They said there was nothing wrong with me. Gynecologists. Gastroenterologists. Even a lung specialist. They ran tests — CAT scans, X-ray’s, blood labs, you name it — to rule out tumors so big as to cause severe pelvic pain during sex.
This was the route I — and thousands of women — go through to find an explanation as to why sex hurts. Why we feel tight and shut down with a person we love. Why we can’t find sexual pleasure (or orgasm).
Each test and positive affirmation that there was nothing wrong with me sent me further down the spiral. I wished — hoped, prayed — that there was something wrong with me. Because that something could counter what was dominating my mind: that I was broken as a woman.
Painful sex didn’t just ruin my sex life, it ruined my marriage and my life.
I avoided touch that I craved (long after my marriage ended), in fear that it would lead to “more” — and more I could not do. Feeling alone and ashamed, I pulled back — first from my husband, then from any potential sexual partners. I stuffed my emotions, disappointment and anger, instead channeled my energy to shopping, cooking and baking (and the eating that followed).
I felt that my body for betraying me, failing to perform when I needed it to.
Most of all, I felt that my body for betraying me, failing to perform when I needed it to. So I had disconnected from it. I had pushed it away.
Little did I know that I was actually betraying my body.
Somewhere along the journey of being the wife I was supposed to be — the woman who pleases and is a pleasure to her husband — I had lost connection to myself.
I had stopped listening.
I had stopped listening to my body: what it wanted, what it needed, what it found pleasurable. Too often, I choose what he wanted, going at his pace. I felt less-than-courageous to ask to slow down, pay attention, give me the kind of touch that would arouse, stimulate, turn on.
I had stopped listening to my emotions. The resentment, sadness and disappointment I felt about sex being oriented towards his orgasm — I took a deep inhale, and I stuffed it all in.
Those emotions were telling me that something was wrong, uneven, unsatisfying, but I ignored the message. I packed the emotions in, growing more wound up inside, building up the tightness in my body that then created pain.
And lastly, I had stopped listening to my intuition, what I knew was true for me within.
My body wasn’t betraying me. I was betraying my body. I was betraying myself.
The wake up call came when I realized I wasn’t dealing with a medical problem — but a spiritual one.
Fast forward to today. This experience — and the beautiful journey of sexual discovery and opening that followed — led me to become an intimacy and sexuality coach and focus on women’s sexuality.
What I thought was uncommon as a newlywed, I now know is in fact very common for women. Too common.
As many as one out of three women experience painful sex. From mild discomfort to excruciating pain, tightness and pelvic pain during sex prevents women from enjoying themselves and their partners.
And it affects their lives.
In my coaching practice, I hear women share, sometimes through tears, other times in bouts of anger:
“I question if this pain means that I don’t deserve pleasure.”
“What if I am not meant to be a sexual person?”
“I feel so alone and lost.”
“Why is my body doing this to me?!”
“I want to be with my husband, and my body is betraying me.”
When sex hurts, it truly feels like the body is betraying us, holding us back, letting us down.
Pain during sex not only ruins the moment, it can have deeper consequences: fear of sex, lowered libido, and overall disconnect or loss of intimacy in a relationship.
When my clients come to me, this is what I tell them: Pain is your body’s way of signaling that something is wrong. And it’s your job to slow down and tune into what your body is telling you — and to heed its needs.
It’s not merely physical. And it’s not purely in your head either.
The bad news is that we often train ourselves to close off to pleasure (creating tightness) with our thought, beliefs and actions. Our bodies react to our emotions and state of mind by tightening up, leading to uncomfortable experiences, which then evoke more negative emotions and self-talk.
The good news is that with some help, we can rewire our bodies to open up to pleasure, both physically and emotionally.
In my private practice as a women’s sexuality coach, I work with women who experience discomfort and pain during intercourse (and therefore cannot enjoy their sex life).
To help understand what’s happening “down there,” I am going to break down the most common psychosomatic reasons that contribute to painful sex and how to rewire your body to pleasure.
1. Tune into your body and listen.
Our bodies speak in whispers and nudges, sometimes too softly to hear over the loud negative voices in our heads.
They signal what they need and what’s not right for us. Yet we are taught to disregard the body’s messaging system, overriding it with “but it’s not that bad”.
For most women, painful sex doesn’t come out of nowhere. There is a progression.
Many women lose their natural lubrication when the sex they’re having is less than what their body needs, resorting to lube as a substitute. The use of lube, while helpful as a complement to natural lubrication, can often mask an underlying problem — that the body is not ready for intercourse.
It takes much longer for women to get ready, requiring much more physical stimulation all over the body and meticulous attention from her partner than most men (and women) realize.
And in today’s way of life, most women are running on empty, when it comes to pleasure, relaxation and space. Our bodies cannot afford a bout of intercourse because it might actually leave us emptier than we started with.
When a woman dials in to what her body needs — and fills up on receiving what feels good to her — she quickly begins to see greater physical responsiveness.
2. Pay attention to what you’re feeling and telling yourself.
When you experience pain in this tender and vulnerable area of your life, self-doubt, fears and self-judgement will undoubtedly creep in. Because sex isn’t just about sex — it’s about intimacy, identity, image, and relationship.
Negative thoughts and beliefs signal danger to our body. When we don’t pay attention and manage the thoughts that run in our head, the body literally lives in fear, responding by shutting down non-essential systems, including sex organs.
Beliefs translate into a body response, and it quickly becomes a vicious cycle. When we believe we’re in danger, our bodies close up. When we believe we’re not worth pleasure, our bodies tighten. When we tighten and it hurts, we create more self-doubt and fears.
The key here is not to ignore the fear — it’s there to protect you. Underneath the fear and the negative self-talk are real emotions — of sadness, disappointment and anger.
When I work with clients, we pay attention to what is happening and cultivate the inner wise voice inside, the one who knows what’s right for you. We ask “what do you want?” and listen carefully to the answer. We make “her” louder, so the fear can no longer derail her.
When a woman honors her emotions and connects to herself, uncensored, her body relaxes, opens up and melts.
3. Speak up.
It’s not uncommon that the places where we’ve stopped listening to our bodies are also the places where we went silent.
And that silence — and the loss of intimacy — leads to the loss of safety in the relationship, which often has the body shut down further.
Women need safety to open our bodies — both physically and emotionally — to let our partners in. And we don’t take this seriously enough.
From asking to slow down, to guiding your partner to what your body needs, to saying ‘no’ to what doesn’t feel good — speaking up restores our power to honor and respect our body, creating deeper inner connection, relaxation and joy.
Painful intercourse is a mutual problem. When women bring in and involve their partners in finding solutions, intimacy grows, bringing couples not only pain-free sex, but an intimate connection that creates closeness, pleasure and joy.
Join Irene Fehr, MA, CPCC and Women’s Sexual Coach, and Rachel Gelman, DPT and pelvic physical therapist, on our upcoming online livecast “From Pain to Pleasure: Causes and Treatment of Pelvic Pain During Sex” on Thursday, August 17, 2017 at 5pm PST/8pm EST. Register to attend live or receive a recording.
Subscribe to my YouTube channel for more videos on painful sex.