Months ago, when we put out a call for posts discussing sex (You know, sex! An important part of relationships and marriages!) we were overwhelmed by a flurry of posts about painful sex and difficult sex lives. It turns out that those of you with happy, easy sex lives didn’t have much you wanted to write about, and those of you going through difficult periods (which happens to most all of us at some point) deeply craved connection and discussion. We picked this post because of its very clear message: sex should not hurt. If it does, seek help. If the professionals you talk to tell you nothing can be done, get a second (and third, and fourth) opinion, till you find someone that will work with you. And in the meantime, hold each others’ hands, and know you’re not alone… and you’re very definitely not broken.
My husband and I had sex on our wedding night.
I hear this is actually pretty standard. But for my partner and I, this was a triumph. Instead of slipping into the haze of post-coital pleasure on our wedding night, I leapt out of bed and broke out my victory dance, complete with butt-wiggle and fist-jabbing, exclaiming, “We did it!”
I suppose I should back this story up a bit. For over eight years, I suffered from an undiagnosed pelvic floor disorder called dyspareunia. In the beginning, sex was uncomfortable, but my partner and I managed the pain by using specific positions. We came up with all sorts of creative explanations and excuses. But as the years passed, the pain worsened. Finally, intercourse became impossibly painful and even oral sex became uncomfortable. Worst of all, I had no idea what was going on with my body.
When I finally worked up the courage to tell my doctor that sex was painful, my gynecologist explained that nothing appeared to be wrong with me. She could find no physical explanation for my pain. She sent me home with the advice that we should use more lubrication, and I should try to relax with a glass of wine at dinner. None of my friends or family members ever talked about sex being painful. So with no explanations forthcoming, I drew an illogical but deeply shameful conclusion: I was messed up.
I felt like a failure. I felt like I was selfishly denying my partner. I felt unfeminine and worried about how we’d ever get pregnant. Any sort of physical intimacy was fraught with stress. I pulled away from backrubs and kisses, worried they would lead to greater intimacy. I coped with these devastating feelings by trying to ignore the problem.
But as it turns out, sex is really important for relationships. I could feel close to my partner through cuddles on the couch and long talks, but my fiancé felt increasingly cut-off and rejected. We tried to talk about the problem and find work-arounds, but often these conversations ended in tears, and I would walk around with oppressive feelings of shame, guilt, and anger bubbling in my gut.
Last summer my partner finally sat me down to talk about these problems. “Things aren’t OK,” he softly explained, “and they don’t seem to be getting any better.” As a result, we bought a few books on pelvic pain. I devoured these books! I read revolutionary ideas like, “Sex doesn’t have to hurt!” Empowered with new terminology and facts, I finally went back to my gynecologist and asked to be sent to a pelvic pain specialist. Though this specialist was able to diagnosis me, she unfortunately sent me home with misinformation. I now know this is much too common—many doctors know very little about helping women with pelvic pain.
Because I had been prescribed the wrong medications and treatments, my symptoms worsened. Frustrated, my partner and I turned to the internet. We searched for experts in the field who could help me recover. Through the wonders of Yelp.com, I found a wonderful team of pelvic pain physical therapists, right here in San Francisco. I started seeing them just three weeks before our wedding. For the first time, we had an accurate diagnosis and an explanation for my pain. It wasn’t in my head! I wasn’t frigid! I simply had some unhappy skin, muscles, and connective tissue.
It turns out pelvic floor dysfunction is incredibly common—it can be caused from seemingly mundane traumas like a fall on the tailbone or recurrent yeast infections. Some sources say up to 20% of women experience symptoms like mine at some point in their lives! But here’s the craziest part: pelvic pain disorders are totally treatable and manageable.
Finally armed with an accurate diagnosis and a positive prognosis, I started yoga, daily treatments that I could do myself, and weekly sessions with the physical therapist. My partner learned to do many of the hands-on techniques. Some of the work was incredibly painful, but it was the best pain I’ve ever had! It was mind-boggling! My physical therapist could recreate the same feelings of pain that I felt with sex, just by gently pressing on an external trigger point! For the first time, we felt optimistic, excited, and even a little bit dirty about our future sex-lives.
We’re only about two months into the physical therapy, and my husband and I haven’t reached the end of this struggle yet. I still have flare-ups of pain during the day, and we can’t yet manage rigorous sex. But we’re gradually working our way back towards comfortable and regular intimacy. We now have a plan, a way of talking about the pain without recriminations or guilt, and I’ve been able to let go of my feelings of shame and incompetence. Best of all, I know with conviction that my husband will stand by my side and champion me, even when life’s problems seem dark and seemingly insurmountable.
 Pelvic Health and Rehabilitation Center