Tags: academia, communication, disability, experts, female sexual dysfunction, FSD, health, language, medicine, pain, psychology, sex, sexual dysfunction, sexual health, vulvar vestibulitis
No one knows what to do with sexual pain.
If you have experienced long term sexual and/or genital pain, you’ve probably seen multiple doctors about it. You may have started with a general practitioner, who referred you to a gynecologist or urologist, who referred you to a sex therapist, who referred you to a pain specialist. There may have even been a dermatologist or psychatrist in there somewhere. And you may have noticed that each of these professions have their own ideas (or lack thereof) about how to best handle the situation. When getting refered to yet another doctor, you’re getting clued into who your current caregiver thinks is likely to have the most knowledge about treatments. (Of course, this assumes you have the health insurance and cash to cover medical treatments.)
But having been through the doctor shuffle already, I have come to the conclusion that no one really knows what to do with sexual pain.
Part of the reason chronic pelvic pain patients get bounced around so much is that, behind the scenes, doctors themselves are still debating how best to handle sexual and genital pain. Are we dealing with a chronic pain syndrome akin to something like back or neck pain? Or are we dealing with something purely sexual? A gynecologist may feel inadequately prepared to deal with long-term genital pain that doesn’t resolve following standard operating procedures. But when the pain takes place mostly during, or most acutely, during sexual activity, a pain specialist may think the problem is purely sexual – and some pain specialists may feel uncomfortable addressing unwanted pain during sex. Sexual dysfunction as we in the US know it is a relatively new and highly controversial area of study. And it will take time for doctors, scientists and philosophers to sort out the defining characteristics and treatments of dysfunction – if indeed such standards can ever be decided. It is the nature of science and medicine to go through revisions and changes.
I just wish these doctors and professionals would make up their minds already about which one of them I’m supposed to go to for treatment.
One such behind-the-scenes debate about the appropriate way to address sexual pain took place in early 2005, when Dr. Yitzchak M. Binik, Ph.D. wrote in to the peer-reviewed journal, Archives of Sexual Behavior. You can view an abstract of Dr. Binik’s piece, Should dyspareunia be retained as a sexual dysfunction in DSM-V? A painful classification decision here. If you want to learn more, you can view the full text on Dr. Binik’s website. (I can’t determine if what we’re going to look at today is considered an editorial piece, a study or a research review.)
So who is this guy? Dr. Binik is the director of Sex & Couple Therapy Service up at McGill University Hospital in Canada. He was one of the contributors to the textbook, Female Sexual Pain Disorders, (wrote the foreword) and he has written many articles about dyspareunia. According to his website, he’s also been involved with research on painful sex – there are three grant-funded projects listed as of 2011. But wait, there’s more – his whole resume is up for perusal.
At the time of Dr. Binik’s submission to the Archives of Sexual Behavior, dyspareunia (painful sex – usually when professionals say it, they mean “Cis-heterosexual intercourse,”) was classified as one of the four female sexual dysfunctions then-recognized by the DSM-IV. (The DSM-IV is the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – basically it establishes guidelines for recognizing and treating various mental illnesses and disabilities. Professionals that rely on the DSM include psychologists and medical doctors. As of today a fifth revision to the manual is pending.) The other three sexual dysfunctions recognized by the text are arousal, libido and orgasm problems. Until then, there was not much debate among professionals who deal with dyspareunia about how appropriate its classification as a sexual dysfunction is.
Dr. Binik set out to challenge the classification of dyspareunia, with the goal of shifting it out of the sexual dysfunctions and into the pain category of mental disorders in the DSM. Reclassification of dyspareunia as a pain disorder instead of a sexual dysfunction would not remove it from the DSM completely – it would just move the problem around and give it a different name, grouping dyspareunia with any other pain while recognizing non-sexual pain in the crotch – such as the pain of a gynecological exam or attempted tampon insertion.
In Binik’s discussion of the history behind the term, “Dyspareunia,” he makes it sound like sexual pain was pretty much just thrown in with the other dysfunctions for lack of any better ideas at the time. But painful sex presents some unique problems compared to the other three sexual dysfunctions – after all, sexual pain frequently bleeds out into non-sexual areas of life. He talks about the differences between pain during sex (an act) vs. arousal or desire dysfunctions (physiological reactions,) and how dyspareunia is a broad term – to Binik, its breadth is a weakness instead of a strength.
There are several sexual dysfunction issues that Binik didn’t explore, and these omissions mean something. He did not challenge or question the existence or appropriateness of the term “Dysfunction” for any other sexual problem. He excluded a discussion of vaginismus, though this may be because vaginismus isn’t technically a dyspaerunia issue in the current DSM for some reason. (I’m not yet 100% clear on what the reason is for vaginismus to sit on it’s own tier of dysfunction; I think the folks behind the DSM fixated on how it prevents vaginal insertion of objects as the main feature, instead of the pain associated with attempts at insertion. This distinction is likely to change with the DSM-V.)
