Living with Painful Intercourse: A New Series

Many women have been here, I know. They go to be intimate with their loved ones only to discover that the experience is painful, sometimes excruciatingly so. For some women, this happens after years of blissful sexual activity. For others, they’ve never had enjoyable sex in their lives and maybe never will. In my case, I have never had sex that didn’t feel like agony and I’m on a journey to figure out how to live with that reality.

I have written about my experiences discovering that pleasurable sex was not going to come naturally for me. My first sexual experience happened on my wedding night, and it was so painful that actual sex never happened. It didn’t happen for eight months after my wedding night, either. It was not until I shut my eyes and grit my teeth that I could say I had ever had any kind of sex at all, and the result for me was a bloody tongue and lip from biting down in an effort to keep from screaming while it happened. The next few years for me involved a variety of medical opinions, all of which seemed to conclude that it was in my head. They could not see any outward causes of pain: no funky lab results, no discolorations, no strange swelling. None of the usual culprits of dysfunction. I just had mental issues, the doctors told me.

And then I discovered a doctor who answered all of my questions. She said I had a condition called vulvar vestibulitis. Many gynecologists fail to recognize it or lack the training to see the indications; many women – including me – never hear about it. And yet, it affects a large portion of the population. Vulvodynia, defined in part as “a syndrome of unexplained vulvar pain that is frequently accompanied by physical disabilities…[and] sexual dysfunction” (Metts, 1999), may affect as much as 15 percent of the population.

I know how isolating it can be not to know the cause of painful intercourse. I know how frustrating it can be to have everyone around you denying that the pain is real, insinuating that it’s histrionics, that it’s all in your head. And I know the heartache of dealing with this condition on a daily basis.

And that’s why I decided to start this series on living with painful intercourse, because women need to share their experiences on this subject. We need to know we’re not alone, we’re not histrionic women, and that we’re okay – even if we can’t have wild, pleasurable sex, we’re okay. We’re going to be okay.


Metts, Julius M.D. Vulvodynia and vulvar vestibulitis: challenges in diagnosis and management. Am Fam Physician. 1999 Mar 15;59(6): 1547 ““ 1556. Accessed 7/8/2012.

By Michelle Miller

Michelle Miller is a twenty-something blogger, cook, freelance writer and editor living in Seattle, Washington. She’s a feminist trying ever-so-hard to embrace her spaces, conventional or not. She looks forward to numerous bad hair days, burnt cremes, a soapbox or two, and maybe (just maybe) a yellow polka-dot bikini in the years ahead.

20 replies on “Living with Painful Intercourse: A New Series”

Thanks so much for writing this.  I know I am a day late to this party.  But, I have similar issues, with a very specific physical cause.  I am having surgery in two weeks to hopefully fix my problem.  I am nervous it will not work, yet hopeful it will.  I will definitely be following this discussion.

Thank you so much for writing about this! My experience with painful intercourse was diagnosed (FINALLY — after several years of very unhelpful gynecologists and a lot of research on my own) as vaginismus — involuntary contraction of the vaginal muscles. That’s another possibility for anybody else out there struggling with this symptom. The site is really helpful, as are their treatment kits (though I do recommend talking to your doc). I also did some bio-feedback physical therapy that helped me start to learn to relax those muscles. I can’t say that I ever “recovered,” but I’m blaming my lack of progress on a horror story of an ex (I actually feel lucky that the vaginismus prevented me from having any great sex memories with him) and being in an independent phase since him…someday I hope to try out my post-therapy body with someone awesome ; )

Brilliant idea for a series. I had this problem for a while recently thanks largely due to my body reacting differently to my birth control, my body had changed enough that it meant I was ridiculously dry all the time and made for extremely painful sex, even with lube. Thankfully my problem was resolved by switching over to the IUD. I did have a moment of tears admitting my problems to my gyno, it’s an immensely difficult thing to go through especially because you want sex to happen spontaneously and happily, not to associate it with pain and discomfort.

God, yes, for six months this year my sex life was either non-existent or horribly painful due to a combination of new birth control and acne treatment – I’d never had any issues before, and historically my libido has always been very very high so it was rather difficult – I’m still having issues re-adjusting, and still get the odd bout of pain anyway :/

Thank you for doing this! I had issues with this for about five years.  It’s incredibly frustrating and this would have been great to see while I was going through the worse of it. :) Things, for the most part, have been better for the past year, but there’s a small part of me that worries that it’s not going to last.  :-/ I also find myself rushing sex because I don’t want to chance my luck and my endurance is still not the best. Ugh.

But yeah – none of my docs knew how to help me either. It was my own doing. So I’m all about sharing experiences.

It’s amazing how something like this stays with you. I bet that if the pain ever goes away for me, I’ll struggle the same way you do, to just relax and enjoy the sex, rather than worry that it won’t last.

Thanks for piping in and letting me know you’re here. :)

Oh. my. god.

