When sex hurts

"Am I Normal?": A woman wants to know how to fix the burning pain she experiences after sex

Topics: Salon -- After Dark, Am I Normal?,

When sex hurts (Credit: Salon/Jose AS Reyes via Shutterstock)
Send your "Am I Normal?" questions to tracy [at] salon.com.

I’ve been having pain after sex for almost a year. I brought it up with my GYN, who was unsure what the issue was (we went over shaving, lack of foreplay/lubricant, possible UTI, “mismatched” genitals, none of which were an issue). I ended up having a mild bacterial infection and went on antibiotics, and she suggested I use a sensitive-skin allergy-free lubricant in addition to condoms or pulling out (to prevent pH imbalance/infection from semen).

After following this advice for months, I’m still having a burning pain around the vulva after sex, which lasts for a few hours. It has drastically diminished my sex drive and is driving a wedge between my partner and me. I’m also a young nonprofit professional on a limited budget, and can’t afford many more $50 GYN visits to fix the problem. Help!

I’m afraid you’re not going to like the answers I got from my experts. In fact, their prescription may sound even worse to you than the prospect of “mismatched” genitals: You gotta spend that $50 to go to your doctor again — or to a more affordable women’s health clinic, if you can find one.

Michael L. Krychman, an OB-GYN who has the interesting distinction of being a “vulvar expert,” tells me, “I know she doesn’t want to go through a provider, but I think it’s quite essential that she does.” He says it’s “something that can’t really be treated without a proper evaluation.”

Sex researcher Debby Herbenick, whose upcoming book “Sex Made Easy” goes over common causes of the sorts of pain you’re experiencing, also suggests going back to the doctor — only she recommends seeing a “vulvovaginal specialist” as opposed to a general OB-GYN. (For a referral, check out the International Society for the Study of Vulvovaginal Disease or the National Vulvodynia Association.)

I wish I could save you the $50 — or even more to see a specialist — but there are way too many possible causes of after-sex pain for any respectable expert to diagnose you from afar.

In addition to the possible culprits you already talked over with your doctor, a case like yours could be blamed on a number of food or drug allergies — even allergies to food or drugs consumed by your partner, says Herbenick. She also mentions bizarre cases where vulvar pain “ended up being traced back to the fact that a woman’s partner read the newspaper before bed, and during foreplay touched her genitals, and she was allergic to newspaper ink.” (This surely guarantees the death of print, once and for all.)

Herbenick did offer a tip for when you see a doc, so that you can save yourself needless repeat visits: You’ll want to be clear about where exactly you’re experiencing the pain: When you say “around the vulva,” she asks whether you mean “all over the vulva (like a skin irritation) or ‘around the vagina’ (like around the entrance).” These “can suggest very different things,” she says.

Most important, though, is to take heart that your experience isn’t unusual or untreatable: Krychman sees complaints like yours every day in his practice and says, “It’s a very common problem and very easily treatable and fixable” — with the right doctor.

Tracy Clark-Flory

Tracy Clark-Flory is a staff writer at Salon. Follow @tracyclarkflory on Twitter and Facebook.

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