As examples to bolster his reclassification argument, Binik focuses almost exclusively on vulvar vestibulitis (VVS) patients – so he’s talking about people like me. Binik did not talk about dyspaerunia and endometriosis, or dyspareunia and interstitial cystitis, or dyspareunia and cancer. For this discussion, dyspareunia and VVS are used almost interchangeably… even though VVS is not the only cause and kind of painful sex.
I summarize Binik’s main agruments to move dyspareunia out of the sexual dysfuctions and into pain as:
1. Dyspareunia is similar to any other pain in self reports. Genital pain is similar to other pain conditions when visualized using brain scans (pages 14, 16.)
2. There’s more research on pain. “By contrast, there is a relatively large literature onhow pain is represented in the brain (Casey & Bushnell,2000; Talbot et al., 1991).” (page 16.) So there’s more material to work with.
3. Treatment plans for sexual dysfunction don’t usually include pain management. If professionals take a pain perspective of dyspareunia, it opens up more complementary treatment options. That means potentially better outcomes for patients (page 18.)
(Unfortunately, Dr. Binik doesn’t address this – it also means more anxiety about seeking treatment in the first place, since pain management can include oral medications – and certain feminist anti-FSD activists in particular and bootstrapists in general dedicate extensive resources to opposing medication for sexual and health problems. Just think of all those sensationalist news stories about celebrities becoming addicted to pain pills.)
4. Socially, pain is a more dignified, less controversial subject than sex – “Finally, as a seeker of research funding, I have noted that there have been several recent new governmental funding initiatives for pain related to dyspareunia (see National Institute of ChildHealth and Development, 2000). As far as I know, this is not being matched in the sexuality area where funding is constantly under attack” (page 19.) This is an unfortunate reflection of how sexual issues are downplayed and sneered at by the public. It’s just easier to get funding, research and respect if you’re exploring pain than it is if you’re exploring sex.
Judging from the passionate responses included with the same issue of Archives of Sexual Behavior, Binik’s article was quite controversial at the time. There were at least 21 responses, plus however many other e-mails and memos were written up and sent around but didn’t get published. Eventually Binik wrote a follow-up statement in response to professional criticism, which I’d like to look at with you later.
My biggest schtick with Binik’s article and the responses is: I honestly don’t get why this has to be an either/or question.
I’m saying this as a patient: This isn’t a simple either-or issue. Dyspareunia isn’t something that fits neatly into a single box. Try to stick it in the sex box, and the pain stuff will still leak out into every day life. Try to place it exclusively in the pain box, and sexual problems will jump in. You can have pain AND another sexual dysfunction, like problems with arousal or orgasm.
If you ask me, pain in the genitals should be recognized as both a pain and sexual problem. For some patients, it may very well fit neatly into only one category. But whatever professional field is assigned as having the final say on the best way to treat dyspareunia – you need to be prepared to go outside of your own comfort zone, in order to bring me the comfort I need.
Unfortunately my perspective as a patient isn’t given much value. Just the location of publication presents a problem – the insular nature of being part of a peer-reviewed journal itself acts like a firewall to keep out non-professionals and non-academics. Which means ordinary folks probably don’t even get a chance to find out when debates like this happen, and we probably won’t be solicited for feedback. These debates excluded most women with FSD from participating.
It’s a bummer, too, since I got more to say about this article, which I’ll spell out here instead.
A major weakness of Binik’s argument and one that Binik had to address in a later, separate response, is that he did not really consider the sexual part of sexual pain.
Like it or not, pain in the genitals takes on a different meaning than pain in the arm or neck. And no it’s not fair, I think it sucks that it is socially unacceptable to say, “My vulva/penis/clitoris hurts today.” Not that its easy to talk about chronic pain to begin with though! Non-sexual, non-genital pain still gets heaps of stigma and able-bodied folks going, “Deal with it.” But right now, in the US at least, genitals are all tied up with issues of gender, identity and performance. So looking at dyspareunia exclusively as a pain problem won’t address the ways in which pain can impact sexuality. Even if the pain resolves satisfactorily, dyspareunia patients may still have to deal with long-term insecurity and body memories. If other dysfunctions like difficulty or loss of orgasm have gotten tied in with the pain, then those non-painful problems may not resolve at the same time as pain. To ignore the sexual component of genital pain, to the extent that it is present, is inadequate.
ON THE OTHER HAND, for some folks, skipping the sex part and addressing the pain is exactly what’s needed. This was actually more the case for me – what I needed the most when I went through the most intense period of genital pain and treatment wasn’t sex therapy or a better understanding of social construction. Gender roles and patriarchy, as much as they do hinder me in many other ways, did not reach inside of my body and cause my cells to rebel. What I needed most was something to address the physical pain and discomfort.
