Doctors debate dyspareunia part 3: Pain’s validity, con’t

08/24/2011 at 9:44 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments
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[We’re picking up this post directly where the last one left off, because it was getting too long. If you’re just joining us, we’re in the middle of a conversation about whether doctors think painful sex is best looked at as a pain problem or as a sex problem. Read part 1 here, and part 2 there. Stay tuned for the thrilling conclusion!]

In her response to Dr. Binik’s original article, Dr. Tiefer then goes on to acknowledge that dyspareunia is a surprisingly common experience. Dr. Tiefer says that sexual pain is deeply important to the feminist community: 

Beyond womens’ lack of sexual satisfaction or lack of orgasms, the common experience of pain during intercourse or vaginal penetration lies at the heart of the feminist critique of patriarchal sexual relations (e.g., Boston Women’s Health Collective, 1998, pp. 256-257) (51.)

*record scratch sound*

The heart of feminist critique of patriarchal sexual relations?

think in her citation, Dr. Tiefer is referring to an old version of Our Bodies, Ourselves. That’s The-capital-T Feminist Health Text Book put out every few years by the Boston Women’s Health Collective. It comes in different flavors, like one version for menopause and another for pregnancy, so I’m not certain which OBOS she’s referring to.

But…

Let me put it to you this way: I don’t know what’s on those two pages cited by Dr. Tiefer, because I no longer have a copy of OBOS. During my major life upheaval, I left it behind because it didn’t have anywhere near enough information on sexual pain. I remember about one page on vulvodynia, and there was a little bit about FSD in general – citing Dr. Tiefer’s work, in fact.
I was so disappointed at seeing little about sexual pain relative to chapters about pregnancy, sexuality, abortion, and other human rights issues, that I dumped OBOS. The Boston Women’s Health Collective let me down. I turned to other books, not specifically feminist ones, for more comprehensive information.

I don’t think there’s much support to the claim that vaginal or sexual pain lies at the heart of feminist critiques of patriarchal sex. Perhaps it’s just that feminist perspectives of patriarchial sex are a tiny niche, and so small that I miss them when scanning with my naked eye. After all, I often see feminist critiques of sex and sexuality generally, or I see critiques of patriarchal sex and rape culture that do not explicitly address the existence of unwanted physical pain.

But feminist perspectives on painful sex specifically are hard to find. I seek essays about vaginismus & vulvodynia in feminist-oriented traditional printed media on purpose. I have only just barely scratched the surface of a large feminist library, but it’s still pretty rare for me to find much about dyspareunia.
Online, I recall Twisty Faster’s post about vaginismus from a few years ago as a feminist perspective on patriarchial sex and a painful sexual problem – and even then, her post was more about treatment than about the experience of vaginismus itself. Every once in awhile I’ll find posts about sexual and genital pain on popular feminist sites, and I am eternally grateful when I receive guest posts that address the subject here. But big social justice & feminist sites have to keep up with all the other social-justice news too, and the pain posts get buried after awhile.

So to say that pain with sex or vaginal insertion lies at the heart of feminist critique of patriarchal sex is an exaggeration at best and bullshit at worst. It’s not there, not at the heart. It’s off to the side, maybe; on a good day you can see it poking out. Then it sees its shadow and bolts for another few months before making another appearance.

Anyway, back to the article. Dr. Tiefer then talks about how feminist sexologists have emphasized downplaying the centrality of penis-in-vagina intercourse as the end-all, beat-all form of sex – Dr. Marty Klein wrote an entire book about this, in fact. And then there’s a mention that sexual pain is implicitly (but for some reason not explicitly) covered by the World Association of Sexology’s Declaration of Sexual Rights (51.) For the record, I think the declaration document linked to in Dr. Tiefer’s original response has been updated since 2005. The URL changed to something else sometime in the last few years and the phrase “Sexual pain” does in fact appear in the body of the text (once.)

Towards the end of her response, Dr. Tiefer states that dyspareunia falls under the New View’s definition of a “Sexual problem,” whereas Dr. Binik’s view is that there is no special type of pain that applies only to sexual situations. (For example, in Dr. Binik’s view, vulvar vestibulitis is a primarily a pain problem rather than a sex problem, because you get the same pain during sex as you get during a routine gynecological exam.) According to Dr. Tiefer, even if sexual dysfunction as we know it were to be redefined or dropped from the DSM classification system altogether, pain during sex would still remain primarily a sexual problem that can be looked at from a social construction perspective –

We recommend that professional nomenclature dispense with the idea of norms and deviance… and move to a model wherein sexuality was viewed as a cultural construct and individuals could have various subjective or performance problems. Thus, sexual pain would be like swimming pain or swimming phobia, a problem that a person had with a desired behavior, not with some universal capacity (51, emphasis mine.)

Wait, what? “Swimming pain?” “Swimming phobia?”

Ironically I think comparing sexual pain to swimming pain strengthens Dr. Binik’s argument in favor of reclassifying dyspareunia as a pain condition – is there a special type of pain that kicks in only when swimming? Seriously, I’m asking because I’m not a doctor and I don’t know.

Swimming pain a vague term – are we referring to the pain of a muscle cramp, a broken limb, skin irritation from an over chlorinated pool, or swimmer’s ear? Plus, swimming doesn’t carry around the same gender, consent and relationship issues that sex does. (We could make an argument that swimming does carry performance issues, I suppose, especially when done professionally or in athletic competitions – but even then, I don’t think I’ve ever seen swimming activity stigmatized the same way I’ve seen sexual activity get turned into a problem in and of itself.)

