Intimacy Explored: Painful Sex and The Female Body

We talk about the importance of pleasure a lot at Coco de Mer, but what do we do when pleasure doesn't come so easily? How can we foster a healthy sexuality whilst struggling with intimacy? And what impact does the medical industry have on women's pain?

Too often we are only presented with one narrative when it comes to sex, which glamorises sexual experiences, creating unrealistic expectations and excluding a whole range of people and relationships.

In this post, we are going to be delving into the complications of painful sex from a female perspective, an issue which is often seen as taboo. We will be focusing on some key women's health issues, considering the power of sharing and looking at how we can reimagine intimacy for ourselves. 

We realise this topic is a broad issue which deserves adequate time and research, and goes way beyond anything we could share in one editorial. It's also important to note that pain during sex can be caused by a variety of additional factors which we won’t be discussing in this editorial and it is really important to discuss any pain or changes with a medical professional. 

We have decided to focus on three women's health conditions, which affect the female body, and often lead to painful sex and intimacy complications. We have included a short summary provided by the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) of these conditions below:

Endometriosis is a condition where tissue similar to the lining of the womb grows in other places, such as the ovaries and fallopian tubes.

Vulvodynia is persistent, unexplained pain in the vulva. The vulva is the female genital area including the skin surrounding the opening of the vagina. 

Vaginismus is when the vagina suddenly tightens up when you try to insert something into it. It can be painful and upsetting, but it can be treated.

Taking control of our pleasure:

How we experience intimacy is deeply personal to us and it can be really difficult to share sexual difficulties with the people around us, especially if the sexual narrative we are used to hearing is positive and fulfilling. 

Experiencing pain during sex can be really difficult to navigate, and it's not uncommon to feel distant from your body when it happens.

For some people experiencing intimate pain, their pain may be present all the time and for others, their pain may arise during sex. This can affect our levels of arousal, self-esteem and lead to disappointment and frustration. 

Acknowledging any feelings which arise during intimacy can be really helpful with this, and keeping a journal can help you reflect on your experiences (good or bad) and notice any patterns. 

Working out what brings us pleasure is really important and can help us understand what works for us and what doesn't. Creating a space you feel comfortable is a great place to start and taking time to get to know your own body before introducing a partner can be really transformative when you are experiencing pain. 

At Coco de Mer, we created our Intimate Play range because we knew pleasure was so much more diverse than just one sexual act, and is often enhanced by various feelings, sensations and scents. If you are in need of something to inspire a little relaxation, we would recommend our Roseravished Massage Oil, which offers aphrodisiac properties to invigorate and arouse.

For women suffering from intimate discomfort, penetrative sex can often cause significant pain or be impossible. This can be especially hard to navigate when we have been taught by society that sexual penetration is the goal of all sexual activity and any other act is simply foreplay. This idea comes from heteronormative ideals surrounding sex, often with male ejaculation as the ultimate goal. 

Reclaiming sex can be really powerful and allowing yourself to redefine sex outside of penetration can have a really positive impact on your sexual wellness. When we truly embrace the freedom of sex and explore what brings us pleasure, sex can become more accessible and exciting. 

If penetrative sex is something you struggle with, external toys can also be a really positive way to embrace your sexuality, during both solo and partnered pleasure. Our external toys are designed to be used on the clitoris, or anywhere else externally on the body.

The right external toy depends entirely on you and your body, but we have put together a few of our highlights below, which offer a softer approach to pleasure:

A simple clitoral vibrator such as Pleasure No.1 - The Seed, is perfect for building pleasure and offers gentle vibration patterns. The Seed’s dual motors are encased in a cushioned, silky soft silicone which is designed to feel extra soft against the skin compared to other products on the sex toy market. It is a great choice for anyone who has found other clitoral toys numbing or too stimulating, as it offers settings with lower intensities. 

Another great option is the Muse by Coco de Mer - Pebble, which features a beautifully ergonomic palm-sized shape, designed for maximum body contact. The Pebble can be used for 

clitoral stimulation or as a full body massager, making it a great toy to use if you are looking to build sensuality into your self-care routine, while also taking the pressure off.

Additionally, if you are looking for a toy to use with a partner, the Muse by Coco de Mer - Remote Panty Vibe is a great way to explore the possibilities of partnered pleasure, without penetration. 

The sleek design has been created to fit inside your knicker, offering clitoral stimulation, controlled by a discreet remote control. We would advise getting comfortable with the Remote Panty Vibe on your own to begin with, allowing you time to discover which vibration setting feels the best. Once you have this established, incorporating this into partnered play can be an incredible way to ignite a sense of excitement in your sex life and explore new possibilities.

It's also important to note that water-based lubrication can enhance sensations and increase pleasure, even during external pleasure and we would recommend using our beloved Divine Glow Aqua Lubricant.

The Gender Pain Gap

Celebrating female pleasure is at the heart of everything we do at Coco de Mer and women's health is extremely important to us. It is a conversation we have within our all-female team on a regular basis.

For over 20 years, we have been committed to championing pleasure for all and chipping away at the longstanding taboos around sexuality, and yet we are painfully aware of the impact women's health conditions can have on a woman's confidence, sexuality and access to pleasure. 

The charity Wellbeing of Women works to tackle the taboos surrounding women's health through research, campaigns and guidance. At the end of 2022, they highlighted findings from The Gender Pain Gap Index Report which presented stark inequalities surrounding women's pain. 

A survey of 5,100 UK women and men revealed that over half of women (56%) felt their pain was ignored or dismissed by a healthcare professional. The report also details the effect pain is having on women's everyday lives, with 4 in 10 women (41%) saying their pain causes trouble sleeping and almost a quarter (24%) saying their pain has led them to feel depressed. 

