The absence of pain does not = pleasure...
I recently read an article in Stylist magazine in which the author recounted her own journey through diagnosis and treatment of vulvodynia (a blanket term for ‘pain in the vulva’). Wikipedia defines vulvodynia as ‘a chronic pain syndrome that affects the vulvar area and occurs without an identifiable cause.’ The Stylist article goes on to demonstrate that research and knowledge around female sexual health, as opposed to male sexual health issues, is woefully imbalanced. I wondered how we, as women, can expect this disparity in the medical approach to women’s genital wellbeing to be addressed if we, as individuals, are not clued up on our own bodies. And by this I mean YOUR body – not just about female anatomy in general.
It is, seemingly, still a happily swallowed belief that pain is just part and parcel of the sexual experience for women. In her 2016 TED talk, the journalist Peggy Ornstein talked about her experience of interviewing college students: almost all women said that a ‘good’ sexual experience was one that didn’t hurt. As she puts it ‘the absence of pain…that’s a very low bar for your sense of sexual satisfaction.’ Conversations with many of my female friends and female clients, often reveal that genital related pain during sex (and at other times) has unquestionably been a part of their experience. They would recount periods of their life where they just kept on going through sex that was painful, physically uncomfortable and less than orgasmic. I mean, I’ve done it myself! The words ‘it’s OK, it’s not that bad, you can carry on’ have escaped my lips on more than one intimate occasion as I inwardly screamed, panicked, and then eventually numbed out. And I’d like to just be really clear here – I was consenting in these experiences. These weren’t incidents of rape or forced coitus. I simply assumed that sex was supposed to, at least some of the time, involve a bit of discomfort for me! I did not know or believe that I could (and should) hear this expression from my body as a vital indicator that I needed to pay attention to.
Pain needs attention, not dismissal...
So, first of all, ladies, we need to learn to listen to our bodies during sex. This may sound obvious but if your body tells you at ANY point during masturbation or partnered intercourse, that something is anything other than relaxing, stimulating or pleasurable you need to pause. You need to hold right there and know that it is not something you should just endure or tolerate. This is your body calling for attention: do not rush on, try and avoid it or ‘grin and bear it’.
You can practice pausing with my self pleasure meditation recommendation HERE. Or try out the following steps when you next masturbate or self-pleasure. If you find a point of numbness, discomfort, sensitivity or pain…
- gently come to stillness
- take a deep inhale through your nose, exhale through your mouth, relaxing your jaw
- just this act of pausing and noticing might interrupt your normal pattern
- notice if there are any particular thoughts that come rushing in at this point? Is there a particular emotion that comes up (grief, rage, sadness, irritation, anger, fear etc)? Notice things like colours, textures, tastes or scents that arise in your body
- does the physical and/or emotional sensation stay in one place or does it move somewhere else in your body? Track it, follow it, without judgement, just be curious
- if you pause, breathe, notice and feel…what happens to the the pain/numbness/discomfort?
During partnered sex, gentlemen, the greatest gift you can give your woman is to SLOW DOWN. Learn to feel into your partner’s body: what is her breathing telling you, is she relaxed, tense, how is she moving? If your partner tells you at any point that she feels pain or discomfort, or even numbness, pause right there and be as present as you can be for her. Try out the steps listed above with your man just still and present.
Pain, dysfunction and malady in our body can be a psychosomatic result of disconnection from a particular area. This begins a vicious circle of disconnect: we experience pain, so we avoid engaging with self touch, certain positions or sex altogether. Exploring your genitals with conscious, non-goal oriented masturbation is the way forward. The Stylist author agrees – she sought out the mentoring of renowned sex and masturbation coach, Betty Dodson, a personal hero of mine! Becoming more intimate with your own genitals, the fluctuations in sensation, what you like and don’t like, touching with the intention of learning and exploring rather than any goal, will take you a long way to understanding what is ‘normal’ and what is ‘unusual’ for your body.
I believe that this self-education is the way to create shifts and ripples into the way we interact with the medical profession. If we are confident and informed about our own bodies we are more able to have empowered conversations with medical practitioners to get to the heart of the issues. It might seem a crazy idea to consider talking to your GP or medical provider about pleasure when something is ‘off’ in your body but I encourage you to be brave, and know that your pleasure is PART OF YOUR HEALTH, not an optional extra. Imagine re-framing your discussion from ‘I am struggling with pain and discomfort in my genitals and I’d like to get that fixed’ to ‘My experience of pleasure is being interrupted by pain and that is having knock-on effects throughout my life right now’. Your pleasure is vital, valuable and essential.
A space to practice...
My Sister Love Sessions are designed to give you this imprint of slowing down, pausing, connecting with sensation in your genitals in a way that allows you to really be curious, to really notice and value how your body feels. My Masturbation Coaching Sessions also give you a space to learn more detailed anatomical and physiological information about your genitals, as well as fun and loving ways to integrate self-pleasuring into your life.
If you’d like to know more, or book a session just send me an email on firstname.lastname@example.org