That urgent need is lessened now, but it’s not completely gone and it will probably never go away completely. So I remain open to medicine in my sex life now and in the future.
Now, of all the people who wrote in, who do you think would have been the most likely to agree that dyspareunia should not be classified as a sexual dysfunction? I’ll give you a hint: After all, sexual dysfunction is a controversial term – part of the resistance against it stems from concern that the medical industry will throw around the term to convince able-bodied women that they have physical problems, thus increasing sales of medications and devices to address it. Who’s to say whether a libido is low in the first place, and how exactly are we supposed to measure such a subjective experience?
So I was shocked, absolutely shocked, to see Dr. Leonore Tiefer, Ph.D., organizer behind The New View Campaign, sex therapist, educator, author and editor, write a negative response to Dr. Binik’s proposition. You may remember Dr. Tiefer from such posts as a 5-part series on Sex is not a Natural Act and A Review of A New View of Women’s Sexuality. You may also recognize her name from prolific writing on feminism, social construction and female sexual dysfunction. Dr. Tiefer is a critic of female sexual dysfunction, particularly the way it is handled by organizers of the DSM and its end-users (the end users being doctors and other professionals.)
So if, in other cases, Dr. Tiefer supports the view that female sexual dysfunction is a myth manufactured by medicine (even if she herself is careful to avoid using that exact phrasing,) then what’s she doing getting involved with the reality of dyspareunia?
To be continued…
Tags: pain, reviews, sex education, Sexuality, TMI
(Not into product reviews? Consider this a warm-up before we get to the juicy stuff, as I’ve been out of practice with writing for awhile.)
My partner and I have a love/hate relationship with the Pinwheel, a medical-device-turned-sex-toy.
That is to say, I love it and my partner hates it.
[Description: A silver device with a long, thin handle resting on white cloth. A circle is attached to one end. There are something like 20+ thin, sharp points, each equal length, sticking out from the circle.]
What we’re looking at today is the Pinwheel, which some of you may recognize for what it really is: A Wartenberg wheel. The Wartenberg wheel is a medical device originally designed to test nerve response. It was developed by Robert Wartenberg, a doctor specializing in neurology, who practiced in Germany until he fled to the US in response to persecution by the Nazis. Wartenberg syndrome, a pain condition, is named after his work.
I don’t know if the Wartenberg wheel is still used in clinical practice, as most of the google results for a it point to the device’s use in kink and BDSM activities instead. Somewhere along the line, someone figured out that using the spiky wheel on yourself or on a partner could feel good in and of itself – at least outside of a clinical setting. Nonetheless, because of its original intended use, some readers here may not want to incorporate this into their sex lives – it may have too clinical of a feel, and it has the potential to be genuinely painful.
How and why would one go about incorporating something so sinister looking into their sex life? According to Babeland, it’s a sensation toy. I don’t 100% know what that means, but a label like sensation toy seems to indicate that, what you’re using is supposed to introduce new physical feelings – touch that you or your partner don’t usually feel, like sharpness instead of softness, metal instead of flesh, cold instead of warmth, and so on. It’s to add variety rather than to speed up orgasm. For example, I like to incorporate it into massage with my partner, though this can break a deep state of relaxation.
Now there is one problem with my Pinwheel:
[Description: A close up of the wheeled spike circle on the end of the pinwheel's handle. There are clearly some prongs all bent out of shape at the very tips.]
I think mine’s broken, and I’m not sure if it got messed up during shipping or if it got all bent out of shape the first time I was taking it out of the packaging. Either way it was like that when it got here.
In practice, the 3 bent prongs don’t seem to make much of a difference. The points are small enough so that I can’t tell the difference when my partner rolls the bent part over me. But the bent parts have gotten stuck on my hair, so it could be a problem. And the bent parts take away from the device’s aesthetic – it doesn’t look pretty and I find the bent parts distracting. So sooner or later, I’m going to need to replace it.
In other words, if you decide you’re interested in such a wheel, don’t pick one out if you notice any problems with it. Hold out for a nice new one. Once you have one, handle with care – the Pinwheel is more fragile than it looks.
It makes some noise. Because it is made of metal, and the wheel has to be free to move, the device jangles around when you pick it up. Once I recognized the sound it made, my partner was no longer able to sneak up on me with it – I could hear the metallic parts clinking together.
It’s lightweight, especially if you can hold the entire handle in your hand. It could become tiring to hold if you can’t get a good grip on it, or if you have to hold it from only the very bottom of the handle.
