Why Does It Hurt When I Have Sex? Vaginismus Revealed

By Abby Lee Hood

Imagine having to reveal your deepest, darkest secret every time you meet someone new. As you shake their hand and tell them your name, start to build a connection and forge a relationship, you’re compelled to tell something something embarrassing, something humiliating, even.

Dating with vaginismus is a lot like that, except even worse. I might not have to tell my darkest secret when I meet someone, but I do have to reveal the most vulnerable thing about myself every time I have sex.

Vaginismus, as defined by vaginismus.com, is “vaginal tightness causing discomfort, burning, pain, penetration problems, or complete inability to have intercourse.” In short, sex hurts, a lot. Sometimes, it’s impossible because of the pain. That makes uncomfortable conversations a regular part of dating and sex life. New partners have to know why I’m wincing, why I change my mind, or why I need to take it slow. They need to know why I sometimes cry afterwards. Not everybody can live up to the conversation and the challenges vaginismus presents. A few partners have made me feel as if this condition, which is psychological in nature, is my fault.

A lot of the trouble comes because many people don’t understand vaginismus or even know it exists. According to Women’s Therapy Center, people with vaginismus sometimes suffer in silence or their condition is overlooked by health professionals. The site says search results for vaginismus have grown exponentially during the last decade or so, but many articles, like this study, reveal how little medical research has actually been done on the problem.

An article titled “The female price of male pleasure” describes the biased medical community and how unfair it is that people with vaginas are often left out of important research about pain and sexual satisfaction. Case in point: how many clinical trials have been done at erectile dysfunction? Nearly 2,000. How many have been done on vaginismus? 10.

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The lack of clinical trials and study means few people know about vaginismus, which is dangerous for those suffering from it and creates a negative stigma. Women are consistently taught to “grin and bear it.” How can they be expected to realize their pain is unusual if doctors don’t take the condition seriously enough, and there isn’t educational material widely available? Everybody’s seen a commercial for a blue pill, a couple lounging in separate bathtubs at some ridiculous mountain resort, but how many have you seen for women who are in pain?

So it’s no surprise I once had a partner ask, “Wait, is that an STD? Is it contagious?” And look at me with no small amount of concern in his eyes. It’s probably also no surprise that a female partner is more understanding.

In fact, it was a fellow feminist and writer who first told me about vaginismus. I was at a friend’s house one evening, and over glasses of wine, my friend’s roommate mentioned this problem, this condition I’d never heard of, that made sex nearly unbearable. Then, she said something even more alarming: that rape survivors often wind up with vaginismus.

I remember feeling rooted to the spot, as if a spotlight had suddenly been turned on me and the camera filming the movie of my life zoomed in close to get my reaction shot. I was floored. I am a rape survivor. I have trouble with sex and have since my boyfriend assaulted me while I was unconscious many years ago. Suddenly, it all made sense.

Of course, I couldn’t just take someone’s word for it; I investigated with my gyno. We did check-ups, Pap smears, cultures. Everything looked normal. She suggested changing my soap, trying lube, no oral. You name it, I tried it, and none of it worked. When I told her I’d been studying vaginismus, all the while studying my fingers in my lap, staring at the ground, and that I was a rape survivor, she told me it made sense. That of course that’s probably what I was experiencing.

My diagnosis gave me some comfort. It made me feel less crazy, like the pain I’d been experiencing for years that my friends couldn't relate to was real. I felt validated, but the journey to recovery and healing felt like a big responsibility. There’s no pill. There’s no right or wrong answer, and it certainly isn’t all downhill just because you know what’s wrong.

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There are good days, and there are bad days. I use toys to help my body relax and grow used to penetration, taking deep breaths for minutes at a time to try and accustom myself to the feeling of sex, even if it’s just rubbery plastic. I’m currently single and don’t have any partners, so it’s easier to heal myself and focus on being comfortable. Trying to overcome vaginismus with a partner is a daunting task, and even my best partner made me feel like this was all my fault, refusing to research, read or understand why my sex drive was often so low. I actually felt more alone with him than without him.

Vaginismus is a psychological response, so you have little control over what your body does. Not every case of vaginismus is a result of abuse; conservative upbringings that teach inherent shame or guilt surrounding sex, chemotherapy or even past medical procedures or infections can cause it. I did have that kind of strict and damaging upbringing, but I don’t think that was the cause. Once sex no longer felt like a vulnerable, important connection, once that special-ness was ripped away, my body came to expect pain and simply kept responding that way. In essence, your pelvic floor expects sex to be uncomfortable and tries to protect you.

If sex is painful, I urge you to ask your doctor or gynecologist for some investigation and answers. I dealt with the issue for years, squinting my eyes and faking orgasms, pretending to enjoy something because I thought that’s what I should be doing. If that’s you, I hope I can do at least the same thing my friend did for me two years ago—tell me there might be something wrong, and that it’s worth looking into.

Until I am fully healed and likely long after, I’ll continue to have awkward conversations with my partners. While I never like it in the moment and it is certainly a mood-killer for a millennial just trying to survive the dating scene, I wish more people had to have these kinds of talks. Of course, I never wish any pain on anyone, and I hope the number of people with vaginismus decreases. But it’s clear the problem is we’re not talking about it in the first place. Sex is still a taboo subject, especially for women. It’s time we opened up a little. Maybe then, our partners, friends and lovers wouldn’t suffer in silence.