Relationship Tips

75% of Vulva-Owners Will Have Painful Sex in Their Life—Here’s What to Do If That Includes You

Gabrielle Kassel

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Photo: Stocksy/Milles Studio
Moan-making. Spine-chilling. Sheet-twisting. Mind-blowing. Sounds like the stuff of an especially exciting sexual experience, right? For a number of reasons, though, those adjectives aren't always an orgasmic given. In fact, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) reports that 75 percent of people with vulvas will have sex in their lifetime that's just the opposite: pain-inducing. The organization outlines a number of reasons pain during sex, or dyspareunia, can happen, like endometriosis, stress, and lack of desire. But is it possible that the size of your partner's penis can be the issue, and that it's just too big?

Theoretically, a penis can be too big for a vaginal canal, says Kiana Reeves somatic sex expert and educator. “There are different depths and shapes of vaginal canals, so it’s possible anatomically for a partner to be a tight fit.” If this is the case, though, all is not lost. “The vagina does stretch depending on the size of the penis,” Sherry A. Ross, MD, previously said. “But, it may take time, patience, KY Jelly, and open communication.”

But (but!), Reeves caveats, the majority of the time, penis size is not the reason you feel as though your partner doesn't "fit." Usually, she says, it's an underlying issue, like those outlined by the ACOG and others including hypertonic (or tight) pelvic-floor muscles, uterine or bladder prolapse, scarring from traumatic and/or non-lubricated sexual experiences, post-birth pelvic-floor changes, scar tissue, vaginismus, and vulvodynia.

Regardless of whether you're actually contending with a penis that's too big for you or you're handling any of those previously mentioned conditions, there are options you can explore to minimize pain. So rounded up below are a few expert-backed tips for mitigating many underlying issues that can cause pain during sex.

1. See a sex-positive expert

Your first step for nixing painful sex is to talk to with a sex-positive health-care provider, like a gynecologist or a pelvic-floor therapist. (And, if you have suffered from sexual assault or abuse, one who’s also trauma-informed.) Depending on the diagnosis, the doctor may prescribe a variety of different strategies to help, like pelvic-floor therapy, vaginal suppositories, medication, or masturbation.

2. Talk to your partner

If your partner isn't aware of how you're feeling, share, even if you're feeling shy or self-conscious about it. Keep in mind that the first step for troubleshooting pain is acknowledging the pain exists in the first place.

"Of course [your partner] is going to want to do everything they can do to make the sex less painful for you.”—Emily Sauer, sexual wellness entrepreneur

Furthermore, in a healthy relationship, your partner is on your side, and wants the best for you, emotionally, physically, and experientially, says Emily Sauer, CEO of Ohnut, a wearable designed for vulva-owners who experience painful penetration. "Of course [your partner] is going to want to do everything they can do to make the sex less painful for you.” And if you're worried your partner may feel defensive about the issue and confuse you raising your issue of pain as you casting blame for causing pain, consider opening the conversation by dispelling that notion. By getting on the same page, and same team working toward a mutual goal of pain-free sex, you can work together.

3. Massage the pain away

Sometimes, mastubrating isn’t just self care. “For folks with real vaginal tightness, it’s a really powerful way to experience arousal and retrain the body to experience pleasure and allow insertion,” says Reeves, who encourages the use of vibrators and hands. “Using your hands is an important part of learning and re-learning pleasure.”

4. Lubricant is your friend

Lubricant can be such a game-changer for those who experience painful sex as a result of vaginal dryness—which can happen for reasons including (but not limited to) aging, menopause, and certain medications. But it's also not one-solution-fits-all for situations of pain during sex. “Lube is a gift to sexual activity, but often it’s the default treatment doctors use when someone is experiencing painful sex,” says Sauer. “Lube is not a treatment plan if there are reasons other than vaginal dryness that the sex is painful.”

“CBD can help the pelvic-floor muscles relax and can help draw blood to the area, which is essential for experiencing arousal and wetness.” —Kiana Reeves, somatic sex expert and educator

If dryness is your primary issue informing your pain during sex, and neither water- nor silicone-based lubricants are providing relief, Reeves, who works with Foria Awaken, a cannabis wellness company that creates products intended to reduce pain and increase pleasure during sex, suggests giving CBD lube a whirl. “CBD can help the pelvic-floor muscles relax and can help draw blood to the area, which is essential for experiencing arousal and wetness.” While there's not much by way of research on CBD lube, one way or the other, beyond anecdotal claims of its effectiveness, studies have connected CBD in other forms to decreasing anxiety, which can lower stress and sometimes pain.

5. Bring sex toys into the mix

Two words: glass dildos. Great for temperature play, glass dildos can be put in the freezer or warmed up. If penetration is painful, Reeves suggests warming one (under warm or hot water), adding some lubricant, and running it up and down your labia and around the entrance of your vagina. “The heat will literally soak into your vaginal tissues and help them relax,” she says.

Of course other toys, like vibrators, butt plugs, and G-spot wands, can also be great additions, especially for those who may be experiencing pain as a result of not being aroused by penetration alone. Another example is Sauer's Ohnut, made from FDA-approved, body-safe material. Its four stackable doughnut-shaped rings hug the base of a penis. The effect is that only the length of the penis peaking out from the toy can go inside the vaginal canal. Because “you can modulate the toy to accommodate different depths of penetration, you get some really valuable information around how deep in the vaginal canal pain starters,” she says.

6. Deemphasize vaginal penetration as the goal

"We’re built to experience penetration when we are in our most heightened state of arousal," says Reeves. "When you can feel your labia get spongy and firm, that’s a good indication of arousal.” But, trying penetration before you're aroused can result in pain thanks to dryness and tightness, which is why she recommends emphasizing other forms of sexual intimacy, like licking, kissing, touching, massaging, humping, and grinding.

Another alternative to vaginal penetration? Anal sex, which is experts say is on the rise. Anal is particularly great for those who experience sexual pain as a result of uterine prolapse or certain nontraditional vaginal-canal shapes. (But, this is perhaps not the best first strategy to try for those who are contending with a penis-size issue.)

7. Try penetration without thrusting

“Sometimes it’s not the size of the penetrating object that’s the issue, but the intensity of the movements or thrusting inside the vagina,” says Reeves. When you’re properly aroused, having your partner slowly slide into you and stay there, not moving, can feel really good, she says. “This can help you develop more internal awareness around where and what feels good than you’d be able to get when a partner is moving in and out of you really quickly.”

8. Investigate vaginal dilators

Vaginal dilators are, basically, dildos that are meant to be inserted into the vagina for an extended period of time. While they’re not a sex toy, per se, they’re like a butt plug in that they’re designed to go in, and stay in.

“They’re a medical device designed for people with vaginas who experience painful penetration for many different reasons,” says sex therapist Angela Watson, creator of Doctor Climax. Usually they come in a package of five or six dilators of increasing size, with the smallest being the size of a pinky and the largest resembling the girth and length of a penis.

The idea is that the body adapts to having something inside of it and learns to relax around a foreign object, says Watson. “Over the course of weeks and months, the first dilator will be easier to insert and remove. Then you ‘graduate’ to the slightly larger dilator where the process becomes anew.” Dilator sets are available online, but before clicking add to cart, speak with a health-care provider. “They’ll let you know if you’re a good candidate for the product and will be able to guide you on how to best use—and how often to use—them,” she says.

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