Study: a quarter of women will experience chronic pain during sex

A new study out of the University of Michigan Medical School found that around 8% of women suffer from vulvodynia, a frustratingly mysterious condition whose symptoms include pain during sex. It’s estimated that 25% of women will have vulvodynia at some point in their lives.

I’ve written about the condition in the past, and have bemoaned the difficulty of getting an accurate diagnosis and effective treatment for vulvodynia. There are cultural barriers to diagnosis – women don’t seek treatment because they think their pain is normal and that sex is just sometimes meant to be painful, or they know their pain is abnormal but feel so ashamed that their sexual experience doesn’t match up to the one the culture tells them they should expect – and medical ones – many doctors don’t know about chronic pelvic pain conditions like vulvodynia and vaginismus, so even when women do seek treatment, they’re unlikely to get an accurate diagnosis.

Barriers to treatment are similarly cultural, medical and financial. There hasn’t been a whole lot of research (surprise, surprise!) into how we can make sex less painful and more pleasurable for women. Funding is hard to come by for such studies, and that makes it harder for doctors and sufferers to find out about diagnoses and treatments. While makes me mad as all hell: if there were a sexual condition that affected as many as 1 in 4 men, we’d know every goddamn thing about it.

I’ve written about the effectiveness of physical therapy and laser therapy (it’s like Star Wars! For your vagina!), and about the frustration that women feel when confronted by this mysterious and misunderstood chronic condition.And it really is poorly understood. This study revealed the woeful state of knowledge about vulvodynia, among patients and doctors alike. In a study of 2, 269 women in the Detroit area:

Around 200 women met the criteria for vulvodynia. The average age of onset was 30. The condition was about as common among women aged 18 to 70, after which the prevalence declined. Experiencing vulvodynia often did not prevent women from having sex.

It also found accurate diagnoses were very rare: 200 women were diagnosed, by these researchers, with vulvodynia, but only 2% of them had been told so outside of the study. More upsettingly still:

Only a quarter of those who sought treatment for their pain were given any diagnosis at all. Some were diagnosed with yeast infections or estrogen deficiency, and while both these conditions can cause vaginal pain, the researchers suspect some women instead had vulvodynia.

Women who talked to a doctor about their pain were no more likely to see their symptoms resolve than those who did not see a doctor, which suggests the treatments the doctors are prescribing often aren’t working, the researchers said.

There are treatments that work, though sadly this article omits one of them, which is physical therapy (and lasers! Did I mention the lasers?!). You can read more about that in this awesome book, Ending Female Pain.

Sex is not supposed to hurt. Really. Really. If sex is physically painful for you, do something about it. This study found that only about half of the women who experienced chronic pain during sex had sought treatment, even though the average period of pain was 12-and-a-half years. Those two numbers make me want to cry.

If you’re experiencing pain during sex, go talk to a doctor and raise the possibility of vulvodynia. And if he or she gives you a blank stare, I suggest you get yourself a new doctor.

Update: As one of our commenters noted, this study didn’t include trans folks, who can also suffer from chronic vaginal pain. Neither did my blog post, and they both should have.

New York, NY

Chloe Angyal is a journalist and scholar of popular culture from Sydney, Australia. She joined the Feministing team in 2009. Her writing about politics and popular culture has been published in The Atlantic, The Guardian, New York magazine, Reuters, The LA Times and many other outlets in the US, Australia, UK, and France. She makes regular appearances on radio and television in the US and Australia. She has an AB in Sociology from Princeton University and a PhD in Arts and Media from the University of New South Wales. Her academic work focuses on Hollywood romantic comedies; her doctoral thesis was about how the genre depicts gender, sex, and power, and grew out of a series she wrote for Feministing, the Feministing Rom Com Review. Chloe is a Senior Facilitator at The OpEd Project and a Senior Advisor to The Harry Potter Alliance. You can read more of her writing at

Chloe Angyal is a journalist and scholar of popular culture from Sydney, Australia.

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