How to Do It

Sex With My Husband Has Always Been Really Painful

I’ve hidden this for 14 years. Is there any hope of fixing it now?

The top of a woman's head showing her eyes closed in pain and a neon cartoon explosion behind her head.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by nensuria/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

How to Do It is Slate’s sex advice column. Have a question? Send it to Stoya and Rich here. It’s anonymous!

Dear How to Do It,

I have no idea how to deal with this problem anymore, and I really hope you can help. I’ve been with my husband for almost 14 years, married for nearly 12. And in all this time, I haven’t told him that sex with him is really painful for me.

It’s not sexual intercourse in general; I had a healthy number of partners before him and really enjoyed sex. The problem with my husband is I think he has chordee, a congenital penile curvature. His penis has a very pronounced hook to the side, and nearly every position is really painful. I disguise the pain with moans and keep my face turned away sometimes so he can’t see how much pain I’m actually in.

I don’t know what to do. I’ve been lying to him about enjoying sex and having orgasms for so long that I think he’d feel betrayed if I told him, but how could I tell the man I love that a condition he can’t control causes me so much pain? The treatment for chordee is surgery, and how could I ask him to go through that? I continue to withdraw from him sexually even though I want to have pain-free sex so much, and I’ve thought about asking for an open marriage. I don’t know how to talk to him, or what to do. Please help.

—No More Pain

Dear No More Pain,

Your husband may well feel betrayed to find out that you’ve been misrepresenting your sexual experience for over a decade. He’s going to feel even more betrayed if he finds out you asked for an open relationship because you didn’t want to broach this topic. And it’s an awful reason to open up your relationship.

I want you to imagine every response your husband might have when you update him on the reality of your situation. I want you to make a list. Everything from “shouts and refuses to speak to me for weeks after” through to “grateful for the bravery it took to bring this up.” Then I want you to think about how you’d like to respond, yourself, in each case. You won’t be able to cover every single possible scenario, but you’ll still be prepared for a lot.

Start with the facts. “I’ve been hiding something from you for years because I was worried about hurting your feelings.” Apologize—I’m sure you know how to do this—then explain. Keep it brief and practical. “I experience a lot of pain during sex with you. I think it has to do with the shape of your penis and the shape of my vaginal canal.” Presuming there are positions that don’t cause you pain (you say nearly ever position is painful, not all), now’s the time to mention them. “Diagonal doggy toward the left feels great” or whatever the positions are. Then make space for your husband to process and respond.

He might not have an immediate response. He might need some time to absorb what you’ve just told him. He might have one emotion at first and another a few days later. This is all OK.

You may have damaged the trust in your relationship, but it’s very possible that you can repair it. Love doesn’t mean never hurting our beloved’s feelings or never pointing out an issue in our connection. Hopefully it means being forthright with each other and navigating our difficulties together.

A final thought: If your husband decides that he’d prefer not to have surgery, and that he’d like to see you sexually fulfilled, and is open to opening up the relationship, that’s a much better place from which to do so. And remember, oral is still sex and can be tons of fun.

Dear How to Do It,

My partner and I are in lockdown in different cities. We haven’t met in more than a month, and we finally decided to try phone sex via texting. Here’s our problem. We have different native languages, and we communicate in a third language that we are both quite fluent in. The catch is that while we can communicate our feelings and emotions in this third language, and we even know some of each other’s native languages, we just don’t share any sexual vocabulary. The words we do know are either very formal or abusive, which kind of sucks the fun out of it. We can’t find porn or erotica in the third language to learn from. When we’re having sex in person, this is not a problem, because we can always use our hands to direct the other and requests are easier to make. I’m worried we’ll just end up saying things like, “I’m touching myself there. … There. … No, the other there. … No, not that one.” It will be funny to look back on, but not very relieving in the present. Can you suggest ways in which we can heat things up over the phone with a limited shared vocabulary? Neither of us is super comfortable with nudes.

—Dirty Talk

Dear Dirty Talk,

English, for better or worse, is the trade language of most pornography. Even in English, we aren’t sure what’s too medical and what’s too potentially offensive. Twat is funny to some and insulting to others. “Coochie snorcher,” which I encountered in The Vagina Monologues, makes people pause to parse what exactly is being referred to. Vagina doesn’t technically encompass the parts that tend to be most fun for the person who has one. Cock is pretty functional and not too inflammatory. Penis might make someone feel like they’re at the doctor. Prick sounds like you’re in an old-timey movie. There are no categorically good words.

