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What To Do When Sex Kinda (or Really) Hurts

A common reason for pain during sex (via GIPHY)

What To Do When Sex Kinda (or Really) Hurts

Okay, first things first. Sex should NOT be painful. Many women operate under the assumption that sex sometimes kinda hurts, and that’s normal and we should just suck it up. Maybe they’ll mistake that wince for a kind of sexy squint? Right? Wrong!

We are getting better at being open about our sex lives, but we still don’t always feel comfortable sharing things that are less than rosy. Like, sometimes sex hurts. You might also be asking yourself questions like: Is it just me? (No, 30% of American women report pain during sex); Isn’t it normal for sex to hurt? (It’s definitely common, but it shouldn’t be overlooked as “no big deal”); There’s probably nothing I can do about it, right? (There’s lots you can do about it!)

Before we get into some of the common causes of pain during intercourse (official medical name: dyspareunia), we want to encourage you to always, always, always go to your ob/gyn if you have sexual health problems. The Internet can be a scary place (especially if you are Googling STD symptoms), and it’s always better to get a clear diagnosis and treatment plan from your doc before you get into an anxiety spiral. If you don’t have a ob/gyn whom you trust, poll your sisters and girlfriends. You share clothes and guacamole, why not a gynecologist!

The basics (aka. more lube!)

I know this is like sex 101, but a common culprit of painful sex is a lack of lubrication. Even if you feel ready to go, your downstairs might be slow to catch up. (Apparently it can take vaginal tissues up to 5 to 7 minutes to get sufficiently lubricated even *after* you’re turned on . . . great). So, splurge on some fancy shmancy organic lube (or, like, CVS KY Jelly), keep it handy, and get slippin’ and slidin’. Also, try different positions to see if the size / fit is the problem. Basically, experiment! More foreplay, taking things slower, and having open conversations with your partner/love/sex-friend can also help. (We are pro-open conversations about sex, can you tell?) One more thing. You should *always* stop having sex if it hurts.

I’m using lube, but it still hurts.

Your garden variety yeast infection (candida) can often be the source of pain during sex. Luckily, it’s pretty easy to diagnose (weird discharge, itchiness, irritation, funky smell) and super easy to deal with (one pill or some cream!).

If you’re having sex with someone new (or the person you are having sex with is seeing someone else, or the person they are having sex with might be . . . & on & on) there’s a chance you have an STD. Don’t freak out. Things like chlamydia and gonorrhea often have no symptoms. But if the pain is coming from your pelvic region, it could be PID (pelvic inflammatory disease), which can be caused by an untreated STD (like chlamydia). It could also just be from some bacteria getting all up in there. A round of antibiotics usually clears this up pretty quick. TGIS (Thank God It’s Science…. Is that a thing?)!!

Is your pain severe and spasm-y? Vaginismus is a condition that causes involuntary spasms when something enters your vagina (during sex, during a pap smear, etc). Like so many chronic conditions that affect women, it is not well understood, but it can often (but not always) affect survivors of sexual assault or trauma. This is a good time to chime in that if there is no “medical” reason for the pain you’re feeling during sex, there might be something else happening. Struggling with depression and anxiety can be a real barrier to enjoying/wanting to have sex (this is also particularly true of women who have had a history of sexual abuse). If this sounds like you, or you are not sure, check in with a therapist or your doctor.

If the pain feels like it’s coming from your cervix (aka allll the way up there), it could be something like fibroids on your uterus or something with the fancy name “collision dyspareunia” (translation: it hurts when shit bangs up on your cervix). Ovarian cysts (which many of us have throughout our lives) can also cause abdominal and pelvic pain and make you feel like nauseated and like you need to pee all the time. Isn’t this a fun article!?!

Could I have endometriosis?

Well, endometriosis affects 1 in 10 women in the US, so it’s definitely a possibility. Endometriosis is often a chronic, long-term battle for women, and occurs when tissue similar to the endometrium (the lining of your uterus) is found outside the uterus (like ovaries or bladder). It can be as painful as it sounds, especially during periods and sex (and I guess period sex), so if it is a concern of yours, definitely ask your doctor to check it out (unfortunately, the only way you know for sure if you have it is through exploratory surgery).

Ok, but it hurts on the outside? Not the inside. Does that make sense?

Yes. If the pain is coming from your vulva (the outside bits — don’t make me embed a vagina diagram) it might be a condition called Vulvodynia. Vulvodynia is a condition that isn’t super well understood, but it usually consists of burning, soreness, or pain in around the vulva in the absence of a skin condition. The pain can come from sex, or something like inserting a tampon, or for no reason at all. If you are feeling pain or burning, and you can see blisters or sores, it could be herpes (and if so, stay off Google! And don’t panic. It’s manageable and not the end of the world at all.) Either way, schedule an appt with your ob/gyn to get it checked out.

What are the takeaways? I’m on the train and I skipped the whole middle part:

  1. SEX SHOULD BE FUN
  2. You don’t need to push through pain, or operate under the assumption that sex is sometimes painful
  3. If in doubt, always, always *call your doctor* (sung to the tune of Robyn’s “Call Your Girlfriend”) 
    Us on our way to have pain-free sex! (via GIPHY)

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