There are so many ways for us to describe sex: exciting, thrilling, empowering, spine-tingling, sexy, (orgasmic?)—notice how we didn’t mention “painful” or “stinging.” You get the point. Sex should always feel pleasurable (unless, of course, you’re into some BDSM…).
But if you’re experiencing discomfort in your nether regions, abandon ship until you figure out what the hell is going on down there. To suss out your potential hangups, we spoke to sexologist Yvonne K. Fulbright, Ph.D., and Mary Jane Minkin, M.D. (and author of A Woman’s Guide to Sexual Health) to save your vagina and your sex life. Here, all your problems explained—and how to fix them.
You’re not lubricated enough
Even though your vagina is a natural self-lubricator, if you’re not turned on enough or boozed too much at the bar, you could suffer from dryness. Just use lube, or for chronic issues, a vaginal moisturizer like Replens.
You’re allergic to your sex toys or products
While we’re on the topic, you can’t just go to the drugstore and buy the cheapest thing on the shelf. Lubricants are made with different chemicals, which can throw off your vagina’s pH balance—the same goes for products like latex condoms. If you feel any sort of irritation after use, try to stick to “natural”-based stuff (we hear you, Goop) and see how that fares with your body.
You have ingrown hairs
Sometimes a botched bikini wax can leave you with unpleasant pimples, which can be painful when there’s friction. Not much you can really do—except load up on a skin-soothing serum and wait it out.
You’re using the wrong positions
Blame kama sutra books for introducing you to how-the-hell-do-they-contort-their-bodies-like-that sex positions. It’s always good to experiment and deviate from your go-to routine, but the Butter Churner (Google it) might not be for everyone. Keep in mind that a guy’s curvature can make your go-to moves feel a little off from time to time.
You have a sexual dysfunction
Yes, though it’s not often talked about, some women (often in their teens or early twenties) experience a disorder known as vaginismus—where the vaginal muscles involuntarily spasm during sex and make penetration painful. Shooting pain during sex can also be attributed to hyperactive nerve fibers around the vulva, AKA vulvodynia. Thankfully, there’s good therapy available for both, through the use of dilators or pain-blocking medications.
Your partner is too big
No guy is ever too large-and-in-charge to wear a condom. Period. But when it comes to penetration, a man’s love gun might not fit into your, er, pistol box. In a sense, you need to be “loosened” up by trying simple sex moves first—think missionary—or turning yourself on more (hello, foreplay!). But don’t freak out by his endowment—your vagina won’t be permanently stretched by it.
You just gave birth
First off, if your libido can bounce back right away after childbirth, GO YOU. But caution: Since your vagina was basically just destroyed—love ya, [insert baby name]—it’ll take your body some time to get back to its former glory. Some doctors suggest a four to six week window after childbirth as a good time frame to get your groove back, but it all depends on your body.
You have an STD/STI/pelvic disease
Yeast infections suck. Fibroids on your uterus and pelvic inflammatory disease suck. Herpes sucks. Know who you’re sleeping with and get tested regularly if you’re not in a monogamous relationship, but also take comfort in knowing there are plenty of oral and vaginal medications that can treat those.
You’re a virgin
Um, Steve Carell was one for 40 years—not really, but you get the idea. If you’ve been saving yourself for the right moment, you can probably expect some minor discomfort. After all, the hymen is a physical barrier of sorts blocking entry. Here’s another moment where easing into sex can be a game-changer.
You haven’t had sex in a long time
Sex slump, dry spell, whatever you want to call it, the struggle’s real. We’re not saying you should jot down sex in your weekly planner, but just know it’s totally normal for it to hurt if you haven’t done it since Game of Thrones season 1.
You jump right into sex
Forget every Lifetime/Nicholas Sparks/Fifty Shades of Grey sex scene you’ve seen. Diving head first (interpret as you wish) into sex can create unnecessary friction between your vagina and his manhood. Take a cue from a wise tortoise: Slow and steady wins the race.