So make some up! Develop your own terms for the parts you predictably play with.
We could use some fresh synonyms. If you aren’t feeling particularly creative about coining coital phrases, teach each other the terms from your native languages. All that matters is that the two of you know what you’re talking about. Build your shared vocabulary like you’ve built your relationship—together, with a sense of humor and respect for each other.

Dear How to Do It,

I’m a gal who likes to grind. Growing up in a prudish Catholic household, I learned to masturbate as a young girl by sitting on a pillow and grinding hard. I can’t bring myself off with my hands, and I dislike getting oral sex. Intercourse feels great, but it doesn’t get me off. But using a big fat pillow does the trick, and sometimes I can even give myself two to four orgasms in a row.

The guys I’ve been with have been excited about the whole scene. But with my boyfriend now, we’d both like to feel he’s more involved. I’ve tried grinding on his pelvis or his leg, but it doesn’t work—not enough pressure maybe? Grinding on him when he’s inside me doesn’t work because I’m petite and having a dick poking up inside me is uncomfortable. Grinding on his face is impossible—with the intense pressure I need, I’d break his nose! So I am looking to you for techniques. Please advise!

—Grinder Gal

Dear Grinder Gal,

Congratulations on figuring out what works for your body. And finding other people who are happy to participate! For women and other people with vaginas, figuring out how to have an orgasm can be a tall order.

I agree, grinding with a penis inside you is a completely different feeling than grinding on a pillow. I see two options moving forward. You can try more pressure—and still more pressure—on your guy’s pelvis or leg. The upper thigh is probably your best bet. You might be able to find a sweet spot where you aren’t hurting him, but you are getting what you need to get off. The other possibility is to put a pillow on him. I suspect there’s something about the squish inherent in a pillow, and that pubic bones distinctly lack, that is part of what works for you.

Dear How to Do It,

My husband and I are in our early 30s, no known medical conditions, and are trying to get pregnant. However, for the past three months, when I’m ovulating, he loses his erection when we try P in V. If I’m not ovulating, he easily comes through regular heterosexual sex. We’ve tried different positions, extended foreplay, taking a break and trying again in an hour. We have a toddler that was conceived naturally so this is a new issue. I had a miscarriage in 2019—my attitude was these things happen, but my husband was more upset and sad about it. I think this is affecting his mental state when we try to conceive. Any advice for us to get around his mental block, or should we just go to a doctor for some Viagra? I know it’s nothing he’s doing on purpose, but I’m getting frustrated because I thought I would be pregnant by now.

—Hard Up

Dear Hard Up,

In other times, less COVID troubled ones, I’d encourage your husband to see his primary care physician to make sure there aren’t any physical causes you and I might be missing. It’s still worth an email to get their input.

Aside from any medical causes, he might indeed be in his head about this. You have to talk about it to find out. It might be something to do with the pain he felt around your miscarriage. It might be conflict about whether he wants to have another baby right now. He might be stressed over work stuff or something else that has little to do with you and your relationship. That first instance of being less hard than he wanted might have undermined his confidence long term. We don’t get to know until you broach the subject.

So do all the things—find a time when there aren’t likely to be many distractions or interruptions, make sure you’re both in a good place to have a conversation, turn off the TV or radio, and connect. State your love and commitment. Ask your husband how he’s feeling. Ask him if there’s anything he’s worried about. Ask him how he feels about his erections and penetrative intercourse. Listen, too.

From there, you’ll have a much better idea of how to proceed. If he’s 100 percent in intellectually and emotionally, yeah, it might be time to talk to a physician about something like Viagra. If he’s conflicted about children, you’ll want to talk through that. If he says he isn’t conflicted, and he’s tried erectile enhancement drugs, then you might want to call in an expert, like a marriage counselor or sex therapist. The Kink Aware Professionals Network vets providers for sex positivity, and the American Association of Sexuality Experts, Counselors, and Therapists is another good resource.*

—Stoya

More How to Do It

This is probably going to sound crazy but here goes. I am 67 and I’ve been married to the same woman for 43 years. I know that before we married, she had been with about 10 other men sexually. I am only about 5.8 inches when fully erect, and for some reason that I can’t explain, I have been bothered lately wondering how many of the men that she had been with were bigger or even much bigger than me. Does a woman know the difference between say a half inch bigger or a whole inch bigger? I understand if she ran across a 7-plus-inch guy it would be noticeable. So that’s my question. Do women notice the difference when a guy is a half inch to a whole inch shorter than other partners? Please don’t ask me to move on and leave it alone. I really would like to know.

Correction, April 22, 2020: This article originally misidentified the American Association of Sexuality Experts, Counselors, and Therapists as the American Society of Sexuality Experts, Counselors, and Therapists.