When rolled over skin, the metal points will leave little red dots behind in a long unbroken trail; how long it takes for these marks to fade will depend on your own biology. The sensation is difficult to describe – have you ever just barely noticed the feeling of an insect crawling on your skin? If you look down at your arm or hand, yep, there’s a critter on there alright – and at this point you (I) usually kick or flick it off. To me, a light touch with the Pinwheel feels like that, minus the gross-out realization of “Ew there’s a bug on me!” Medium and heavier touches feel much more intense and surprisingly widespread. The wheel may be rolling over only a small part of one of my limbs, but the feeling and muscle tension reaction will spread all the way down the limb.
When my partner uses it on me it makes my muscles tense up involuntarily until the stimulation stops. I’m not sure if this is good or bad for me, since those muscle contractions include my pelvic floor, and my pelvic floor is already messed up as it is – what that means is I can’t decide whether or not it would interfere with Kegels. Heavier touches on healthy skin border on pain but so far do not cross the threshold into actual pain.
So although I enjoy it, in contrast, when I tried it out on my partner, it didn’t go over so well. The spikes produced a lot of skin welts, a little red pinprick of blood, his wriggling away and finally, after a few generous attempts and “I don’t know if I like it yet,” a final “No more I’m done I hate it.” He is still willing to use it on me at my request, but he does not understand why I like it. I don’t have an answer. But clearly this is not the right toy for him.
It’s relatively inexpensive, though the price can vary widely – between $4 – $20, depending on where you buy it from. A Pinwheel from Babeland (which is where I got mine from) will set you back $20, but you can get the same thing for less through Amazon (this might be a more innocuous option if you share your computer with someone who would not appreciate navigating it towards adult-themed sites.) Supposedly there are expensive versions which are more geared towards medical use in a professional setting, though I did not find them during a cursory search.
I do have some caveats before you rush out and pick one up. It broke my partner’s skin, so there’s a risk it could break yours, too – watch out for bodily fluids. It’s stainless steel and it can be cleaned, but most of us probably don’t have the means at home to truly sterilize a medical instrument to medical standards. My partner doesn’t like the ticklish sensation it produces, so if you dislike light touches it may be too uncomfortable. It has the potential to be painful as well, and so if you are sensitive to touch it might not be the right toy for you.
As with all reviews posted on Feminists with FSD so far, I had to pay for this out of pocket with my own money, and I don’t get any compensation out of posting this.
Tags: accessibility, bladder, disability, health, interstitial cystitis, medicine, pain
Disclaimer: This post should not be taken as a comprehensive overview of interstitial cystitis, and it isn’t medical advice & isn’t meant to diagnose or treat any disease. There are a lot better resources for IC than this blog, if more information is what you’re looking for.
What I know about interstitial cystitis -
Interstitial cystitis (IC) is a condition that causes discomfort or pain in the bladder and abdomen. It is far more common in women than in men. The symptoms vary from case to case. Some people have an urgent or frequent need to urinate. Women’s symptoms often get worse during their periods. They may also have pain with sexual intercourse. [More @ the link.]
From the Interstitial Cystitis Association:
Interstitial cystitis (in-ter-stish-uhl sĭ-stī’tĭs), or as we call it, IC, is a bladder condition that usually consists of multiple symptoms. Most IC patients have recurring pelvic pain, pressure, or discomfort in the bladder and pelvic region, and urinary frequency (needing to go often) and urgency (feeling a strong need to go). [Click link for more.]
From the Interstitial Cystitis Network:
Interstitial cystitis (IC), also known as bladder pain syndrome (BPS), painful bladder syndrome (PBS) or hypersensitive bladder syndrome (HBS), is a condition that results in “an unpleasant sensation (pain, pressure, discomfort) perceived to be related to the urinary bladder, associated with lower urinary tract symptoms of more than 6 weeks duration, in the absence of infection or other identifiable causes.” (2009 New American IC/BPS Guidelines).The symptoms can vary greatly between individuals and even for the same person throughout the month, including an urgent need to urinate (urgency), a frequent need to urinate (frequency) and, for some, pressure and/or pelvic pain. People with severe cases of IC/PBS may urinate as many as 60 times a day, including frequent nighttime urination (nocturia). [Go to main site for more.]
So why am I bringing this up now?
I recently went through a life change which I remain evasive about describing. What you need to know is that this change has put me in a position where I have to face the fact that my own urinary habits are causing significant problems for me and my loved ones.
My urinary frequency and urgency is not normal. We’re talking, using the bathroom upwards of 10, 20, 30 times per day, and anywhere from 2-10 times per night. On bad days I may have to use the restroom multiple times per hour.
I do not have urinary incontinence – I just have to go, now. In fact, excuse me —
— *ah* much better… For awhile…
Now seeing as this is a health problem connected in some way with my urogenital tract, unfortunately I suppose I need to pre-empt the ubiquitous question, “Have you considered the possibility that it’s normal for you??? How would you know???” with a response of, “Yes I suppose peeing excessively is normal for me, but it’s certainly unusual enough so that I’ll clearly stand out in comparison to the majority of people. Furthermore based on what I’ve gone through already, you don’t want to be out on the town with me and I don’t want to be with you because you will lose your patience after a few rest stops.”