I find the comparison of sexual pain to swimming phobia to be the more problematic half of Dr. Tiefer’s statement. I’ve come a long way from the time when I had a lot of fears and anxiety about sex. Somewhere along the line while puzzling sex out (and maybe while blogging about it,) some of the old fears started to slough & flake off. And at this point, It is no longer the act of sex that I fear. It’s the pain that I have come to expect if I try to engage in sex. So some folks who have experienced painful sex do have, or go on to develop, fear of sexual activity in and of itself. But now, years later, I’m still dealing with dyspareunia over here, not erotophobia or genophobia. I’m concerned that conflating sexual pain with sexual phobia will only complicate getting pain patients the comprehensive treatments they need the most.

Dr. Tiefer’s choice of words here was probably deliberate. This isn’t the first time she has compared avoiding sex and avoiding swimming:

Who’s to say, for example, that absence of interest in sex is abnormal according to the clinical definition? What sickness befalls the person who avoids sex? What disability? Clearly, such a person misses a life experience that some people value very highly and most value at least somewhat, but is avoiding sex “unhealthy” in the same way that avoiding protein is? Avoiding sex seems more akin to avoiding travel or avoiding swimming or avoiding invsetments in anything riskier than savings accounts – it’s not trendy, but it’s not sick, is it? (Sex is not a Natural Act, location 243).

Yet if a patient avoids sex due to dyspareunia, in that case it seems to be acceptable to view the avoidance as part of the sexual dysfunction that is painful sex. This is all very contradictory and confusing to me.

Dr. Tiefer ends her response to Dr. Binik by summarizing her position on the reclassification of dyspareunia: “As long as there are expert-based listings of sexual dysfunctions, we do women a disservice by failing to include pain as one of them,” but ideally she’d prefer to see classifications based on arbitrary norms dropped altogether (51.)

And that’s the way Dr. Tiefer’s response to Dr. Binik ends.

I find it disturbing that in spite of the New View’s probing explorations about how sexual dysfunction is arbitrarily defined in the DSM, in this response Dr. Tiefer felt it appropriate to make an artibrary decision about how to look at dyspareunia. Whereas in the past she has questioned whether or not disorders of desire and orgasm are truly a form of illness or disability, here, she made the unequivocal decision that sexual pain is in fact a sexual dysfunction.

I don’t know what to make of this contrast between Dr. Tiefer’s previous work and this article. Low sexual desire is not a disease… but feeling sexual pain is.
You are not sick if you can’t have an orgasm… but if your crotch hurts, then of course there’s something wrong with you. It’s normal and acceptable to go through periods of low sexual interest, especially if you’re tired… but if sex hurts, then that is not normal.

On the one hand, it makes some sense to me. Statistically, most people do not experience sexual pain – at least, not chronically, and not without some reason. In terms of raw numbers, it certainly is unusual to feel pain with most or every sexual encounter. And for me, personally, after careful consideration I view the pain I have as a sexual dysfunction.

But on the other hand, here I see a one-sided judgement about how normal my experience is, and by extension, how normal I may or may not be. If dyspareunia is recognized as a sexual dysfunction, then that’s an abnormality, isn’t it? So then, am I abnormal too? If so, what exactly am I supposed to do about it? Do I even have to do anything? What does it mean to have a feminist organization ask questions like, “Where are the women” in discussions of sexual dysfunction – and then have one leader of the organization declare what’s going on with women who have a certain type of sexual problem, without their feedback first? Where are the women, indeed – where are the women with sexual dysfunction when the doctors debate back and forth with each other?

When do the women with sexual dysfunction get a say? Dr. Tiefer does not speak for me; and I represent no one but myself.

By focusing on language, there are several dyspareunia issues Dr. Tiefer didn’t address. Practical questions like, if dyspareunia remains a sexual dysfunction, what treatments are appropriate to address it? Given the her criticism of the role of Big Pharma in marketing brand-name medications for other sexual problems, is it acceptable to offer oral pain medication as a treatment for this sexual problem? Or are pain medications and devices for sexual problems to be viewed as yet another tendril of dangerous, Big Bad Pharma? Is it appropriate to look at sexual pain as a relationship problem that exists only when trying to engage in partnered sexual activity, or is it a health problem in and of itself that exists independently of relationship status?

And it’s still not entirely clear to me which class of doctor Dr. Tiefer feels is best suited to handle complaints of sexual pain – If sexual pain is in the DSM, which various health professionals use, then does that make sexual pain a medical problem? Who should address it, medical doctors? Sexologists? Psychologists?

I don’t have the answers to these questions. I’m interested in the answers though, because in the end, I am someone directly effected by the decision makers. Ultimately it’s my health at stake in this debate. The decision of who is best equipped to address sexual pain will impact who I must seek out for assistance, what kind of help I can expect to receive, and how soon I can expect to see results, and how satisfactory results will be measured. It’s not an understatement to say that my future lies in their hands.

The debate about sexual pain didn’t end with Dr. Tiefer’s response, nor did it end with the other 20 or so articles generated by Dr. Binik’s 2005 discussion. Eventually Dr. Binik wrote up a conclusion in which he acknowledged & evaluated each reply. But an evaluation of his final answer on what to do about dyspareunia will have to wait until next time.

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  1. […] To catch up with this blog’s review of the debate, read part 1 here, part 2 there, and part 3 […]

  2. […] detailed look at that journal article/editorial/reply by Dr. Tiefer I’m always linking to. 6. Doctors debate dyspareunia part 3: Pain’s validity, con’t: We finish looking at Dr. Tiefer’s response in the debate about wtf to do with sexual pain. 7. […]


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