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Sex, Vaginas & Vulvas, My Body

Pain during sex: Fran’s story

Fran talks about how vaginal pain has affected her life, and gives her top tips on how she has learnt to navigate sex.

I’d heard sex would hurt the first time. Somewhere between the pages of teenage magazines and whispers during sleepovers I’d come to expect losing my virginity would be painful. And it was.  

Every time I tried to have sex it was as if my vulva had been replaced by a brick wall and I’d have to ask my boyfriend to stop.

It was impossible to know if it hurt because I wasn’t turned on enough, or I wasn’t turned on enough because I was worried it was going to hurt. And so a cycle began. 

Doctors seemed perplexed. I was told to ‘pop some Savlon on the problem area’ and that I had ‘a very underused vagina’ so I should ‘get out there and use it more’. I left the appointments feeling unheard, unimportant and untreated. This lack of being taken seriously meant I became embarrassed and quiet about my problem. After all, it wasn’t life-threatening so I felt I probably shouldn’t waste a doctor’s time. I mean, someone could be dying in the waiting room whilst I was complaining about not having a good time between the sheets! That was me at 16.  

After several years I’d worked out ways to make sex less painful but I still didn’t enjoy it and hoped medical science might have found a wonder solution. Unfortunately the best suggestion my GP had in 2017 was ‘Have you ever thought about just not having sex?’

In a year where Viagra has been made available over the counter without prescription for men, I felt female sexual problems were not being treated with the same attention. 

My symptoms come under the umbrella term of ‘Female Sexual Dysfunction’*. This can include problems with desire, orgasms and pain during sex, and I have experienced all three at some point. It is estimated around a third of young and middle-aged women suffer from a form of sexual dysfunction, along with around half of older women. 

It is worth noting that the symptoms of Female Sexual Dysfunction are not necessarily problems unless the person feels it is affecting their happiness. We all have different sex drives, levels of sexual response and sexual preferences, so there is a danger of medicalising something that is just one person’s norm. 

For me it affected my happiness and the relationships I was in. The most challenging thing was communicating with my sexual partners. Some saw me as a challenge, a sexual puzzle they wanted to fix.

Even friends who I confided in would suddenly proposition me believing they had the ‘magic penis’ to fix my vaginal woes. 

In between the lack of support from doctors and trying to communicate with partners, I felt very isolated. The internet offered frightening and drastic solutions, and friends spoke of come-every-time-every-night-sex, which sounded so distant from my own experience. 

The important thing is to know that you are not alone in these problems. The more I started speaking about my experience, the more I realised how many people suffer from these things.

For many with sexual difficulties — and their partners — there is not enough support out there. Plus, there’s what feels like an enormous taboo in even discussing it. I ended up writing a show, Ad Libido, about my own struggles with enjoying sex, to help start the conversation and break some of those taboos.

I wish I could say after all this time that I have entirely ‘fixed sex’. I haven’t. However, I have learnt a few things that have helped me along the way. Every vagina is different and every sexual experience is different, so it is important to find what works for you. For me, some things that help are:

  1. Knowing what I like and being able to communicate this. There are some days I’d much rather have my ears kissed than try penetrative sex, but I’ve only recently been brave enough to voice this. It is okay to ask for the things you enjoy and often a great turn on.
  2. Having an understanding partner. Whether it is long term or casual, someone you can talk to and trust makes talking about pain/low arousal easier in my experience.
  3. Spending time with my body. I find anything that connects me to my body and makes it not feel like my enemy is useful. Dance, run, masturbate, trampoline, kickbox, meditate; whatever works for you.
  4. Taking breaks from penetration. Sex is not just penetration. Most people with a vulva need direct clitoral stimulation to orgasm, so don’t put all your pressure on penetration.
  5. Relaxing. Easier said than done, I know, but as soon as I’m worrying about sex or worrying about anything or even just hungry, then my body gets distracted and just shuts off.  
  6. Using lube. I used to get embarrassed turning up with lube; it felt an admission of failure before sex had even begun. Vaginas can feel dry for all sorts of reasons, even from taking hay fever medication, so lube can just help take the pressure off.
  7. Understanding that there is no such thing as normal sex (as long as it’s consensual). Try to not compare your sex life to that of your friends or the media. Explore the things you like and take them at your own pace. 

Fran Bushe is an award-winning writer, comedian and performer. You can read an excerpt from her book My Broken Vagina, find out more about her work on her website and follow her on Twitter here.

*’Female sexual dysfunction’ is a term that has been widely used, however it is language we are moving away from. Whatever you call it, pain during sex is not something you have to put up with, and you can seek support. You can find out more on our page ‘Painful sex’.

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