I don’t know anyone else in meatspace who experiences urinary urgency and frequency to the degree that I do. I think it’s time to investigate the possibility of interstitial cystitis and similar conditions on top of my other pelvic problems.
For me urinary frequency and urgency is a long-term problem. Growing up, my parents and teachers disciplined me for using the bathroom so frequently, which just made things worse and pushed me further into denial. As I grew up, it just never got any better. When I was getting physical therapy for the pelvic floor dysfunction though, the urinary symptoms improved a little.
When you have urinary frequency and urgency, it can be a red flag a couple of other chronic conditions, like diabetes. Diabetes hasn’t been ruled out or looked into. But I’m not sure it’s even worth looking into, since I don’t have most of the risk factors and symptoms of diabetes. Another possibility I should rule out is thyroid problems, which are also associated with frequent urination – though again, I don’t meet most of the risk factors or symptoms for hypo- or hyperthyroidism. (At least, I don’t meet the criteria yet – I do have a family history of thyroid disease so I need to be alert for that down the line.)
But I do have co-existing pelvic floor problems… it just seems like too much to be a coincidence. Maybe I should look at related pelvic problems instead.
According to popular IC resources, I have more of the symptoms for IC than I do symptoms for diabetes or thyroid conditions. Other chronic condition (vulvodynia (and vaginismus/PFD)) – check. Chronic urinary frequency & urgency – check. Symptoms worse before period – check. Sexual pain – check.
A complication folks with IC may face – Disruption of social life – check. When I know I’m going to be in transit for a prolonged period of time, I have to consider the availability of a rest stop. If I don’t expect to find one, I have to strictly limit my fluid intake – or else not go out. I have missed out on some social interactions because I knew that I wasn’t going to be able to control my urinary urgency – and I was afraid of the physical discomfort or being made fun of for it.
I’m at the point now where I can’t eat or drink anything for breakfast at home if I know I’m going to be out and about a little later. Because the food & drink I like will make me pee. Repeatedly. The morning commute isn’t long; however, there aren’t many rest stops along the way. Stopping to use one of the few facilities will disrupt the commute to the point where stopping isn’t worth it. The city where I live is relatively accessible for people with mobility disabilities – but significantly less accessible for people with bladder problems. (I can’t help but notice that the nearest IC support group is located in a smaller town outside the main city.) Everywhere I go there are signs posted in windows that say “No public restrooms” “No restrooms” etc. And the publicly available restrooms are spaced far apart, often with limited hours. Most shop keepers let you use the rest room if you are a customer – but even then the facilities are often kept under lock & key. And so far since the life change kicked in, I have been to one business that flat-out refused to let me use the restroom during an emergency – even though I was a customer. Since that event, I reviewed restroom tips on the IC help site, downloaded some recommended bathroom finder apps to my mobile device and watched a helpful YouTube video about travel tips for folks with IC, (no transcript) hoping to get advice on how to deal with too much pee.
The challenge is that I don’t have one of the most commonly reported symptoms of IC – pain.
The only times I’ve had pain with urination have been when I had an actual urinary tract infection. There have been only a handful of times when I’ve had bladder pain – all of these times happened when I was in transit somewhere and whoever was doing the driving could not or (or in some genuinely malicious cases, would not,) find a place to stop and go. I know what bladder spasms feel like.
I feel pressure when I have to urinate… discomfort… but it’s only crossed the line into pain a few times, usually for reasons I could pin down.
So without this important symptom, pain, I don’t have as much of a motivation to go to the doctor to seek a diagnosis in the first place. Even though I know there is not one way that all people with IC act, even though I know that symptoms vary from person to person, I still have this uneasiness about even entertaining the possibility of IC. It’s denial – how dare I consider possibility that I have a chronic health condition; it’s not really that bad, right? Then comes the internalized messages from my teachers and family, that it’s all in my head; I just think I have to pee.
Still, without the pain symptom, I don’t know if I would meet the criteria for IC. I might have something else like overactive bladder. Or I could just chalk the urinary problems up to my piece of shit pelvic floor. (Or maybe my teachers were right and it really is all in my head and I just think I have to pee and all I really need is discipline. At age almost 30 *rolls eyes* Or maybe I’m just one of those people with a “Small bladder.” You know, just like how lots of folks with vaginismus have a “Small vagina.” Not really, most of the time. It can happen, but it’s fairly rare.)
The other problem is I am absolutely terrified of some of the tests usually used to diagnose IC. The cystoscope, in particular, makes me want to crawl into a hole and never come out until the doctor goes away. (Except that I’ll eventually have to come out, because I will have to pee.) There are other, less invasive tests and procedures that can be used to diagnose or rule out IC, so I may be able to find something I’m comfortable with, eventually.
