The XX Factor

Do One-Third of Women Really Experience Pain During Sex?

Earlier this week, Indiana University’s Center for Sexual Health Promotion released the results of a new nationally representative survey of American sexual behavior. The study covered everything from condom use to the increased popularity of anal sex, as  Slate ’s William Saletan has extolled.

What, exactly, is going on? Why are so many women experiencing pain during sex? We don’t know. That’s both the answer to the question, and the root of the problem. American attitudes about sex keep us from sharing and learning crucial information with each other, and they stymie scientific attempts to learn more about why sex is painful for so many women. We, the fine, sex-having people of America, don’t know how to speak openly about our sex lives and, as a result, scientists don’t have the resources or the knowledge to help us improve them.

Dr. Debby Herbenick, Associate Director of the Center for Sexual Health Promotion and one of the study’s co-authors, believes that “the way women and men are talked to about sex when they’re growing up is very different.” Women, she said, are often told to expect that sex will be painful, and “have this sense that sex is supposed to hurt. So when they have sex and it hurts, they’re not surprised and they don’t talk to a doctor and they don’t talk to a partner and they don’t say it to their friends.”  There is also probably pressure to stick to the cultural consensus that sex is always pleasurable.

A silver lining: Few women reported being in a great deal of pain.  But the survey didn’t go into much detail-it didn’t explore the location, duration, or nature of the pain, nor did it ask if the pain was a one-time occurrence or a chronic problem.  So there’s a lot more to learn about this.