When I was 16 and preparing to "lose my v card," I remember being SO nervous because I had no idea what sex was going to feel like and I had only heard horror stories of sex being unbearably painful... something that the first time you "just have to get through." One day while at my friends house, I sheepishly asked her older sister what sex felt like and if it was in fact as painful as people let on. "Oh yeah - just take six ibuprofen beforehand and you'll be fine," she said as she brushed the topic off casually.
〰️ To clarify, the sex we were talking about was penetrative and for the purposes of this article, painful sex refers to penetrative sex and/or inserting something into the vagina. 〰️
For most of my young adult life, I continued to assume that some kind of pain often accompanied penetrative sex and that was just the way it was. I also assumed (likely from mainstream porn) that deeper penetration = more satisfying for the partner... even though deeper penetration often meant WAY more painful for me. The notion of grinning and bearing it for the benefit of my partner was how I viewed pretty much all pain during sex.
Societal narratives, cis-hetero-male-centric porn and the common belief that pleasure for women is not always accessible (especially not when there is any pain involved!) can prevent many women and people with vulvas from advocating for what feels best for them. To add to that, most women feel uncomfortable or shameful when it comes to talking openly about painful sex, sometimes even assuming that something is wrong with them, and if there's anything that can make shameful narratives flourish, it's silence.
In a recent survey of the flossy audience, 91% of respondents said they have experienced painful sex... just a smidge higher than the 75% that the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists reported. 73% of our audience reported that painful sex interferes with their intimate life and 75% agreed that painful sex has impacted their "will to have sex." I wonder if you asked people with penises what per cent of the time they experience painful sex. I also wonder how many misconceptions about sex with one's partner could be mitigated with conversations about differing experiences of painful sex. For example, instead of someone assuming their partner isn't attracted to them or simply doesn't want to have sex, the understanding that sex (for a number of reasons) may feel painful for their partner could alleviate the feeling that something is wrong with them.
The good news?
There are about as many amazing tools for those experiencing painful sex as there are unique experiences and types of pain during sex. The amount of women, brands and communities speaking up and doing something to raise awareness that painful sex isn't something that has to be accepted as normal is truly inspiring.
This week we talked with one of the amazing women behind the pain-free sex movement; Emily Sauer, Founder and CEO of intimate wearable brand designed to help women and couples who experience deep dyspareunia (painful sex), Ohnut. Emily is a spritely entrepreneur who has always been passionate about creating catalysts that spark human connection. While developing Ohnut, she co-founded the Lady Bits League, founded the Pain Perception Project, and is now launching Pelvic Gym to connect people and professionals from all over the sexual and pelvic health world, through education and story. Emily has redefined her life as a proud entrepreneur, maker, community leader, and pelvic health advocate.
flossy: What made you decide to start Ohnut?
Emily: If you asked me what is one secret I never discussed with anyone, it would have been that sometimes sex was painful for me. After being ignored by several gyn’s for over 10 years - I blamed myself when my body didn’t meet my own expectations. I assumed no one else was having the same experience. So when I hacked a prototype at home to control penetration depth, I realized that it not only worked for me physically - but sparked a complete emotional upheaval. I felt capable, deeply connected to my partner, and… free. From there I partnered with renowned clinicians to create what became Ohnut, a product that’s as helpful in the bedroom as it is in the doctor’s office. It’s an empowering conversation starter - a simple tangible thing that validates a shared experience, helps us all ask questions, and brings us closer together.
flossy: How does Ohnut contribute to sexual wellness?
Emily: We wouldn’t know how common painful sex is based on how little we talk about it - in our bedroom, our stores, even in our doctor’s offices. 75% of women will have painful sex in their lifetime. 33% of women report pain the last time they had sex. And yet half of the people in pain don’t even speak up to a partner. From a cultural standpoint, pelvic health for women and people with vaginas has been cast in the shadows. We’ve been conditioned to normalize pain, we lack the education to self assess symptoms early, and adequate pelvic health care is fundamentally inaccessible. Ohnut is a revolutionary springboard for awareness, that promotes inclusive communication so that we can all make empowered choices about our health
flossy: What are the biggest barriers people face to experiencing pain-free sex?
Emily: Not only is communication essential in the bedroom but even more so in the doctor’s office. To add clarity, OB/GYNs are trained in disease, infection, and childbirth. Not pain. Especially not sex. After medical school, additional fellowships offer this kind of specialized training (at additional time/cost), which is less commonly pursued by non-specialists. In the event that a doctor is unhelpful, you have every right to ask for a referral to a pain specialist or a Pelvic Floor Physical Therapist who may be more qualified in pelvic diagnostics. Self-advocacy is essential.
flossy: What are some specific tools you might suggest for those who experience painful sex?
Emily: Honestly, I created Ohnut because I needed it personally and there was nothing out there that could help. Fast forward to a year later and our incredible customers started bringing Ohnut to their doctor appointments to start the conversation about painful sex. It was then that our next steps became clear. We created the Pain Perception Project (www.painperceptionproject.com), a free communication tool that has facilitated diagnoses and treatment options for thousands and thousands of people. Fast forward another year later, when our incredible community asked us for pelvic health exercises during the pandemic bc Pelvic PTs were inaccessible - we created the Pelvic Gym (www.pelvicgym.co) the first online hub of pelvic health and exercise videos made by Pelvic Health Specialists. Now, regardless of geographic location, financial ability, or even mental state - anyone can try out Pelvic Floor PT from home.
flossy: What are 1-2 myths about painful sex?
Emily: Most folks assume that pain during sex is caused by an en endowed partner, without considering what’s happening in the receptive partner’s body. Is there tightness in the pelvic floor, some kind of scar tissue/inflammation / injury, is trauma triggering a physiological response, maybe even just stress? The options are endless. And yet the cultural norm is to stop asking questions in light of penis size.
Another common misunderstanding is that speaking up about painful sex to a partner is a bad thing, when in fact by not telling a partner, we’re stripping them of any ability to help. On the positive side of speaking up, a foundation of trust is also the best foundation for play and creativity.
flossy: What’s one thing you think everyone should be taught about sex/in sex-ed?
Emily: To deny that sex is complicated, is to deny that we are humans with feelings who are having it. Speak up.
flossy: In your own words, how would you define shame-free pleasure?
Emily: Speaking up when sex is painful can feel near impossible, especially when we’re conditioned to just “deal with it.” Shame-free pleasure is about letting go of culturally-engrained narratives we’re conditioned to abide by, and self-advocating not only during the best of times but during the hard times too. It’s often assumed that communicating boundaries is a bad thing, when in fact it sets a foundation of trust so that both partners can fully relax and enjoy.