Is painful sex ruining your intimate life? For Sandy Brown*, one of our avid SheKnows readers, painful sex had ruined numerous relationships to the point where she felt she would never be happy. She wanted to share her story so women across Australia know they’re not alone and there are options other than suffering in silence.
From a young age, Sandy Brown had an inkling something wasn’t quite normal. Hot baths used to feel like they were burning her “downstairs area”, it hurt to wear tight jeans and when she first got her period and tried to insert a tampon, the only words she could find to describe the excruciating pain were something we won’t repeat.
As she edged towards the age where she began to become interested in the opposite sex, her mother constantly told her sex hurts. She never explained why, but Sandy assumed it was merely a deterrent to dissuade her from becoming a promiscuous teenager. It worked, because when Sandy married at the age of 22, she was still a virgin.
“On my wedding night, when we tried for penetration, it wouldn’t go in. It seemed to bounce off and was very painful. We tried a few times and eventually decided to give up on it,” she said.
Over the years, she attempted to insert tampons, but even the smallest ones hurt. She even tried to insert a cotton bud and the pain from that was too much to bear.
“I never went to see a doctor; I was too scared and no-one told me it wasn’t normal,” she admitted. Twenty-two years later, with fumbling attempts at sex, she came to the conclusion her marriage was a sexless farce.
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“I realised I was just a great flatmate that cooked, cleaned and kept the bed warm, so I walked away with my self-esteem shattered. I wanted a real, loving, affectionate, sexual relationship with a man, so I plucked up the courage to face my GP and tell her my terrible secret.”
Secrets revealed and the search for a cure
Brown blurted out to her GP that she thought she was still a virgin and after a gentle examination, her GP sat her down, held her hand and quietly said, “Yes you are, darling.”
Brown was sent to a gynaecologist, who did an examination under general anaesthetic and performed a hymenectomy, where she surgically cut her very thick hymen.
“[The gynaecologist] told me that if I was younger, it probably would have torn naturally or been easy to cut. As I was 45, it had thickened and required a lot of cutting and stitches, which later became scar tissue, causing more problems.”
Believing all her problems were solved, Brown tried to have intercourse with her new boyfriend, but without satisfactory results. “He yelled at me and told me to relax. I yelled back that I was trying. We tried many times until he got mad and told me my problem was I was a little girl who needed to grow up. We even tried oral sex but just the brush of his tongue hurt.”
Brown booked an appointment with a sexual health specialist, who tested her for sexually transmitted infections and told her it was all in her mind.
The next step was a visit to a gynaecological physiotherapist. “I was told I would have to explore myself and teach my body to accommodate a set of dilators, the smallest the size of my thumb. I tried and tried to force it in, but it wouldn’t. So I got fed up with her telling me to just relax and looked for other alternative treatments.”
After reading about a treatment in the United States using Botox, Brown tracked down a gynaecologist who had heard of the treatment and was willing to give it a try. “I paid privately for three procedures over the course of a year and after the third operation, I managed to insert the smallest dilator. Success at last!”
“During an examination under intravenous sedation, [the gynaecologist] noticed I was in pain when she lightly touched the surface of my labia. She said as well as vaginismus, it was very clear that I also had vulvodynia — a condition where the surface of the skin of the vulva is highly sensitive and feels painful to the lightest touch. It also explained the burning feeling when taking a shower or wearing jeans. She suggested Botox in the vulva area, too, and that seemed to help numb the pain.”
“It’s been four years since I first approached my GP. I have had over 10 general anaesthetics in order to have Botox injected into my vulva and vagina. The Botox seems to help, but it is no overnight miracle and it wears off.”
What the future holds
I am now married to my wonderful, understanding man and we have found other ways to enjoy sex and to pleasure each other. I still wish I was normal. I feel like I have a handicap, but I also know there are other women with worse conditions than me. I am currently trying a dermatitis cream to see if it improves sensations on the surface of my labia and may undergo more Botox in the future. I live in hope that someone will find the cure.”
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The Melbourne Sexual Health Clinic describes vulvodynia as pain when the vaginal opening is touched or anything is put in the vagina. It occurs in the absence of an obvious ongoing cause — that is, no obvious infection or dermatitis, and the skin looks normal.
The short answer is no-one can pin it down to just one single cause. It could be due to recurrent skin infections, genital herpes, damage to spinal nerves or for no reason at all, even after years of pain-free sex.
There are a number of treatments and ways you can attempt to relieve vulvodynia. Keep trying until you find what works for you. The following suggestions were collated from a blog called CureTogether, where vulvodynia sufferers shared what was working for them:
Avoiding tight clothing
Botox (although some sexual health physicians will encourage you to exhaust all other options first)
Gluten-free, non-processed food diet
Trigger point massage
Emu oil applied to skin
Wearing only cotton underwear
Avoiding allergy triggers
Washing with water after urination
TV’s Dr. Oz refers to vaginimus as vaginal panic attacks and Sydney sex therapist Matty Silver discovered 2 per cent of Australian women will experience vaginimus at some stage during their life. The condition isn’t due to any physical abnormalities. “In most cases, the vagina is perfectly normal… if only the pelvic floor muscles would relax,” he wrote in a editorial he penned for the Sydney Morning Herald.
Being scared of pain
Lack of sex education
Past sexual abuse or trauma
Negative sexual attitudes
Violence or an abusive partner
Inability to trust
Treatment for vaginismus
The important think to know is vaginimus is treatable. Independent research shows almost a 100 per cent success rate with treatment plans, which include pelvic floor muscle rehabilitation, dilator therapy and biofeedback.