When Sex Hurts

Women can experience varying degrees of pain during penetrative or non-penetrative sex at any stage of their lives. This type of pain can be experienced by 3-18% of women and is often diagnosed as Genito-Pelvic Pain/Penetration Disorder – previously vaginismus (involuntary spasms of the muscles), vulvodynia or dyspareunia (recurrent genital pain). A recent study in Britain of 6,669 sexually active women, found that 7.5% experienced painful sex. It is important to acknowledge that the experience of sexual pain is more common than people think.

While a diagnosis may be helpful to one person becuase it gives them something tangible to investigate, for others, a medical diagnosis may further medicalise the individual as being dysfunctional when experiences of pain may be a part of normal life cycles such as stress, relationship ebbs and flows, a need for further education and adjustment of expectations. Whether or not this is the case, it is important to understand why pain may be experienced. 

Understanding the pain

Most importantly, if you experience any type of pain it is important that consulting medical professionals is your first step.

There are many different theories which attempt to explain the experience of sexual pain. This section will focus on the Fear Avoidance Model as this theory is simple yet powerful in its explanation. This model essentially explains that pain may be experienced simply by the anticipation or fear of pain. This could be for a variety of reasons. Once pain is anticipated, the body will have an involuntary reaction of tightening pelvic floor muscles, diminished arousal and natural lubrication. These physical reactions then lead to more pain. When this cycle occurs, avoidance of any type of situations which may lead to this pain (eg. kissing, touching or hugging) are avoided or a woman may accept this situation and continue to experience sexual pain and anxiety. The diagram below outlines this cycle of behaviour. 

 
 

What can be done?

This is just one model which offers an explanation of why pain may be experienced. It is essential to consult a medical professional to make sure there are not any underlying explanations for the experience of pain. Some helpful things to do to overcome pain may include:

  • Seeing a women's health physiotherapist who focuses on pelvic floor therapy.
  • Seek a counsellor who is experienced in sexual health and wellbeing.
  • Greater sex education including learning about your body and creating opportunities for pleasurable sexual experiences which don't always need to involve penetration.