When sex educators talk about pain during sex, they're usually talking about penetrative vaginal intercourse between cisgender women and cisgender men. The reasons for this have to do with the fact that sexuality is so often viewed through a binary lens, but also thanks to cultural ideas about women and sex, including the ideas that sex should hurt, that women should “push through” pain, and the fact that men aren’t taught how women’s bodies work. But heterosexual cis women aren’t the only people with vulvas who experience pain during sex.
“Pain during sex is often misidentified as caused by a penetrating partner (which is sometimes a man) by being ‘too big,’” Emily Sauer, founder and CEO of Ohnut, a sex aid that helps with pain during deep penetration, tells Bustle. “But we’ve found that the majority of folks deal with painful sex due to complications like endometriosis, post-natal changes, fibroids, menopause, PCOS, and more. Anyone with a uterus can experience these complications. And obviously some of those folks have sex with women.”
The reasons people in this group experience pain during sex are similar to why cis women having sex with cis men experience pain during sex. There could be a medical problem, like endometriosis or vaginismus, which can cause pain regardless of penetration level, and don't discriminate based on sexuality. There could be a communication problem, where the person experiencing pain doesn’t know how to talk about it with their partner. Or cultural ideas about women and sex — including an expectation of "tightness" and easy orgasm — could be coming into play (yes, even in queer relationships).
“I think virgin/whore stuff still exists in whatever partnership you end up in,” sex coach Myisha Battle tells Bustle. “Some of the issues of being expected to be ‘tight’ and ready to orgasm at any minute are cultural narratives you get no matter who you are.”
Battle points out, however, that the big difference for people with vulvas who have sex with people with vulvas is anatomy. If you’re having sex with a person who has the same genitals that you do, they might be more sympathetic to what you’re going through. Maybe they’ve even experienced a similar issue with their own body. But even if you both have vulvas and both have experienced pain during sex, Battle says, “you’re not having the exact same pain.”
Having the same genitals brings up another potential issue — compare and despair.
“The biggest barrier to overcoming this is the inability to communicate their pain and have it accepted by their partner,” Battle says. “And that happens regardless of who they’re having sex with.”
Kathy, a woman in her mid-20s who has sex with both men and women, experiences pain during deep penetration. She tells Bustle that both of her partners are “supportive, but neither fully seems to understand sometimes if they haven't felt that pain themselves,” regardless of the genitalia they have. “It took some talking to help them understand that if I wince or say it hurts — that it doesn't mean I'm not aroused, but that something is happening to my body that I can't control,” Kathy says.
In order to more effectively communicate, Battle recommends that people experiencing pain during sex do some self-exploration. By masturbating in different ways, people can not only figure out the exact nature of their pain — where and how it hurts — but also figure out what sex acts don’t hurt. Then, when it’s time to talk to their partner, they can come from a place of knowledge and confidence, rather than shame or frustration.
Those emotions are so often a big part of this experience. People experiencing pain during sex might believe that their bodies are broken, or that there’s no solution for what they’re going through.
“Pain with sex is also accompanied with shame about having pain during sex, because sex ‘should’ be fun and natural and easy,” Battle says. “That can be a hard hurdle for anyone to jump over.”
Queer people who are experiencing pain during sex should start by talking to their doctors about what's going on, in order to determine if there's a physical problem that needs to be addressed. The doctor might recommend visiting a sex coach or therapist, or they may recommend a pelvic health specialist. But even if they don't, you are always your best advocate and you can take steps to find that help in your city by searching online for "sex coach" or "pelvic health specialist" in your area. Remember: Sex should only hurt if you want it to. Everything else can be addressed.