Despite what pop culture wants you to believe, sex can be painful sometimes.
In fact, research suggests one in five women have experienced unwanted pain during sex, yet it seems we don’t really know anything about why it happens, or how to go about resolving it.
In a new study by Jean Hailes for Women’s Health, health professionals nominated painful sex as the number one topic Australian women needed more information about. “We had clinicians telling us that they see a lot of women who experience painful sex, but who don’t talk about it,” says psychologist Dr Mandy Deeks, Jean Hailes’ Head of Translation, Education and Communication.
Interestingly, the almost 3000 women surveyed didn’t place it as high on their list of priorities — topics like PCOS and the effectiveness of natural therapy were of more interest. Furthermore, 61 per cent of the women said they had little or no knowledge about painful sex, and 41 per cent said their information needs weren’t being met.
So if painful intercourse is something 20 per cent of women experience, why aren’t we talking about it?
Dr Deeks believes there are a few issues at play here. One is the reluctance of women to talk about sex more generally — and therefore the importance of having a comfortable relationship with their health professional.
"I think for some people it's how you've been brought up, and whether you do talk about sex. It's such a relief, I find, when you actually ask the question and I think that's what health professionals are telling us to do," she says.
Similarly, it could be a case of doctors not raising the issue unless there's an obvious reason it could be happening. "They know that at certain points in a woman's life, menopause is a great example, to ask the question, 'Has it impacted on your sex life?' They're in this ideal place to ask the question," Dr Deeks says.
It could also be tied to a woman's stage of life and the natural events that take place. Pregnancy, childbirth and menopause are all known causes of painful sex, and might be seen as a "given" and not worth looking into. Or, it could be considered less important than other health issues.
"Maybe she's at a time in her life where it's not going to have such an impact, so she doesn't see it as much of a priority as everything else that's going on," Dr Deeks adds. (Post continues after gallery.)
The complexity of sexual dysfunction is another potential factor; issues like low libido, trouble reaching orgasm, low sexual satisfaction, body image and lack of lubrication are often closely linked, though that might not be clear to the patient.
"We actually tend to find that women will nominate low libido is a higher problem for them than painful sex, but sometimes that actually is impacting on their low libido, it's probably about asking the question 'Why?' What's going on?'" Dr Deeks says.
With these new findings, the Jean Hailes team is hoping to increase awareness of painful sex and the importance of talking about it, because in many cases there are treatments available.
"If it is troubling you and it's worrying you, then please go and see someone to get the right diagnosis," Dr Deeks says. (Post continues after video.)
"If it is menopause, you can be guided by your doctor to use the right treatment. If it's the result of having a baby, then maybe it's going back to your gynaecologist and talking to them and seeing if there's something you can do. There are treatments out there."
Ultimately, Dr Deeks wants women to understand they're not alone in experiencing pain during sex — and that the effect it can have on their relationship can be significant.
"You tend to see these images in the media and you think everyone's having sex and it's great, and if you're sitting there thinking, 'I wish it was that easy for me', that can be really hard," she says.
"Talk to your partner. They might come to medical appointments with you, if you felt comfortable — it's quite helpful for them to hear that it's not something they're doing and that it's real, and they can see that it's something you want to do something about as well."
Have you ever experienced painful sex? Did you feel comfortable telling your doctor about it?
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