I am sitting here nearly in tears because you have just described the last two years of my sex life. I always enjoyed an extremely satisfying and fun and self-directed sex life, and then two years ago penetration became acutely and inexplicably painful. Doctors have repeatedly tested me for STD’s and the results are always negative, but then they have no other suggestions for what is wrong. They just shrug their shoulders and I leave the office poorer and more depressed. My partner and I have really been struggling with this because the change came in the middle of our relationship, and it’s been beyond frustrating for us both.  We are at a really terrible point in our sex life as a result of this chronic pain – I’m basically now afraid to have sex because it hurts so badly during and after, and he feels awful even wanting to have sex because he knows how painful it is for me and doesn’t want to hurt me and we both just miss being able to make love without it being this stressful, awful situation. I just handed him the computer to read this article and the accompanying links and I feel like a wall was breached or something. Seriously, how do I go to a doctor with this information? Would most places be aware of it? Why has no doctor ever brought this up to me?

Do you have any suggestions for how to approach this with a doctor? What is the next step now that I suspect this? I am about to go do an entire night of internet research.

This is unbelievable. I am so excited to see this and I’m just screaming, “That’s me! THAT’S ME!” in my head right now. Fuck. Knowledge is fucking power.

Heh. I originally wrote “fucking” for emphasis, but now I realize it works on two levels for this particular topic :)

Here’s a great website with lots of resources in terms of finding doctors/treatment, as well as a community of women who are coping with vulvodynia and vulvar vestibulitis that was really, really helpful to me when I was having painful intercourse.

As Michelle points out, the pain involved in vv and vulvodynia is “unexplained,” but in my case I discovered that I was having a reaction to my hormonal birth control that caused chronic yeast and bacterial infections, which in turn caused the pain I experienced during intercourse.  It was a long, difficult time for me and my husband, and it took ages to get a correct diagnosis, but once we hit on the birth control variable, things improved relatively quickly.  This will not be the case for everyone, as there are a variety of things that might cause the syndrome, but may be something to consider if these symptoms are consistent with what you’re experiencing.

Hopefully this helps and you and your partner (and anyone else who’s seeing this) reclaim your sex lives!


Oh, I can so relate to your experience. When the doctor gave me a name for what I had, I burst into tears right on the examination table. I had gone so long having nothing to call it, nothing that could give it substance in my mind or in the mind of others.

Thank you for sharing what this discovery has meant for you.

You’re already doing the best thing you can to address this; you’re doing research!

When you make an appointment to see your gynecologist, give them the name(s) of the condition that I’ve included here. That way, long before you actually set foot in their office on appointment day, they will have done research if they’re unfamiliar with it or they will know what to look for right away.

I wish I could give you more resources, but I feel like I’m new to this journey myself. Continue to check in with this series, okay, and ask me questions. I’ll do my best to answer or research them.

Thank you for your encouragement, QoB!

I bet we all know at least one woman who has this issue in one form or another. For some it comes and goes, for others, it’s more permanent. But either way, it’s miserable and nothing helps more when dealing with misery than to share it with a supportive community.

So just hearing your encouragement means a lot to me!

I know one friend eventually found it was a combination of physical and psychological factors, and once she treated those she was able to have her normal (for her) sex life again. But even if there aren’t any physical things that can be found, just because it might be psychological doesn’t mean that it’s meaningless, or not real, or to be dismissed. If you’re feeling it, it’s real, and deserves acknowledgement and help.

This post is a good one, I think: it’s about brain imagining for low sex drive, but the idea of physical findings somehow ‘validating’ subjective experience is the same. Takeway (emphases mine):

far stranger is the idea that a subjective experience must be shown to have a measurable physical correlate in the brain before we can agree that the subjective experience is real, even for matters that are plainly experiential. If someone is complaining of persistent low sex drive, then they have persistent low sex drive, and even if you could find no physical correlate in the brain whatsoever, that wouldn’t matter, they do still have low sex drive….

The reality, of course, is much simpler: for your own personal experience of pain, which is all that matters, if you say that your pain is relieved, then your pain is relieved (and I wish good luck to any doctor who tells his patient their pain has gone, when it hasn’t, just because some magical scan says it has).

I think it’s really impressive that you’re writing about this! As you say, it’s not an unusual health issue, but it’s never discussed out in the open.

It’s incredibly frustrating when women’s physical issues get chalked up to mental or emotional ones! Ugh.

In some circles, I think there’s this expectation that women should loooooove sex and there’s something wrong with them if they’re not doing it all the time, and that expectation can be just as harmful as slut-shaming can be, especially when a health issue like this is involved.

Yes, exactly! In my experience, I have encountered two extremes: (1) you should be loving sex, having it all the time, and something is wrong with your head if you’re not; and (2) this is just like a woman to hate sex and not want to have it and make life miserable for her husband with her weird feminine body and psychological issues.

I’m hoping this series will rank high on SEO searches for these keywords so that women doing google searches like I did will find it immediately and have a name for what they’re experiencing.

Thank you for your encouragement, Bryn!

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