But even if I do investigate IC and get some kind of diagnosis, whether with IC or another health problem, there may not be much I can do about it. As with vulvodynia, there are treatments but no real cure for IC. It’s another long-term, chronic condition, so if I have it, realistically I’ll just manage it on my own with some non-invasive lifestyle & diet changes or with some medical tools. Likewise with diabetes, thyroid disease or overactive bladder. After almost 30 years like this, I it’s hard to imagine ever not having to pee at any given moment.
So I am not saying that I have IC. I don’t know. I have something I need help with and need to investigate further. And providing some links for reference – yours & mine. It has been going on for awhile, but I was able to ignore it until now. I can do so no longer.
Tags: experts, female sexual dysfunction, FSD, guest post, health, medicine, pain, pelvic floor dysfunction, relationships, sex, sexual dysfunction, sexual health, vaginismus
[Dear internet, we have a guest poster today! The following was written by Elaine F. Bayless:
Elaine F. Bayless is an author and pastor who lives in Raleigh, NC. She is currently working on a memoir about her experience with pelvic floor dysfunction. After choosing to have surgery to correct her issues, she is happy to report that most of the dysfunction is resolved. She and her husband are expecting their first child in July of this year. For more information about Elaine's published work and her writing process, visit her blog http://elainefbayless.blogspot.com]
I am one of the lucky ones. I only saw three gynecologists who ignored my vaginismus. I only wasted 9 months of my marriage in therapy, convinced that my pain was psychological. My husband never forced me into sex, never punished me for my condition. It only took me six years of treatment to finally find resolution in the form of penetration concomitant with orgasm – MY orgasm.
In November 2010, Discover magazine’s column, Vital Signs, discussed an intern who missed the symptom of painful intercourse. When the doctor asked him about this symptom, he admitted that he thought all women found sex painful. This doctor was shocked to discover this attitude in an “educated” person. I’m not shocked.
Women just don’t enjoy sex that much. That’s the pervasive belief in our society. And women who do enjoy sex are often penalized. We aren’t supposed to enjoy it, after all. We are supposed to be enjoyed. We are objects, not subjects. I still remember vividly an encounter in my recent past, when I had multiple orgasms and my husband had none. I was apologetic! But he had no regrets. He simply smiled and said he was glad I enjoyed myself. He’s a true man, someone who understands that sex is a two-way activity, an encounter between two participants, not between a subject and object. How does this belief play into the diagnosis and treatment of dyspareunia? In every way. My own story serves to illustrate it.
I had my first Pap smear at age 18. I was a virgin, but irregular periods plagued me and so I wanted to go on the Pill. The exam was torture, but every year I went back. My gynecologist was unconcerned, blaming me for not relaxing. She never gave me any tips on how to relax, never suggested anything to try to make things less painful, even when I almost passed out from the pain. My gynecological history post college was sporadic. Still a virgin, I went on and off the Pill, only getting a couple of Pap smears. Each time it was excruciating. I didn’t use tampons – too painful. But I kept that a secret. My doctors assumed that I didn’t enjoy insertion because I wouldn’t relax – that it was my fault, not something beyond my control. After all, women don’t enjoy sex, why would they enjoy an exam?
Prior to my marriage, I went to a friend’s gynecologist, highly recommended. I shared with her my pain issues. I asked her specifically to determine whether there were any reason why sex would hurt (I was still a virgin). This was her chance – her opening to discuss dyspareunia with me, to talk about different causes for pain in the vagina. Surely my medical history, my fear of tampons, and my simple reaction to the exam should have clued her in. She told me to relax because there was nothing wrong with me.
Why did this doctor not even mention the possibility of actual physical conditions that could cause pain during intercourse? Why did she assume that after 11 years of pain during vaginal exams I would be able to relax? I guess she figured I would learn how to grin and bear it, like many women do.
Because of her bad advice, I went to see a therapist immediately after my honeymoon, convinced I was mentally screwed up. After all, physically I was fine, right? When my prescription for the Pill ran out, I went to see a new doctor, a nurse-practitioner who specialized in seeing rape victims. I knew she would be sympathetic. She gave me a tranquilizer to take prior to the exam. It did nothing – my blood pressure was through the roof and I winced at the moment of first contact. And that wonderful woman sat back and told me I needed to see a physical therapist.
The discovery that there actually was something physically wrong with me – that I was incapable of relaxing – that was a turning point in my entire life. I had never heard of vaginismus, vulvar vestibulitis, dysparaunia, etc. I didn’t know that walking around with a constant Kegel was abnormal. (To this day I still catch myself in “locked and loaded” position). Finally I was able to clear the self-blame and self-doubt that was tormenting me and my marriage. I had a physical problem!
