Valentine’s Day has never been my favorite day of the year. Sure, I like chocolate and wine and the occasional grand romantic gesture, but I don’t like the feeling that all those things should happen on one designated day of the year. There’s pressure to look great for your Valentine’s Day date, pressure to buy a sparkly “oh my god!”-inducing present, pressure to say “I love you” in just the right way.
And then, there’s pressure to have sex. For those of us who are in relationships, Valentine’s Day is the day we’re supposed to have amazing, relationship-affirming sex. We’re encouraged to buy lingerie, and tingly lube, and a cathedral’s worth of candles. We’re meant to do whatever we can to make the night of February 14th the sexiest night of the whole year.
All in all, there’s a lot of pressure around Valentine’s Day, and a lot of it has to do with sex. Unfortunately, pressure and sex are pretty much never a good combination. This is especially true for women who frequently experience vaginal pain during sex.
The numbers on exactly how many women regularly experience pain during sex are fuzzy. There’s not a lot of funding out there to support research into conditions like vulvodynia, vaginismus and other conditions that can cause vaginal penetration to be painful. But the difficulty of getting an accurate diagnosis and effective treatment for these little-understood conditions is an issue for another day. For now, let’s focus on the immediate problem, which is that for a lot of women, the mind-blowing sex that is supposed to happen on Valentine’s Day isn’t going to be mind-blowing. It’s probably going to hurt like hell. And that can make the pressure to get naked and get busy on the 14th a lot more complicated.
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Hannah is a cis-gendered woman in a long-term heterosexual relationship for whom sex has been painful for as long as she can remember. “My first time was stereotypically painful, but it just never got better,” she says. “To be perfectly frank, I don’t think I remember having sex when it didn’t hurt.” And that, Hannah says, makes special occasions like Valentine’s Day and anniversaries particularly stressful. The pain she feels during sex, she says, affects the frequency with which she does it, but she does feel pressure to sleep with her partner. “All of that is just aggravated,” she told me, “by special occasions like Valentine’s Day.”
The extra pressure to have sex, and the anticipation of the pain that will inevitably come with it, can actually make that pain worse. Just as your arm muscle tenses up in anticipation of an injection, your vaginal muscles and all the muscles around them – in your legs, butt and hips – can tense up in anticipation of sex. Sex is best when your muscles are relaxed, but relaxing is easier said than done when you’re expecting pain rather than pleasure.
For Clare, sex was so painful that she and her boyfriend were only doing it once every few months. “That made me feel terrible,” she says, “so I got really good at not wincing or crying or tensing my body to try to cover my pain.” But Clare’s body was – like most women’s – too smart to fall for that. “Though I wanted to just push through the pain, my body absolutely did not. My pelvic floor would tense up involuntarily, making sex even more painful than it already was.” That involuntary tensing was diagnosed as vaginismus, or muscular contractions that sometimes occur as a result of prior trauma or chronic pain.
It goes without saying that trying to push through the pain or trying to hide it from your partner is a bad idea. It’s bad for you physically and emotionally, it’s bad for your relationship with your partner, and in time, it can corrode any positive feelings you have – and deserve to have – about sex. Enduring that kind of pain in the service of another person’s pleasure can eat away at a relationship – why doesn’t he sense that I’m in pain? Would he even care that much if he did? – as Clare eventually discovered. But it can be awfully tempting to push on through, especially when the alternative is disappointing a partner who really wants to have sex.
On Valentine’s Day – as on anniversaries, birthdays, or on vacation, which Clare and Hannah also say were upsetting – there’s a good chance of being confronted by a partner who really wants to have sex. So what can you do to ensure that you have a happy, sexy and most importantly, pain-free Valentine’s Day?
