Sexual pain is a common—and commonly misunderstood—burden, but there are proper ways of alleviating it. And they all involve a human touch.
Most medical professionals have incorrect misconceptions about the causes of sexual and genital pain, so of course the general population doesn’t understand the root of this form of pain (even though 16 to 20 percent of women will have sexual pain at some point in their lives). While our book, Healing Painful Sex, only discusses women who suffer from genital pain, many men also experience sexual pain and are frequently misdiagnosed. Most people live in isolation and shame when they experience genital pain. The pain can only be provoked by sexual intercourse; or they can be chronic and constant, exacerbated by activities such as sitting and exercise. Genital pain has a medical etiology including systemic and inflammatory conditions, pelvic floor dysfunction, orthopedic issues, gastrointestinal or urological problems, dermatologic conditions, and pudendal and other pelvic nerve pain.
Some pelvic pain conditions include vestibulodynia (vulvar pain), clitorodynia (clitoral pain), endometriosis, pudendal neuralgia (inflammation/compression of the pudendal nerve), and many other types of pain from painful bladder syndrome to irritable bowel syndrome. A woman experiencing any of these conditions is often in debilitating pain. What’s scary about sexual pain is that sometimes it can come from nowhere; we have had patients come to us and say they were fine one day and in awful pain the next. Sometimes patients develop pelvic pain after a surgery that leaves their nerves damaged. Often, though, the former is the case: it develops without a readily identifiable trigger.
It’s NOT All in Your Head
Many doctors and therapists assume that sexual pain is caused by emotional and psychological issues, but we know differently. After treating women for many years, we have discovered that most of the emotional issues are the consequence—not the cause—of the pain. Genital pain almost always results in depression, anxiety, hopelessness, and self-blame. Most women feel like damaged goods or freaks of nature. Most women are afraid to discuss their pain with anyone and even their partners due to the fear that others will view them as emotionally imbalanced. The good news is that most sexual pain conditions can be treated and women’s pain can be eased. Understandably, having a partner in their lives who can help them cope is a blessing and a gift.
But, while women suffer from sexual pain, what happens to their partners? We won’t lie, seeing a loved one in unending pain is incredibly hard. It can also be sad and frustrating. Partners often feel very helpless watching their loved ones suffer with pain so they also experience distress, anger, guilt, and depression. It is important to remember you are allowed to discuss your emotional pain also. We encourage as much open and honest communication as possible.
Keeping feelings to yourself will create more tension in your relationship.
Empathy & Support
It’s also important to offer help, in any way your partner might need; doing this shows that you haven’t given up on your partner, you love her, and you are still invested in the relationship. One way you can do this is to always validate your partner’s feelings by saying phrases such as “I can’t imagine how much you are suffering,” or “I will always be here for you,” or “Just let me know how I can help you.”
Don’t say “Don’t worry, everything will be alright” or “I understand how you feel.”
One of the problems with sexual pain is that you may not ever be able to completely know exactly what is happening in your partner’s body. But you always can be there to offer support.
Intimacy Without Intercourse
Being a strong partner also means understanding that the woman you love may not be able to engage in sexual intercourse. We often discourage women from having intercourse until the pain significantly subsides. Intercourse can often worsen a woman’s condition. But that doesn’t mean that intimacy goes down the tubes. You just need to re-frame the way you think about sex and realize that sex includes many acts besides intercourse. Sex includes cuddling, mutual masturbation, tantric sex with a focus on breathing together, spooning, holding hands, and many other actions. Of course we understand that most people crave intercourse and our goal is to have our patients resume intercourse as soon as possible. But in the meantime, you can still maintain the intimacy in your relationship.
We encourage all our patients to discuss what sexual actions are acceptable and comfortable and be as open with each other as possible. If you are not in a relationship and meet a woman who is suffering from genital pain, realize that her sexuality and sensuality are not compromised. Women are still very sexual beings and need reassurance that they are. But be open and creative and you might be surprised at how enjoyable sex can be, even without direct intercourse. It will be difficult, but you’ll find that once your partner’s pain has healed, your relationship will be stronger than ever.
Finally, don’t try to deal with this problem alone. Find some support from a therapist, a religious adviser, or someone whom you trust. Trying to deal with sexual pain alone as a partner is like trying to climb Mount Everest without equipment. Sexual pain is much more common that you realize and people need to educate themselves about this topic. The good news is that is there is much research being done and both women and men should feel hopeful about treatment options.
To learn more about pelvic pain and how to understand it as a partner, please feel free to pick up our book, Healing Painful Sex [link:http://healingpainfulsex.com]. You can also find help with any of the following, highly recommended sources: International Pelvic Pain Society, International Society for the Study of Women’s Sexual Health, Interstitial Cystitis Help, National Vulvodynia Association, International Society for the Study of Vulvovaginal Disease, American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, Endometriosis Foundation of America, and the Institute for Women in Pain. Please also feel free to reach out to us directly via our website, and we will do our best to help you. The first step is always the hardest, but we would like nothing more than to help you get there.
—Photo The Raggedy-man/Flickr