An astounding 75 percent of women have experienced pain during intercourse, but little has been done to find a treatment.
Emily Sauer, founder of Lady Parts Justice League, is working for a future where painful intercourse will be history.
After experiencing dyspareunia (painful sex) for 10 years, Sauer began to collaborate on the design of a wearable device that would help those who use it find the relief that had eluded her for a decade. In 2017, she finished the first body-safe polymer-blend beta version of the Ohnut, and now it’s available on Kickstarter.
The Ohnut approaches “painful sex holistically,” allowing users to control how deeply the vagina is penetrated during sex through compression technology and a patent-pending linking ring.
The object looks like its name — stretchy donuts — and fits around the base of a phallic object like a penis or sex toy. It also holds a condom in place.
It’s essentially a soft bumper made from material that still gives the feeling of having full penetration for the person wearing it.
Sauer says, “Ohnut not only allows control over depth, it also offers a fresh opportunity for couples to ideate and work together to find out what works for their shared experience.”
The Ohnut has also been recruited for use in a clinical study and is backed by several doctors and researchers. On May 15, Sauer and her team launched their Kickstarter to raise the $50,000 needed to begin production on the Ohnut, and soon surpassed their fundraising goal.
Plans are currently in place for the wearable device to begin shipping in October to pelvic floor therapists, doctors, and educators.
A multi-faceted issue
In addition to being experienced as a range of physical sensations (burning, throbbing, aching), dyspareunia can also affect people emotionally. It may lead to embarrassment, guilt, confusion, and feelings of loneliness.
There are many factors that can cause dyspareunia, including childbirth, lack of lubrication, injury, trauma, and infections.
Depending on the situation and person, pain can also occur at different times, including during sexual entry or other types of penetration (e.g., inserting a tampon), during deep thrusting, or hours after intercourse.
Because pain during intercourse is a multi-faceted issue, it can sometimes be difficult to diagnose.
Furthermore, Sauer says many women find the topic difficult to discuss and often won’t report sexual pain when they begin experiencing it.
“The societal silence around painful sex and pelvic health is part of a larger systemic problem where our medical institutions, education systems, and insurance policies generally don’t support female sexual dysfunction,” explains Sauer.
Sexual dysfunction affects 43 percent of women and 31 percent of men. Yet we are bombarded with erectile dysfunction advertisements and information. In fact, “female sexual dysfunction” wasn’t even used as medical term until 1998 — several years after the arrival of Viagra.
Sauer hopes the development of the Ohnut will contribute to an ongoing conversation and encourages people with a cervix to speak about their experiences to help correct this imbalance.
“Ohnut not only allows control over depth, it also offers a fresh opportunity for couples to ideate and work together to find out what works for their shared experience.” - Emily Sauer, Ohnut co-creator.
A multi-faceted approach
Of course, the Ohnut isn’t a sure cure for all types of painful intercourse, but it’s an option that may help for some — especially when used in conjunction with other treatments.
New York sex and relationship therapist Cyndi Darnell specializes in the psychosomatic aspect of painful intercourse. She explains that “psychosomatic” doesn’t mean that a patient is imagining their pain, but that there more factors that should be considered when approaching treatment. “Pelvic/sexual pain is very real and not imaginary. Persistent problems with painful intercourse can be approached through talk therapy, education and partner education,” she says.
She notes that women sometimes accept the pain they experience during intercourse because they believe it’s a biological reality or simply “bad sex.”
Sauer believes more women raising their voices can help dispel such misconceptions.
“Denying the fact that sometimes sex hurts is like being embarrassed to have the flu,” Sauer says. “And this is not just a conversation for women. Men have been showing up in the most incredible ways, eager to learn. Our male testers find themselves asking, ‘Does this feel good? What about this?’”
Moreover, Sauer says the Ohnut can also help transgender women following gender confirmation surgery. She hopes a future clinical trial can be conducted that specifically focuses on the Ohnut’s potential in this area since resources for trans women following surgery are limited.
“I think we have a cultural myth that sex is supposed to be simple,” says Amy Steinhauer, a sex therapist from Evanston, Illinois. She notes attitudes toward sexual pain are “similar to how our larger culture tends to view mental health problems, unfortunately.”
As a therapist, Steinhauer says treatments for sexual pain should include mindfulness and address the negativity that often accompanies pain. She also advises couples to learn how to engage gradually in sexual activities to combat any psychological obstacles that may arise.
Darnell says, “I think discussing sex in general is still a taboo for many people, and this includes discussing pain. Part of addressing sexual pain is in also addressing the emotions that complement it. Learning more about sex and pleasure and demystifying the body is a great way to help this process.”
Sauer says the Ohnut is here to make sex fun for people who feel at a loss or feel painfully alone in their struggle for penetrative intercourse.
She and her team are excited to introduce the wearable to the world and hope the conversations it sparks with help change how we approach the topic of painful intercourse in the future.