Sexual Healing

For many of us, sexual dysfunction is ruining the mood. Karen van Kampen goes between the sheets to find out why

Sexual healing
For many of us, sexual dysfunction is ruining the mood.
Karen van Kampen goes between the sheets to find out why

Getting your groove on is no joke. Studies show that sex can add immeasurably to a fuller, happier life, so no one should be without some hot TLC. After all, it does a body good (and, with the right man, it does a body beautiful).
But, for many women, those romps aren’t the roll in the hay they hope for. More than one out of every three women suffers from sexual dysfunction, according to the Canadian Psychological Association. And one of the most common problems under the covers is pain during sex, known as dyspareunia.
A 2003 study by researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston found that 10 percent of women surveyed couldn’t have sex because of pain during intercourse at some point during their lives for a period of at least three months. Of the 6,000 respondents, aged 18 to 65, 16 percent reported histories of “chronic burning, knifelike” pain that lasted more than three months.
Imagine that dreadful feeling of a debilitating backache or headache. Now imagine that burning pain pulsing through your vagina. That’s dyspareunia. The pain down under sends the muscles inside your vagina into spasm. Your nether regions are officially closed for business. “It feels like your partner is running into a brick wall,” says Dr. Jennifer Blake, chief of obstetrics and gynecology at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre and Women’s College Hospital in Toronto.

Every day, Dr. Blake sees several patients who complain of painful sex. It can affect women of all ages, in all types of relationships. Some are married, some are dating, while others are hardly having any sex at all. Sometimes, the pain is there and then it’s gone, which is frustrating and confusing.
There can be a lot going on in that region that causes pain during sex – a yeast or bladder infection, for example. If you have to make a fashion statement by wearing tight jeans, says Dr. Blake, change into comfortable clothes when you get home to let air circulate and end pressure. And don’t use a panty liner every day, she adds. That locks in moisture and can breed infection. Heavily scented pads or soaps can irritate the skin, too, making the nether regions sensitive to touch. Dr. Blake recommends using a mild soap and to rinse diligently.

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There are some other possible explanations for this, too: you could be suffering from endometriosis – where the same type of tissue as the lining of the uterus grows outside the uterus. Or, if you’ve given birth, perhaps an incision from that experience or a scar from a different operation is causing the problem. Then, if you are in your late 40s or older, there’s always the hormonal merry-go-round of middle age that could be drying up your estrogen and your vagina. If you’re going through menopause, ask your doctor about an estrogen cream or try an over-the-counter lubricant. These various conditions can cause pain on the outside or deep inside the vagina.
Whatever the cause, a pain downtown definitely gets in the way of a good time. And pain during sex can be based on psychological causes as much as physical ones. “It’s hard to relax when there’s a little voice nattering in your ear,” says Dr. Blake. In some cases, that little voice might be reminding you of a past sexual experience you’re trying to forget.
“It could be that any kind of sexual encounter triggers her past negative encounter,” says Calgary sex therapist Mary Valentich, so the moment the woman lets things get intimate, the woman’s muscles tense up and sex becomes painful.
But the root cause of such tension may also be work or family. There is such “a rush, a pressure to get going,” says Valentich. In today’s supercharged society, she says, “it’s hard to find a couple of hours to be relaxed with each other.”
This stress can lead to other problems in the bedroom. Low libido and an inability to orgasm are also common sexual dysfunctions. According to the 2002 Canadian Contraception Study, university graduates are less likely to orgasm and have a lower sex drive than if they’d just finished high school. University grads may have higher standards and expectations for life – and for sex – says William Fisher, professor of psychology, obstetrics and gynecology at London, Ont.’s University of Western Ontario and co-author of the study. “Higher education gives women access to a higher level of aspiration in many areas,” he says.

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For women, sex is complicated. While men’s sexual drive has been compared to a lightbulb, it is said that a woman’s sexuality is more like a 747 dashboard, says Dr. Blake. “It’s not just a simple on/off.”

Biology can also be a factor. For many women, their libido decreases as they approach menopause and their hormone levels change. But most of us don’t want to face that reality. “We live in a society that focuses on sexual interest and availability,” says Dr. Blake. But the truth is, women aren’t always into sex. “They might not want to,” she says, “and that’s OK. Many couples have different levels of intimacy and desire.”
Decreased desire could be “anything that interferes with you focusing on your body,” says Valentich. And after you’ve had kids, “[it may take some time to remember], ‘Hey, I am a sexual person. I can still connect,’ ” she says.

An obligation to perform can also be a turn-off. “Young women feel pressure to be sexual, to be out there and available, ready at the drop of a hat to engage in sexual activity,” says Valentich. Women should “get to know and take charge of their own bodies and get a sense of what they need.”
If it’s dyspareunia that is ruffling your duvet, the most important advice is, don’t ignore the problem. “Don’t try to endure it. All you’re doing is reinforcing an expectation of pain,” says Dr. Blake. Talk to your general practitioner, who will examine you and see if there is a physical cause for your pain. “With chronic pain, you have to be patient,” adds Dr. Blake. “Chronic pain doesn’t arrive in a hurry, and it’s not going to go away in a hurry. There is no magic bullet.”
Don’t be shy about raising these concerns with your physician, says Fisher. Both doctors and patients have a reluctance to talk about “emotionally loaded” issues such as sex, he says. In fact, one of his studies found that 24 percent of women who were polled while sitting in their doctor’s waiting room admitted to having pain during sex. So speak up. Don’t underestimate your discomfort, says Dr. Blake. “Pain is personal. No one’s pain is bigger or better than yours.”
There are ways you can minimize your own discomfort as well. If your vagina is sensitive, massage vitamin E or a bland cream into the outside tissue, recommends Dr. Blake, which relieves dryness and irritation. Try some reverse Kegel exercises (straight Kegel exercises are normally used to strengthen the vaginal wall by contracting the muscles upward, as though you were interrupting urination). “Rather than lifting the elevator up to the ceiling,” she says, “push it down to the basement.” Yoga is also useful: it’s a great way to relax and calm the muscles.
More importantly, though, we all need to learn how to slow things down and “keep anxiety off the scene,” says Valentich, adding that female heterosexuals can learn a thing or two from their lesbian sisters. “They spend more time in love play, stimulating, touching, holding and caressing. Intercourse is not the be-all and end-all,” says Valentich. “It’s more of a male script to move a lot quicker to intercourse.” This pressure to get it on can stress out the body. If you’re in pain, give the vagina a rest and do other things, says Dr. Blake. “Give that part of your body time to heal”.

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