I still listen to women who have bought into the lie that we don’t enjoy sex. They say that their vaginas are too small. They say that they don’t enjoy orgasm. They continue to engage in sex that is unfulfilling. I was teaching a group of high schoolers about sex and counseled them to stop having intercourse if it hurt. They all looked at me blankly and then asked why. I was horrified.
We are not sexual objects. We are sexual subjects. I am currently pregnant with my first child, a little girl. A girl conceived during pretty fantastic, orgasmic sex. (Sure, it took 6 years, 3 physical therapists, and surgery, but it was WORTH it). And one of the most important things I hope to teach her is that sex feels good. And if it doesn’t feel good, she will have to be her own advocate and work tirelessly to find the cause and the solution. I hope that the world will have changed somewhat by then – that the medical establishment will have a better understanding of sex as something that is designed to be enjoyable. For anyone.
Tags: disability, female sexual dysfunction, Feminism, FSD, guest post, health, intersectionality, media, medicine, pain, sex, sex education, sexual health, vulvar vestibulitis, vulvas, vulvodynia, women of color
This was cross-posted to Womanist Musings.
For the purposes of this post today, I will be focusing on vulvodynia; however keep in mind that there are other causes of chronic pelvic and sexual pain; likewise there are serious sexual problems besides pain which also deserve attention.
Vulvodynia is a syndrome, a collection of symptoms, centered around chronic vulvar pain, lasting longer than 3 to 6 months. Pain (commonly described as burning, stinging, stabbing, rawness and/or irritation,) may occur in the vulvar vestibule, mons, urethral opening, labia, clitoris, or elsewhere in the vulvar area. Not all instances of vulvar pain are vulvodynia, and for some women vulvar pain may resolve on its own.
Vulvodynia does not have one universal cause; some possible causes include injury, sensitivity to vulvar microorganisms (like yeast,) hormonal changes, muscular problems, etc., though for some folks the cause will remain unknown. For some women, vulvar pain is caused by pudendal neuralgia or pudendal nerve entrapment. Everyone is different, so some women experience pain all the time without provocation while others experience pain only when attempting to insert something vaginally. Likewise, for some women, it is still possible to enjoy sexual activity even with vulvodynia, while for others sex will become too painful to engage in. There are a number of treatments available for vulvodynia, but no single cure, so women with vulvar pain may have to burn through multiple doctors and treatments before finding the right one.
Who develops vulvar pain? I have seen several sources which present similar estimates as to how many women experience vulvar pain at some point during their life – at least, in the United States. According to one 1991 study, about 15% of 210 patients attending a gynecology clinic met the criteria for a diagnosis of vulvar vestibulitis. According to a 2002 release from the National Institutes of Health, about 16% of over 3,000 survey respondents reported chronic vulvar pain. (More on this figure in a bit.) The raw numbers seem to vary more; this same NIH release estimates that up to 14 million US women will experience vulvodynia at some point during their lives, whereas media coverage such as the Dr. Oz show estimate that there’s about 6 million US women currently living with vulvodynia. One thing all these studies agree on is that chronic vulvar pain, while not experienced by a majority of women, certainly isn’t rare either.
However, for a long time, I thought that women of color developed vulvar pain like vulvodynia less frequently than white women. I believed this, because I saw such statements in books, I saw it in studies, I saw it in the media and I went along with it. I realize now that I was completely and totally wrong. Vulvar and sexual pain does NOT just effect white women and in fact the rates of pelvic pain in white and nonwhite women is similar. But how many people still don’t know about vulvar pain in women of color? How many doctors and gynecologists are, like I was, under the impression that their nonwhite patients rarely experience nameable vulvar pain conditions which have treatment options available?
Here’s why I was wrong and why you too should care about women of color and chronic pelvic pain:
One of the first resources I picked up when I started looking for treatments was Dr. Howard Glazer’s The Vulvodynia Survival Guide, which is all about vulvodynia. Here’s what Glazer’s book said about vulvar pain and women of color…
“For unknown reasons, African-American women as a group are the least likely to report vulvar dysesthesia, or any other type of vulvodynia” (Glazer, 19). And “Again, Caucasian women have vestibultis [a specific, localized type of vulvar pain -K] more than any other racial group (Marinoff and Turner, 1992).” (Glazer, 23).
It goes on. In the late 1990s, early 2000s, Glazer organized a survey of women with vulvodynia though his website, vulvodynia.com, and in his book he reported that 90% of the survey respondents were Caucasian; “Less than 1 percent were of African origin” (33.) Additionally, it’s worth noting here that according to this same survey, participants’ “Socioeconomic status was higher than average; 62% reported incomes greater than $50,000″ (33,) and the majority also held “professional, managerial occupations,” and “59% had completed college” (33.) Glazer cautions, “The higher levels of socioeconomic, education, and occupation status is consistent with previous studies. Why? Unfortunately, it’s probably because educated women with access to money for medical care are the most likely to pursue the best, most sophisticated medical treatments (or at least to use the Internet” (33.)
