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There's a Reason So Many Women Are Having Painful Sex

Photograph by Twenty20

The first time Melinda Smith* used a tampon, she was 20 years old and it hurt like hell. It didn’t matter that it was the smallest size, it still hurt. When questioned why she had never attempted to use them before, she shrugged and said, “I was afraid to. I knew everyone else used them, but here I was, afraid of them.” What she didn’t realize at the time was this was a far bigger deal than she could ever imagine.

I got a chance to sit down with Melinda and talk to her about a condition called dyspareunia, which affects some 8 to 20 percent of women. Referred to as “painful intercourse,” it’s a diagnosis that affects the physical and emotional aspects of Melinda’s life, and she was more than willing to tell her story—to share with others that sex isn’t always an enjoyable experience.

Losing her virginity was no different than anyone else. It wasn’t until she met and dated a man named Eric* that she knew things were off. “I thought something was wrong the first time we had sex,” she explains, “It was painful the entire time.” Melinda describes it as a sharp and stabbing pain, “like someone was putting something inside me and there was no hole for it.”

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Eric became easily frustrated. “‘What’s wrong with you?’ he’d say, ‘I’ve never had a problem with sex, so it’s obviously something wrong with you.’”

Three years into their relationship, after infrequent, painful sex, Melinda finally brought it up to her doctor. “Eric was at the point of threatening to leave me if I didn’t seek out help for this. Did I want to get help for myself? Probably, but I felt more threatened to. I didn’t personally care if I ever had sex again.”

After a physical exam, she was diagnosed with dyspareunia and her doctor explained that there was a muscle in her vaginal wall that contracted as soon as it came in contact with an object, and was the cause of her pain. She sent Melinda home with a referral to a doctor who could perform a surgery to cut the muscle if she chose, and a numbing cream she was told to use a few minutes before sex.

But it didn't work.

Melinda went to see the doctor at the university hospital, but was disheartened to hear that the surgery was risky, wasn’t covered by insurance and wasn’t a guarantee to cure her. She decided against it and went back to her regular doctor.

I was scared of having sex with him, of it being painful all over again.

After receiving a second referral to a sex therapist, Melinda was sent home with an armful of medical syringes of varying sizes. She was to insert one in her vagina for 10 minutes a day using lubrication, and leave it in until the muscle stopped contracting and the pain went away.

“I tried it for awhile, but there was no improvement, and I decided not to pursue the sex therapist.”

Through it all, any attempts at sex were left in disappointment. “Every time I think about sex with Eric, I think about being in pain. Being scared, being embarrassed. It always turned into a fight, and he’d walk out of the room upset, leaving me there in bed naked. It was always very forceful. Sometimes I cried, sometimes he’d yell at me.” She says Eric rarely took it seriously, resorting to jabs and insults, and at his worst, verbal abuse. He wasn’t happy when she told him she was stopping all treatments.

A few months later, she found herself back at her doctor, relaying her disappointment and listened as her doctor suggested trying to make sex more spontaneous. Melinda cried, saying she didn’t think that would work because of how aggressive Eric was. It was then her doctor studied her gently, and asked Melinda, “Are you having sex with the right person?”

“I remember leaving her office, just crying,” Melinda told me, “I thought I was alone, that it was all in my head. I knew I wasn’t crazy, because two different doctors told me themselves something was wrong.” She started conducting Internet searches, reading blogs and articles on dyspareunia. “The more I read, the more I cried, and the more I thought what my doctor said in the office was true: I wasn’t having sex with the right person. So I left him.”

Melinda’s break up left her shattered and drained. Not long after she left Eric, she met her now husband Kevin* and was upfront to him about her history with Eric. Unlike Eric, Melinda said she and Kevin didn’t talk about her condition, because neither were sure what effect it would have on their new relationship.

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“I was scared of having sex with him, of it being painful all over again. Eric would always tell me that no other man would ever stay with me, and I started to believe it. Kevin was different though; he was never judgmental and I instantly had a friendship with him. The first time we had sex, I was finally excited.” She said the fear of pain was still there, but it was less and she was able to relax and enjoy it, something she never was able to do with Eric.

“Kevin knows when I’m hurting. He’ll back off and ask me if he should stop. But it’s that very reason, that I don’t want him to stop. Because for the first time, someone is asking me permission.”

Foreplay seems to help. Spontaneity seems to help. “When we’re getting ready for bed, and Kevin makes a comment about having sex, I know that time will hurt a little more, because I’m thinking about it. There is pain present; it’s not in my head. But I know it does hurt when I’m anxious about it.”

Painful sex is rarely talked about and often misunderstood. So much of it is related to anxiety about pain, but it’s important to understand that the condition is very real. It not only effects women, but also the relationships they are in as well.

Melinda’s advice to other’s who may be dealing with painful sex is simple, yet powerful: “First, you need to ask yourself if you’re with the right person. If you ask that question and know you are, my next advice is to get support, whether it’s your doctor or your best friend, because no one can help you until you share your story. Had I been with the right person initially, I would have done more to fix this thing: look into more therapies, saw more specialists, done whatever it took. If I was in a better relationship, I would have tried to figure it out more.”

*Names have been changed.

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