Sex can be full of so many feelings: pleasure, intimacy, raunchiness, and even surprise.
But there’s one feeling we don’t often talk about with regards to sex, and that’s pain.
A study in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health found that one in five Australian women have experienced pain during sex. The same study found that fewer men reported experiencing pain during sex, but that there was still a small amount of men for whom sex sometimes hurt.
Pain during sex can be caused by many things. In this article we’re going to discuss some of the most common causes, but we definitely won’t be able to cover everything. We also can’t give you specific medical advice, so we recommend speaking to a doctor if you regularly experience pain when you’re having sex.
(And if you’re not sure how to find a doctor to talk to, we’ll tell you exactly how to do it.)
“You should never be experiencing unwanted pain during sex,” says sex coach Georgia Grace. “If you do, it can be easy to assume you’re ‘doing it wrong’, or that ‘this is just how my body works’, especially when pain during sex isn’t spoken about a lot in our sexual education system.
“But it’s really important to remember that sex is meant to be pleasurable, and if it isn’t, we need to pay attention to our feelings and the signals our bodies are sending us.”
Not everyone who experiences pain during sex will notice it every time they have sex—it might only be when you’re engaging in certain acts or positions, and even then it may only happen occasionally. But any pain during sex, no mater how small, is worth you and your partner pausing, checking in, and doing something to remedy the pain—even if it means stopping sex immediately and trying again another day.
Here are a few signs that the sex you’re having might be causing pain, distress, or discomfort. This list is non-exhaustive, and we encourage you to develop your own way of thinking about the sex you’re having.
- You are enduring or putting up with pain
- You feel stressed or worried about having sex
- You avoid having sex because it hurts or because it’s uncomfortable
- Sex is beginning to affect your relationship, or other aspects of your life
- Penetration isn’t possible and you want it to be
- You experience pain or discomfort after having sex, either a few hours or days later
- You bleed after sex
- You try using lube but it doesn’t help
- The discharge from your genitals has changed in colour, odour, or consistency; or it is yellow or green—which can indicate an infection
- Your genitals have an unusual or ‘bad’ odour
- It’s painful to go to the toilet
- You have swelling around your genitals; or unusual bumps, lumps, rashes, or pimples
- You feel lost, broken, or helpless when thinking about the sex you’re having
There are many things that can cause pain during sex, and you might feel relieved to know that all of them are things that can be worked on and managed. “It may be that there isn’t enough lubrication for sex to feel good, or you haven’t spent enough time arousing your body,” suggests Georgia.
Both of these things can cause pain in people of all genders, and fortunately, both can be easily remedied. We’re big fans of lube for everyone (so much so that we actually made our own), and we’re also all about foreplay. Slowing things down and focusing on pleasure rather than rushing towards penetration can make sex really pleasurable for everyone involved.
Pain during sex can also be caused by infections like thrush, UTIs, and some STIs. Although most of these things are totally curable and the rest are easily manageable, avoiding treatment for STIs and other infections can result in worsening pain and even lifelong complications. So if you experience any pain during sex and you’re not sure why, it really is crucial that you see a doctor so you can know, for sure, what’s causing it.
We get it, though—it’s easy enough to say, ‘see a doctor’. But it’s harder to find one, make an appointment, and then go in and have a conversation about your genitals with a relative stranger (even if they are a consummate professional). So here’s our advice for discussing pain during sex with your GP.
- Explore your options. It’s important to find a doctor you feel comfortable with, and you can definitely look around to find the right person. “If you prefer to have a GP of the same gender, sex, sexual orientation, culture, or faith, that’s totally okay,” says Georgia. “You can research medical practices or even call up and ask for an appointment with someone who meets your needs and who you will feel comfortable with.” Health Direct has a great search engine for finding healthcare providers; and you might find it useful to ask your friends and social networks for referrals too.
- Be honest about why you’re there. It can feel awkward talking about pain during sex, but the only thing worse than talking about it is not having it treated. Remember, pain during sex is really common, and doctors hear about it all the time. If you’re worried you might get anxious during your appointment and lose your voice, write down what you want the doctor to know and read it to them if you think it’ll help. “Let them know as much information as possible: when did the pain start, what does it feel like, where do you feel it, what causes the pain, and does the pain ever ease,” Georgia says. She notes that the doctor might refer you to a specialist, or they might be able to treat you themselves.
- Remember that you deserve respect. “Consent and comfort is vital whether you’re having sex or in a doctor’s office,” says Georgia. “Your doctor will not touch you without your consent, or conduct any examination without explaining it and confirming you’re ready beforehand.”
- Do your homework if you get it. If your doctor gives you exercises to do at home, like pelvic floor work, dilator usage, or anything else, it’s really important to do them. “It is so common that people forget to do, or avoid doing, their exercises, treatments, or inquiries. I totally get this, especially if the exercises focus on an area you associate with pain or discomfort,” says Georgia. If the exercises are excessively painful or you don’t feel like you can comfortably do them, speak with your doctor and they’ll be able to suggest an alternative treatment.