We are deeply inspired by the Wellbeing of Women, and their research further illuminates the lack of support women experiencing pain have access to.

Looking into the cause of this inequality Dr Elinor Cleghorn, feminist cultural historian and author of ‘Unwell Women’ (who advised on the report) commented:

“Gender bias in medical knowledge, research and practice is deeply ingrained. Today, we are facing up to the consequences of centuries-long discriminatory misbeliefs about women’s pain.”

This shows the true impact gender inequality has had on the medical sector and suggests that adequate change is going to take time. 

The barriers to accessing pain are loud, but we can find signs of hope in the support and guidance offered by a variety of women's health charities and organisations. 

Endometriosis UK is the UK’s leading charity for those affected by endometriosis, working to ensure that everyone affected receives a prompt diagnosis and the best treatment and support. 

Their website offers a range of relevant support, including guidance on Visiting your doctor and advocating for yourself at the appointment. They have also created a downloadable Pain & symptoms diary to help women suffering keep a record of their pain and symptoms. This is a great tool as it means women are able to remember more accurately relevant details at their appointments and can be used to help a doctor manage your symptoms or even aid a diagnosis.

Similarly, The Vulva Pain Society is a confidential service that offers resources, practical advice and information for people living with vulval pain. One of the innovations the service offers is helping women set up support groups in their local area. As vulva pain can often be an isolating issue, support groups can be an excellent way to relieve some of the emotional implications, gain community and share experiences. 


The greater conversation

What we see in the media and on our screens has a big impact on the way we think about sex. 

In mainstream media, sex is often portrayed as straightforward, with a focus on male arousal and penetrative sex. This can feel difficult for anyone whose sex life looks different (most of us) and can feel particularly alienating to those struggling with intimacy.

Over recent years it has been really encouraging to see women's health issues coming to light in shows, sparking both conversations and awareness.

A great example of this is within the popular Netflix show, Sex Education, where we see Lily experience pain during intimacy and then explain to her partner Ola that she has Vaginismus. 

We then see Lily give Ola a quick explanation of her condition, showing the 5 different-sized dilators she uses as part of her treatment (though she can currently only use the first one), in addition to sharing that she masturbates externally. Ola then suggests the couple try mutual masturbation and later in the episode we see a clip of the couple in bed enjoying this. 

This was a really empowering scene for many women with vaginismus as it showed that vaginismus does not need to mean the end of sexual pleasure. It also drew attention to dilators which are a common treatment for vaginismus, helping to educate and normalise their use.

The relationship between Lily and Ola reflects the vulnerabilities of being intimate with someone for the first time, which so often isn't perfect. The scene shows the power of communicating with a partner during intimacy and the diversity of pleasures.

Another key Netflix series which expanded the pleasure conversation is The Principles of Pleasure, a documentary celebrating the complex world of women’s pleasure, offering a positive approach to sex education while putting stubborn myths to rest. 

The series features Emily Nagoski, a sex educator, researcher, and author of the book Come As You Are. When talking about experiencing pleasure she explained:

“We have a cultural script in our mind about what sex looks like and about what behaviours we engage in. Even what order those behaviours happen in. And none of that is real. None of that has any relationship with what human beings are allowed to do or what they're capable of doing.”

Nagoski opens up the conversation about what sex looks like and the limiting pressures we feel to conform to a specific sexual narrative. In both solo and partnered pleasure, it can be easy to fall into a routine when it comes to sex, and what is acceptable in your sex life. As Magoski explains, this can often be influenced by what we see in the culture around us. 

Moving away from cultural expectations and exploring different styles of sex can often feel liberating and increase our sexual desire. This in turn can help us to explore what feels good with confidence, contributing to our overall pleasure.

Podcasts have also played a key role in opening up the conversation around sexuality and giving women a platform to discuss their thoughts, experiences and sexual wellness. Ev’yan Whitney is a sexuality doula® and author who hosts the podcast Sensual Self (formerly The Sexually Liberated Women). 

Throughout the Sensual Self podcast, Ev’yan Whitney invites listeners to explore their own sensual expression, drawing upon the intersections of identity, sexuality and pleasure. In an episode titled ‘On Healing My Sexual Past’, Whitney challenges their audience to write a letter to their younger selves:

“What would you tell your younger self about sex, if you could go back in time and teach her about sexuality? What would you teach her? What words of advice did you desperately need to hear back then?”

This is a really important call to action and reminds us how impactful the people around us and our access to sex education can be on the choices we go on to make, and how our future selves embrace sexuality. 

The NHS shares that although the cause of vaginismus can often be unclear, it could be caused by a bad first sexual experience, an unpleasant medical examination or the belief that sex is shameful or wrong. Getting to the root cause is often key for treating vaginismus and if you are on that journey or just want to connect with your own sensuality, writing a letter to your younger self as Whitney suggests could be a great place to start.


Intimacy redefined

It is clear that female sexual pain is complex and embracing all parts of the journey is crucial to accessing pleasure. 

Suffering with women's health issues can be extremely isolating and remembering you are not alone is really important. Sharing your pain with a close friend you trust may seem like a small thing but it can often release you from the shame which so often surrounds these issues. 

Women’s pain can vary, with some women’s pain remaining the same at all times and others increasing and decreasing at various times in the month. 

Despite what we are led to believe, we can't all be ready for sex at any time. Sexual experiences are not always extraordinary and can sometimes be something to learn from or even laugh about with a partner.

It's really encouraging that we are starting to see this narrative trickle into the media and show people's desire for more authenticity surrounding sex.

There is something really special about increasing the visibility of women's health issues and we would love to encourage you to keep the conversation going in your circle.

Pleasure is powerful and something we all deserve to experience. The way we reach pleasure doesn't need to be confined to a specific script and we all have the freedom to explore and redefine what intimacy means to us.