Painful Sex Isn't Just 'All In Your Head'

by Christine Burke
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After the birth of my first child, the last thing on my mind was getting busy with my husband. Sleepless nights, constant breastfeeding, and a painful recovery sucked every sexual urge I had right out of me. While I missed being intimate with my partner, I wasn’t really looking forward to putting anything “in there,” so to speak.

And I was right to worry: That first time after the doctor cleared for me for sex was anything but enjoyable. Frankly, it was downright painful, and it was weeks before my lady bits were in full working order post-delivery. It was a stressful and upsetting time for us as a couple because we’d always enjoyed a healthy sex life. I was angry that my body was betraying me and my husband was upset that I was so uncomfortable.

Though my symptoms eventually resolved over time, I remember feeling embarrassed and alone when sex became so painful. None of my friends ever mentioned having difficulty with penetration, and I assumed I was alone in my pain.

As it turns out, I wasn’t alone.

In fact, thousands of women suffer in silence from a condition called vaginismus. Vaginismus is vaginal tightness causing discomfort, burning, pain, penetration problems, or complete inability to have intercourse. Women who experience vaginismus have varying degrees of difficulty with penetration, including tampons. Symptoms can range from minor burning to a complete inability to tolerate penetration.

It is estimated that 2 in 1,000 women experience vaginismus, though according to, statistics are hard to quantify due to the shame and embarrassment the syndrome causes in women. Further, many women are incorrectly diagnosed, and most health care practitioners do not keep statistics on women specifically being treated for vaginal penetration issues.

But the fact is: If you suffer from vaginismus, it is a very real condition and your struggle to have sex comfortably is not irrational.

Previous trauma or abuse are also often associated with vaginismus, according to Jasmine De Lung-Thier, a somatic psychotherapist in San Francisco, CA, though that isn’t always the case for some women. While the specific causes of vaginismus are not widely understood, many researchers link vaginismus to anxiety or the fear of having sex. Well, no shit, Sherlock. Of course, a woman will feel anxious when she knows her vagina is going to clamp down and cause excruciating pain when a tampon, vibrator, or penis comes near her.

The symptoms and pain of vaginismus are no fucking joke, and women who suffer from the condition aren’t crazy or uptight or sexually repressed.

Women with vaginismus often describe the pain as “bumping into a wall” when her partner tries to penetrate the vaginal canal. And there’s a real, physiological reason for that feeling too: The vaginal tightness results from the involuntary tightening of the pelvic floor, especially the pubococcygeus (PC) muscle group. Those muscles actually spasm and clamp down so tightly that even a tampon can’t squeeze through. And it’s painful as fuck.

So just to be clear: Vaginismus isn’t “in your head,” and you are not alone.

Vaginismus has no known cure, but there are ways that a woman can work to overcome the symptoms of painful sex. First and foremost, a proper medical diagnosis is key, and speaking to your gynecologist or health care provider is your first step. And don’t be afraid to speak up — you aren’t the first person to suffer with painful penetration, I promise.

If you and your doctor determine that you do, in fact, have vaginismus, often the treatment is in the form of exercises to help you learn to control your vaginal muscles. Exercises called Kegels can help you relax your vaginal muscles, and over time, can help desensitize your vaginal muscles from spasming during penetration. This approach, called progressive desensitization, is aimed at slowly training your vaginal muscles to relax.

The doctor will teach you how to properly squeeze your pelvic floor muscles in order to condition them to relax. Those muscles are the same ones you use to stop the flow of urine, so try practicing that movement the next time you are in the bathroom. Over time, and once you have a better grasp on how Kegels work, you can gradually work up to inserting a finger into your vaginal area.

The idea is to slowly and carefully train your body and your mind to stop associating pain with insertion. And because every woman’s experience with vaginismus is different and the symptoms vary so widely, doctors will also sometimes prescribe therapy and other treatments in conjunction with progressive desensitization in order to help a woman achieve the most comfort she can during sex.

Vaginismus is the leading cause of sexless or unconsummated marriages, and it’s an issue that many couples struggle with silently. If you are struggling with vaginismus, help and resources are available to help you find the treatment that works best for you. There’s no shame in wanting to enjoy sex with your partner.