The Painful Truth

If your body hurts, listen to what it's saying

Like Comment

'The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.' And so it has been for me. My first column set out my plans to tour the US, exploring areas of sexological interest. Instead, on 3rd May I found myself attached to an antibiotic drip for 48 hours with life-threatening perotinitis (inflammation of the abdominal lining). As such, my travel plans were kiboshed – thankfully before I bought my plane ticket.

Facing up to my own mortality a week before turning 40 brought a lot of things into perspective, which I'll be exploring in future articles. I'd normalised my pain for months, after being told by doctors I was stressed and needed to slow down. However, my experience taught me was that pain is your body's way of telling you that something is wrong: something that is particularly relevant when it comes to sex.

All too often, people ignore discomfort during sex, from having their cervix bashed due to an over-enthusiastic partner, feeling sore through vaginal dryness or soldiering on through anal despite it being painful.

There is no need for this to be the case. Different positions can make sex more comfortable. For example, if you have a partner whose penis is on the large size, cervical discomfort can be avoided by using face to face rather than rear entry positions. It's also worth being aware that the cervix tilts back as you become aroused so sometimes, it can simply be a case of investing more time in sex play before having penetrative sex.

Vaginal dryness is something that many women experience, particularly with age – though that is far from the only cause – and there are many lubricants on the market that can help (opt for one that is free of parabens such as Yes or Give Lube). Again, sometimes it's simply a case of engaging in more sex play prior to penetration, though it can also be an indication that something isn't quite right emotionally – or caused by certain medications, such as some antidepressants. Everyone is different, but if you experience vaginal dryness, it's worth putting thought into why that might be, and seeking help as required.

Anal sex shouldn't be painful. If it is, this could indicate a lack of preparation (such as using a butt plug and generally spending time on anal play prior to penetration) – and lubricant is an essential. However, numbing sprays are best avoided as they mask pain and may increase the likelihood of anal tearing, by blocking your body's signals that something is wrong.

Sex and relationship therapist, Sarah Berry, founder of Fannies Rule is an ex vaginismus sufferer. She explains on her site, “This is a condition where the brain protects the body by telling the pelvic muscles to contract when anything is inserted.” There can be many reasons for this, and both counselling and physical intervention can help.

Many people trivialise sexual pleasure, fearing a GP will consider they are making a fuss about nothing. However, changes in sexual arousal can indicate that there is something wrong, whether physically, emotionally or both. All too often, people are too embarrassed to seek help from their GP, which can lead to feelings of isolation, relationship breakdown and more.

If you feel pain during sex, take it seriously. It can be an indicator of conditions that can be easily treated in the early stages, but can have serious ramifications if ignored, such as cystitis (which can lead to kidney infections: minimise the risk of getting it by peeing after sex) and candida (which can indicate a lowered immune system). It can also be a flag for unresolved emotional issues.

Sex is not supposed to be painful (BDSM aside, but that's a totally different topic). Listen to your body: if it hurts, it's telling you something is wrong.

Emily Dubberley is founder of the UK's original sex site for women, Cliterati and author of 28 sex and relationship books, the most recent of which is Garden of Desires: The Evolution of Female Sexual Fantasy.

Emily Dubberley

Writer, sex researcher and founder of, -

Emily Dubberley is author of 28 internationally published books on sex and relationships, most recently Garden of Desires: The Evolution of Female Sexual Fantasies and erotic romance, Blue Mondays. She founded sex website, has launched and edited magazines including Scarlet and the Lovers' Guide magazine and co-wrote the last five Lovers' Guide films. She is a keen member of and helps curate Brighton Science Festival, including last year's Science of Sex weekend.