Archives of Sexual Behavior

, Volume 37, Issue 2, pp 294–304 | Cite as

“If Sex Hurts, Am I Still a Woman?” The Subjective Experience of Vulvodynia in Hetero-Sexual Women

  • Kathryn Ayling
  • Jane M. Ussher


Vulvodynia has recently been recognized as a significant health problem among women, with a considerable proportion experiencing psychological distress and sexual dysfunction for many years. This study used a material-discursive framework and a qualitative methodology to investigate women’s subjective experience of vulvodynia within the context of a hetero-sexual relationship, and their negotiation of coitus, commonly associated with vulvar pain. Seven women, who had experienced vulvodynia between 2 and 10 years, took part in in-depth interviews. Thematic decomposition drawing on a Foucauldian framework for interpretation identified that six of the seven women took up subject positions of “inadequate woman” and “inadequate partner,” positioning themselves as failures for experiencing pain during coitus, which they interpreted as affecting their ability to satisfy their partners sexually, resulting in feelings of shame, guilt, and a decreased desire for sexual contact. This was interpreted in relation to dominant discourses of femininity and hetero-sexuality, which conflate a woman’s sexuality with her need to be romantically attached to a man, position men as having a driven need for sex, and uphold coitus as the organizing feature of hetero-sex. Only one woman positioned herself as an “adequate woman/partner,” associated with having renegotiated the coital imperative and the male sex drive discourse within her relationship. These positions, along with women’s agentic attempts to resist them, were discussed in relation to their impact on hetero-sexual women’s negotiation of vulvodynia. Implications for future research and vulvodynia treatment regimes are also raised.


Vulvodynia Femininity Hetero-sexuality Positioning theory 



Thanks are extended to Julie Mooney Somers and Emilee Gilbert, who commented on an earlier draft of this article, and to other members of the Gender Culture and Health Research Unit, Janette Perz, Georgia Ovenden, Mirjana Sandoval, Beverly Johnson and Megan Brock, who commented on the ongoing research.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2007

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Gender, Culture and Health Research Unit: PsyHealthSchool of Psychology, University of Western SydneyPenrith South DCAustralia

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