Q: Sex just hurts for me, even when I go overboard on lubricant. On top of that, I also feel extremely sore and itchy down there. All of this kind of ruins everything about sex, because I just can’t get 100 percent comfortable. Help, what can I do?
Oh no, this is totally unacceptable — and by unacceptable, I mean that you shouldn’t expect sex to hurt and that you should just grit your teeth and bear it. Being uncomfortable is about the worst thing that can happen during sex, but there’s no need to panic.
First things first. Speak up, even if you feel nervous or embarrassed. You alone aren’t responsible for the pain. Second, check with your doctor or a pelvic floor physical therapist to make sure you don’t have a bad case of yeast infection or vaginal spasms. Once you get the green light that everything is clear, this is what I want you to focus on: restarting your sexual journey and redefining what it means to experience comfort and pleasure — for yourself.
I find people get really caught up with a very narrow definition of sex (mostly penile-vaginal intercourse, as you don’t need penetration to have an orgasm). But everyone is different, so throw those expectations out the window. To gain comfort, you must be willing to experiment, take control, and affirm your reality.
Take out your calendar and reserve weekly appointments with yourself. Be open, curious, and unafraid. For the sake of self-pleasure, discover what type of sensations you most enjoy, and learn everything you can about your body. Know what needs to be in place for you to feel at home in your body and comfortable.
What do you need to feel relaxed and safe? If you find that self-exploration feels weird or silly at first, welcome those thoughts and then let ’em go. Repeat this to yourself: I am OK, I am a sensual being, and it’s OK to feel pleasure.
As your own self-confidence increases, you can even invite your current partner to explore with you. Reserve 30 minutes per week (at least) to share sensual touch and erotic massages. Take turns, with 15 minutes each of giving and receiving touch, starting first with nongenital touch. This gentle foray can lead to intercourse, if you choose.
But remember, this is about pure exploration, expanding body awareness, and noticing pleasure. There’s no goal to orgasm. If you need a little more help to get started, sometimes a hot shower, aromatherapy candles, or some relaxing music can help release tension. And overall, I recommend taking a pause away from sexual activity that continuously causes pain because, in the long run, the experience can lead to more damage.
If you’re opening up about these changes to your SO, don’t talk about it in the bedroom while you’re trying to get it on. It’s best to have these conversations over dinner or on a walk. The point here is to create an environment where your erotic self feels welcomed, not pressured to perform or abide by another definition of what sex is.
Making some small shifts in your mindset about how you view pleasure and how you view letting go in your body could really help you enjoy sex again.
Janet Brito is an AASECT-certified sex therapist who also has a license in clinical psychology and social work. She completed her postdoctoral fellowship from the University of Minnesota Medical School, one of only a few university programs in the world dedicated to sexuality training. Currently, she’s based in Hawaii and is the founder of the Center for Sexual and Reproductive Health. Brito has been featured on many outlets, including The Huffington Post, Thrive, and Healthline. Reach out to her through her website or on Twitter.