Why is Painful Sex so Hard to Talk About?
ShaVaughn Morris recalls the exact moment she experienced the unpleasantness of dyspareunia, or painful sex, for the first time.
It happened, “Around my sophomore or junior year [of college]; [I was] about 20 to 21,” Morris tells The Blossom. “The pain level was maybe like a seven out of ten, and I have a high tolerance [for] pain.” Morris found that the pain persisted with different male partners, and yet, she remained silent about it. “I thought maybe it’s because most of my sexual experiences have been with very well-endowed men. I think I found ways to adjust to the discomfort because it was more discomfort. It wasn’t like an ‘Ow,’ it was more like a ‘Mmhph.'” Little did Morris know then, the pain wasn’t due to well-endowed partners. After two decades of crippling periods, she was diagnosed with Stage IV Endometriosis and an inverted uterus at the age of 32. After an excision surgery, doctors told Morris, now 36, her endometriosis adhesions had so morphed her pelvic anatomy, that her “bladder was covering her uterus,” leading to pains with deep vaginal penetration.
Painful sex and the taboos surrounding it plagues many no matter their age, sexual orientation or gender identification, but for endo women like Morris, the roadblocks to pleasurable sex are many and hard to navigate considering the added taboo nature of reproductive diseases like endo.
“I don’t think enough women know that sex should not be painful,” NYC-based sex therapist Carli Blau tells The Blossom. “There is a cultural aspect that says that if sex is good then it is going to be really rough, really deep, and it may hurt you.” She blames the normalization of painful sex on the media. Whether it is music —“Rough sex/Make it hurt” as Ludacris once rapped—or simulated sex scenes in television and film, intercourse is often portrayed as deep penetration and hardcore thrusting. “There is never an ‘Ow!’ [in] media,” adds Blau. Porn is another problem, she says, with an estimated 40 million Americans regularly logging on to XXX-rated sites.
“While pornography does allow people to achieve climax and self-pleasure, which is great, it also is setting up an unrealistic expectation for what sex should be. When someone comes at them like a jack-rabbit, they think that ‘Hey this is ok,’ until they realize that, a) this does not feel so good, and b) I don’t really enjoy this.”
Blau says she also has endometriosis and has experienced painful sex herself. Today, she has made it a mission to help her patients, including endo women, achieve pleasure on their terms. But first denormalizing dyspareunia and eliminating the fear of communicating can take a few sessions.
“One of the hardest things to tell someone is if you are in pain. How do you advocate for yourself? There is a lot of apprehension about communicating feelings around painful sex. I feel sometimes people would rather deny sex altogether than to communicate how they feel, or bite the bullet and have painful sex [rather] than to communicate how they feel.”
She adds: “Everybody thinks everything is about them. When a partner says to you, ‘Sex is painful for me,’ people take that, internalize it, and within half a second think, ‘Oh my god! I am doing something wrong.’ Instead of asking, ‘How is sex painful for you?’ and, ‘What can I do to help you, so it is not?’ That conversation is glossed over so quickly. I think there is also a masculinity piece to this that is men are watching pornography and what is depicted in pornography is shown to be right, and how women don’t feel that they can question them very often. So it is like, ‘The man knows.'” Gender dynamics aside, “however someone identifies, communicating about pain, whether it be physical or emotional can be very difficult to do because people fear being rejected for [their] vulnerability.”
Blau recommends partners break those barriers by seeking professional help.
For Morris, an author and creator of workshop series “Say It With Sex,” her bravery to advocate for herself in the boudoir only came after she learned more about her body post-endo diagnosis. “As I started to understand my body more I was able to express to my partners, ‘Be a little gentle,’” she adds. “‘Not to say that I can’t take it, but I have an inverted uterus,’ or, ‘I have a lot of issues going on there.’ And, ‘You may feel like you’re going too deep, but there is some level of comfort because I have endo. Stage IV Endo.'”