There are so many ways for us to describe sex: exciting, thrilling, empowering, spine-tingling—notice how we didn't mention "painful" or "stinging." When sex feels less than pleasurable, it can often signal a larger issue, like a bacterial infection or a psychological issue.
Terri-Ann Samuels, M.D. (opens in new tab), says that the pain can range from sharp, to stabbing, to dull depending on the issue causing it. Thankfully, talking openly about sexual issues for women is becoming less taboo, but she says it's all about knowing the right verbiage to describe them that's important.
To suss out your potential hangups, we spoke to sexologist Yvonne K. Fulbright, Ph.D. and Samuels about some common reasons women experience pain during sex. Here, a breakdown of possibilities for why you're experiencing pain and some suggestions for treatments and solutions.
Even though your vagina is a natural self-lubricator, if you haven't warmed up for sex through foreplay, are breastfeeding, or are close to menopause, you could suffer from dryness during intercourse. Diving head first into sex can create unnecessary friction between your vagina and his manhood, so it's always worth spending more time getting into the act. For chronic dryness issues, Dr. Samuels recommends a lubricant or vaginal moisturizer like Replens Silky Smooth (opens in new tab). She also suggests methods of replenishing estrogen (opens in new tab) to the vagina for pre- and post-menopausal women, like hormone therapy and prescription treatments.
You're allergic to your sex toys or products.
While we're on the topic, you can't just go to the drugstore and buy the cheapest thing on the shelf. Fulbright notes that lubricants are made with different chemicals, which can throw off your vagina's pH balance—the same is true for products like latex condoms. If you feel any sort of irritation after use, try to stick to "natural"-based products (like Good Clean Love (opens in new tab)'s line) and see how that fares with your body.
You have ingrown hairs.
Sometimes a botched bikini wax can leave you with unpleasant pimples, which can be painful when there's friction. If you're feeling the burn, load up on a skin-soothing serum (opens in new tab) and wait it out.
You have a sexual dysfunction.
Yes, though it's not often talked about, some women (often in their teens or early twenties) experience a disorder known as vaginismus (opens in new tab)—where the muscles of the pelvic floor involuntarily spasm or tighten during sex and make penetration painful or impossible. Shooting pain during sex can also be attributed to hyperactive nerve fibers around the vulva, AKA vulvodynia (opens in new tab).
Samuels says these dysfunctions can often have a psychological background related to abuse, trauma, or some kind of negative association with penetration. Talking to a specialist or gynecologist who can help women determine what the underlying issues are and help work though them with physical therapy is the biggest step towards recovery.
You're using the wrong positions.
Blame kama sutra books for introducing you to how-the-hell-do-they-contort-their-bodies-like-that sex positions. It's always good to experiment and deviate from your go-to routine, but the Butter Churner (Google it) might not be for everyone. According to Fulbright, a guy's curvature can make your go-to moves feel a little off from time to time.
You just gave birth.
First off, if your libido can bounce back right away after childbirth, GO YOU. But caution: It'll take your body some time to get back to its former glory. Some doctors suggest a four to six week window after childbirth as a good time frame to get your groove back, but it all depends on the individual.
You have an STD/STI/pelvic disease.
The simplest infections like yeast infections and STDs require some kind of preliminary screening, says Samuels. Fibroids (opens in new tab) on your uterus and pelvic inflammatory disease (opens in new tab) are also common concerns according to Fulbright. Know who you're sleeping with and get tested regularly if you're not in a monogamous relationship, but also take comfort in knowing there are plenty of oral and vaginal medications that can treat those. Samuels recommends a probiotic supplement (opens in new tab) for boosting vaginal health and helping stave off infections.
Your partner is too big.
No guy is ever too large-and-in-charge to wear a condom. But when it comes to penetration, a man's love gun might not fit into your, er, pistol box, says Fulbright. In a sense, you need to be "loosened" up by trying simple sex moves first—think missionary—or turning yourself on more through foreplay.
You haven't had sex in a long time.
Sex slump, dry spell, whatever you want to call it, the struggle's real. We're not saying you should jot down sex in your weekly planner, but just know it's totally normal for it to hurt if you haven't done it since Game of Thrones season 1.
You're a virgin.
On the flip side, if you've never had sex before, the first time is going to feel comparatively more uncomfortable. Getting your vagina used to penetrative sex (and learning what makes you orgasm (opens in new tab)) will come with time, but if you're still experiencing chronic pain with sex, talk to a professional.
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