
3. “I’m just honest with him. My boyfriend is really understanding and wants to make sure he isn’t hurting me. I have Ehlers-Danos syndrome (EDS) and endometriosis, so some positions are a no-no, but he understands. My advice for talking about intimacy with others is just to be honest. It shouldn’t be something to be ashamed about and it’s better if you’re honest.”
4. “After it became apparent that the pain was not just because it was my first time, I did my research and found out the pain was from an irregular shaped vagina. So the next time we were alone in a private place. I told him I had been feeling pain during intercourse. He was understanding and reassured me, saying if he had known I was in pain he would have stopped immediately because sex is only enjoyable if both people are enjoying it. We decided to try different positions. It did not take long for us to find a position where I did not feel any pain and was able to fully enjoy it. Our problems did not end there. Now that I was feeling pleasure, my autism made itself known. After only a short while I would begin to feel overwhelmed with all the things I was feeling. Once again I took a deep breath and talked about it. He was super understanding and we came up with a new system. I stay for as long as I feel comfortable. Whenever I start to feel overwhelmed I roll out to the side. He finishes himself off, with me joining in as much as I can with kisses and my hands. Am I upset sometimes? Yes. I would love to be able to do more, but I can’t. And that’s OK because I have a partner who is understanding and just wants to make me happy.”
5. “It’s hard to talk about, but the bottom line is that if it hurts, you need to say something. The biggest part of being able to talk about touchy subjects like this is your partner. You need someone who is going to care about what you need and who will be open to listening and changing the course of things in certain situations if need be. Having someone who will go above and beyond to make sure you are always comfortable is what makes discussing problems with chronic illness and intimacy so much easier.”
6. “The two most important factors are honesty and open-mindedness. You have to be honest with your partner and forthcoming about your illness or disability and limitations. From there, you can experiment and find things that work for you and your partner. You and your partner should be willing to try new things. It might seem intimidating at first, but sex shop employees can be very useful resources.”
7. “You should be able to talk to your partner about anything. That’s what a relationship is about. Sex is a tough one though, especially when you want to please them and keep them happy. I have endometriosis, and I made my partner aware of that as soon as we got together so he was aware of what he was getting in to. Sometimes things are fine and sometimes (most times) he can’t get anywhere near me because I’m in so much pain. But if pain starts while we are having sex then I let him know. Changing position can help or gently steering your partner, telling them what you want. But talk to your partner. And, at the end of the day, there are plenty of other ways to have an intimate time together without penetrative sex.”
8. “Communication before, during and after is necessary in order to evaluate what worked and what didn’t work. Some days intercourse is way too painful for me, so creativity, flexibility and patience is super important. Sometimes my brain is so distracted by pain, even if it’s not specifically dyspareunia or vulvodynia, that orgasm is impossible. I focus on increasing intimacy with my husband rather than on reaching orgasm. Otherwise it can become very frustrating for us both. During intimacy, my priority is pleasing my husband and his priority is pleasing me. If any couple goes into intimacy with that perspective, chronic illness or not, you are bound to have success. But success doesn’t have to end with orgasm. It’s really all about communicating, having reasonable goals, and working together to find what works for both people.”
9. “Communication, whether it’s initiating, starting, during or after. This goes both ways. You need to accept your partners needs too. Play, enjoy and experiment. Try different things and be open to trying. The best magic happens when both hearts and minds are open and giving.”
10. “As others have said, communication is a must. If it’s too painful, we either have to move to a different position or, if we can’t finish at that moment, we will try later. If it’s truly that bad we make sure the other is able to finish another way so they are not left hanging.”
11. “Be open and honest; your partner doesn’t want to hurt you. Most partners wish they can take the pain away, not bring it on. Experiment, know your own limits and don’t be scared to say ‘stop,’ ‘I need to move’ or ‘that’s hurting.’ And remember you don’t have to have penetration to enjoy a sexual experience. Just enjoy the intimacy in what ever way works for you. My husband is a godsend, and there is never pressure to perform. He sees through my fake smile better than anyone else in this world, and that makes me the happiest pained lady around. Communication and respect are key.”
12. “I flat out tell my husband that I’m in pain and not feeling in the mood. He respects me enough to not pressure me into having sex. He knows that around ovulation and my period I get extremely painful cramps and back pain.”
13. “You have to communicate. I know for some, it’s difficult. Write a letter or an email, talk to them in the dark when you’re laying in bed. They don’t want you to be in pain or dread sex, they want to know what they can do to make it easier.”
How do you talk to your partner about painful sex? Let us know in the comments below.