Painful sex, explained: Doctor and patient break down a taboo women's health topic

Callista Wilson, a San Francisco mom of a 2-year-old, experienced pain the very first time she had sex with a man.

Wilson, now 40, didn’t speak for years to anyone about her experiences with painful sex, and she didn’t get medical help for it until more than a decade later, after countless doctor visits.

“I really blamed myself,” Wilson told “Good Morning America.” “And I think that’s kind of a common response.”

Also common is how many women experience painful sex. Nearly three out of every four women experience pain during intercourse at some time during their lives, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG).

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“[Women] feel like there isn’t hope so they kind of stop talking about it and they learn to live with it, or they talk to a provider who tells them, ‘Oh, you’re just going to have to learn to live with this,’ and then they don’t take it any further,” she said. “And that’s how they spend the rest of their lives.”

Wilson said once she had a specific diagnosis, “everything changed” for her in terms of how open she felt speaking about her pain.

“Prior to having a diagnosis, it was much harder to be open and to share, because it was still this kind of ambiguous thing that I didn’t understand,” she said. “Once I had the vocabulary, my voice, I couldn’t stop it. I told everybody.”

And once she started speaking out about her experience, Wilson said she felt a kind of “collective healing” as she received messages on social media from women around the world.

“For so many years I had felt like I was the only person suffering from this and that I was all alone,” she said. “But there are so many women out there who are in this boat, and we’re all here together and just raising our voices.”

What people need to know about painful sex

Painful sex is something anyone could experience, no matter their gender or sexual orientation, according to Landry.

But, it is not something that people should have to endure, because there are solutions, she noted.

“If you are having sex, as long as it’s consensual, you deserve to have good sex,” she said. “Your sexual orientation or your gender identity, that doesn’t matter. You should be able to talk to your partner or your health care provider, because [everybody] deserves good sex.”

Persistent or recurrent discomfort that happens just before, during or after sexual intercourse

Painful sex, known medically as dyspareunia, is defined as persistent or recurrent discomfort that happens just before, during or after sexual intercourse. It also includes pain during other sexual activities, like any type of stimulation of the clitoris, vagina, vulva and perineum (the area between the anus and the vulva), according to Landry.

During sex, for those with dyspareunia, pain may be felt in the vulva, within the vagina or the perineum or in the lower back, pelvic region, uterus or bladder, according to ACOG.

Some women may also feel pain when they insert tampons or undergo a gynecological exam, as was the case with Wilson’s condition.

“It’s important to realize that different people will describe that pain differently,” Landry said. “For instance, some people will experience pain with penetration, whereas other people will have pain with deep thrusting. Some people describe their pain as sharp or burning, whereas others have more of a crampy pain.”

GoodMorningAmerica.com is tackling a different taboo women’s health topic each month, breaking down stigmas on everything from mental health to infertility, STDs, orgasms and alcoholism.

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