1. Don’t do anything you don’t want to do
If you don’t want to have penetrative sex on February 14th, don’t have penetrative sex on February 14th. The same goes for the thirteenth and the fifteenth and every other day of the year. If you don’t want to have sex, for whatever reason, don’t. Yes, there is extra pressure on Valentine’s Day, and yes, it can be tempting to grit your teeth and push through the pain for your partner’s sake. But sex that brings pleasure to one partner while causing unwanted pain to another is damaging to the relationship, not to mention the possibility of doing extra damage to your body and to your emotions and attitudes toward sex in the long term. It’s reasonable to worry about disappointing your partner, but in this instance, you need to put yourself first. Besides, says Jaclyn Friedman, editor of Yes Means Yes! Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape, “a partner who doesn’t care about your pain, and about your pleasure, isn’t a partner you want to be with.”
2. You are not alone
Far from it. While there are no precise numbers on exactly how many women experience chronic pain during sex, believe me when I say it’s more than you think. I’ve been astonished, in the months since I started writing about this problem by how many women have confided in me, women I’ve never met in my life and women I’ve known for years, to tell me that they too have suffered chronic pelvic pain. We don’t hear a lot about it because in our culture, sex is pleasurable and awesome, and there’s very little room in our cultural discourse for talking about sex that feels any other way. That can leave women who for whom sex is painful feeling awfully isolated and alone. You’re not broken, or defective, or a freak, and you’re certainly not the only one going through this.
3. There’s more than one way to have sex
You don’t have to put a penis in a vagina for to be having sex. Hopefully, there are lots of other things you and your partner can with each other that won’t cause you pain. Do those instead. It’s incredibly unfortunate that we hype penis-in-vagina sex up as the pinnacle of the human sexual experience (“home run!”). For one thing, it excludes couples that aren’t heterosexual. And for women who experience vaginal pain on penetration, the focus on PIV reinforces the feeling that they can’t have sex, when in fact, they can’t have one kind of sex. There are many, many other ways to get off, and if PIV sex isn’t enjoyable for you, I suggest that you solemnly commit yourself to trying them all. It’s hard work, but someone has to do it.
4. You don’t have to celebrate Valentine’s Day on Valentine’s Day
You don’t have to celebrate it on the fourteenth, or at all. If you do want to celebrate, it might help to reschedule it, Friedman suggests, for some time after all the pink roses and heart-shaped chocolate boxes have disappeared from store shelves and the daily barrage of Victoria’s Secret commercials has receded to non-Valentine’s levels. A partner who cares about you will understand the need to take the pressure off – after all, there’s something in it for him, too. The same goes for birthdays, anniversaries, and other occasions that might be special to you even if Valentine’s Day isn’t. If you don’t want to postpone, then talk to your partner before the big night. Remind them that while you understand the importance of the occasion, you might not want to have PIV sex that night or you might need to stop part-way through. Again, a partner who cares about you will understand, and it’s much easier to talk about emotionally fraught issues like this one in advance, and with all your clothes on.
5. Seek treatment
And if it doesn’t work, keep seeking. I can’t tell you how many doctors I saw before I found one who took my problem seriously and could suggest an effective treatment. I wasn’t alone in that. Clare reports that the first doctor she saw told her that “I probably didn’t like my boyfriend, that I didn’t like sex, or that I was imagining the pain.” Vulvodynia, vaginismus and other chronic pelvic pain conditions are poorly understood, and for that reason, it can be hard to find a doctor who recognizes them and harder to find a treatment that works. There are lots of different things you can try, including physical therapy and massage. It can be frustrating to have to shop around, infuriating to learn that there’s no quick fix. But it’s worth it, because you deserve to have pain-free PIV sex.
I’m going to say that again, because sometimes it can be easy to forget, especially if sex has been painful for a long time: you deserve to have pain-free sex. You deserve a partner who prioritizes your pain over their pleasure. You deserve a doctor who will listen to you and who will try whatever avenue they can think of to help solve your problem. You deserve pain-free sex, and there’s nothing wrong with saying “no” to penetration until you can have it. Even on Valentine’s Day.