When It Hurts to Have Sex

Nov 06, 2013 • Health

venus flytrap

The response from the medical community that Meghan Rowland received while trying to diagnose painful sex is shameful. In a piece for the Ladybits blog on Medium titled Unlocking the Venus Flytrap, Rowland recounts her experience.

Losing my virginity hurt, as I’d been taught to expect, but I didn’t expect the second, third, and fourth time to be equally unpleasant. Concerned, I went to my gynecologist for help. After half-listening to my problem, my doctor stared thoughtfully into space for all of five seconds and said, “Painful sex usually means you were either molested as a child or have herpes. I’ll get a nurse to come in and take a blood sample.” And with that, she ran out of the room before I could ask any follow-up questions, leaving me to wonder which side of that devil’s coin toss I’d rather land on. I was almost disappointed when my STD panel came back clean a week later and actually called my mom to double-check that I hadn’t been molested as a child. (We’re both fairly confident I wasn’t.)

I went to three more doctors looking for answers and was met with the same level of disinterest and condescension from each one. A male urologist who called me “sweetheart” told me it was his medical opinion that I just needed to take a bath and relax. I was livid. As if the answer to all of my problems was to take my vagina out to a nice wine bar, get her back to my place, light a few scented candles and turn on some John Legend. I left each doctor’s office feeling embarrassed and ashamed of my body, and decided that was the last time I’d talk about my problem to anyone, let alone a doctor.

A few years later, I was lying in bed taking a rare break from being depressed and masturbating when I turned on MTV, which happened to be airing the “I Can’t Have Sex” episode of the docu-series True Life. The episode followed three twenty-something females as they struggle to come to terms with the toll the inability to have sexual intercourse has taken on each of their lives, and seek ways of treating their shared painful medical condition — vulvodynia. After spending a small fortune and seeing four top-rated doctors, that was how I learned about vulvodynia: from a trashy, sensationalized MTV reality show.

Vulvodynia, for those unfamiliar, is chronic pain affecting the vulva and vaginal area that seems to occur with no identifiable cause. Illustrative of Rowland’s experience, the Wikipedia page for the syndrome is almost empty, with the section under diagnosis reading:

Many sufferers will see several doctors before a correct diagnosis is made. Many gynecologists are not familiar with this family of conditions, but awareness has spread with time. Sufferers are also often hesitant to seek treatment for chronic vulvar pain, especially since many women begin experiencing symptoms around the same time they become sexually active. Moreover, the absence of any visible symptoms means that before being successfully diagnosed many patients are told that the pain is “in their head”.

For those who recognize the experience that Rowland describes, the Mayo Clinic offers information about how to discuss the problem with your doctor. As Rowland’s account points out, even the most prepared patients can meet a wall of ignorance and indifference, so don’t give up. The Mayo Clinic also offers useful information about treatments.

Header image by Peter Shanks.