But who is also the most likely group to be in the higher socioeconomic class and have a high level of education, and be in a better financial position to use technology and seek medical care? White people, in the US. Because of this, the design of Glazer’s study itself most likely skewed the results to exclude women of color. However, he went on to state,
Caucasian women reported more vulvar pain than any other ethnic group. African-American wome rarely report these conditions. Researchers aren’t sure why this is true, though it has been commonly observed by many of our colleagues in the International Society for the Study of Vulvovaginal Disease, who practice and teach in various medical settings where women of various races and incomes are seen. Other dark-skinned ethnic groups, such as Indians, do report chronic vulvar pain syndromes (33).
Hmmm, Glazer sure spent a lot of time driving home his point that black women don’t report vulvar pain frequently and that white women do.
But wait, there’s more. The results of an oft-cited but highly controversial, hotly contested study of sexual dysfunction in the US, Sexual Dysfunction in the United States, also stated that black and hispanic women were less likely to report dyspareunia,
The association between race and ethnicity and sexual problems is more variable. Black women tend to have higher rates of low sexual desire and experience less pleasure compared with white women, who are more likely to have sexual pain than black women. Hispanic women, in contrast, consistently report lower rates of sexual problems. (Laumann et al, online).
Additionally, media coverage of vulvar pain frequently reinforces the idea that it’s mostly white women who experience vulvar pain. Stock photos and illustrations that accompany books and articles about vulvar and sexual pain overwhelmingly feature white women. (See for examples, here, here and here – I could easily go on!) The erasure of women of color with pelvic pain and dyspareunia happens on television too, with a few exceptions; for example in 2008 the television show Oprah explicitly reached out to women of color in an e-mail requesting participants willing to talk about vulvar pain. Alas, to this day, although filming has been completed, that episode has not aired on tv. Another exception took place in 2010 on the Dr. Oz program, which ran a segment on vulvodynia. The original 8-minute segment included a guest woman of color who briefly commented on life with the pain condition (unfortunately the second half of this segment has been excised from the online video.)
However, the prevalence of vulvar pain among women of color may have been understated. The study which the NIH release above references is, A population-based assessment of chronic unexplained vulvar pain: have we underestimated the prevalence of vulvodynia? The abstract contains this critical line: “Contrary to earlier clinical assessments, white and African American women reported similar lifetime prevalences. However, Hispanic women were 80% more likely to experience chronic vulvar pain than were white and African American women” (Harlow and Stewart). Harlow & Stewart’s survey is no fluke; the WebMD article Vulvar Pain isn’t so Rare refers to a University of Michigan study published in the 2004 Journal of Lower Genital Tract Disease, “Although previous reports show the condition is rare among black women, the responses indicated that this is not the case. Black women had similar rates of vulvar pain as women of other races.” (Reed, online).
And as for Dr. Glazer’s claim that women of African descent rarely report pain outside of US settings? Even that has been challenged! In 2005, a study in the Journal of Reproductive Medicine revealed that 22.8% of women attending a general medical clinic in Ghana reported vulvar pain, which was linked to sexual dissatisfaction.
I am certain that effect of emphasizing white women’s reported rates of vulvar pain over that of women of color is silencing to this day. So what’s being done to address this revision in what caregivers should know about vulvodynia? The NVA’s fact sheet on vulvodynia now reflects that nonwhite women are just as likely as white women to develop vulvodynia. The language explicitly shows a change of perspective, from vulvodynia being thought of as primarily a Caucasian women’s issue to much broader. An NVA newsletter, Faces of Vulvodynia, included identifiable women of color like Karen, Yamalis, Amanda, Michele and Emily, who are willing to be interviewed by the media.
Unfortunately vulvodynia remains difficult to diagnose and it doesn’t help that some doctors remain ignorant of its very existence. Even doctors who do know about vulvar pain conditions may not be up do date with all the research. And doctors who are well-trained to address chronic pelvic and genital pain may be too far out of reach for many patients, both in terms of money and geographical distance. Genital and sexual pain received some media attention in 2010 but it still remains very much a taboo subject, and it is the butt of crude jokes surprisingly often. Society, guided by the long tendrils of patriarchy, pushes women to learn how to please men sexually, and so there is also pressure to perform sexual activity – even if it hurts. It shouldn’t have to be that way. And the quality of sex education is highly variable – I recall my own sex education lacked any mention of pain other than what happens when the hymen is broken.
If you or someone you love is experiencing chronic vulvar and/or sexual pain, some resources available online include the NVA in the US or the ISSVD internationally. A short list of some available treatments is available from the Mayo Clinic’s site.