Female sexual health problems are shrouded in shame,but these new intimacy products are here to help.
Have you ever found sex painful? Realised youoften struggle to get in the mood? Or just found it difficult to reach orgasm? For many women in the UK, the answer is a resounding “yes” to at least one of these questions. But when was the last time you had an honest conversation about any of these issues? Sadly,a lack of understanding and a manifestationof shame means few of us talk about sexual health problems openly.
“Sex is probably the final frontier when it comes to feminism,” explains Dr Karen Gurney, psychosexologist and author of Mind The Gap: The Truth About Desire, And How To Futureproof Your Sex Life. She believes women need to apply feminist principles to concerns over sex and our bodies, and there’s still a long way to go. “It’s why so many women in the UK are dissatisfied with their sex lives,” she says.
Suffering in silence
Even in 2020, there’s still a great deal of shame in discussing sexual health problems. “It can feel very exposing to open up about your sex life,” says Ammanda Major, relationship counsellor and psychosexual therapist at Relate. “People often believe they’ve failed sexually because the media, Hollywood and porn tend to create the idea that sex should always be mind-blowing. Comparison culture means people are afraid to open up to friends about their relationship or sex life being less than perfect.” Just because your WhatsApp groups aren’t constantly buzzing with chats about sex problems, it doesn’t mean you’re the only one experiencing them.
According to a National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles, more than half of women in the UK are dissatisfied with their sex lives and 29% experienced a lack of desire – the top reason why people visit Dr Gurney for sex therapy. “We know that concern about desire is the top reason that people seek sex therapy but there’s also painful penetrative sex, general dissatisfaction or feelings of sexual incompatibility,” she reveals. In her sessions,Dr Gurney encourages couples to talk frankly and openly about their sex lives. Only when both she and the couple have a full understandingof exactly what is – or isn’t – going on in the bedroom can they work together to do something positive about it.
The thing is, women don’t necessarily enter sexual relationships on a level playing field with men. A recent study published in the journal BMC Public Health found that 83% of men have “good sexual health” – and this number falls drastically to 52% for women. We hear about erectile dysfunction fairly often, but doctors behind the study found a greater range of sexual health problems experienced by women that are rarely mentioned openly. These issues include a lack of interest in sex, difficulty with orgasms, an uncomfortably dry vagina and lack of enjoyment – all issues that shouldn’t be overlooked by health services.
“I have a very tight pelvic floor muscle, which means it is very hard for penetration to even happen,” one anonymous reader tells Stylist. “When it does, there is an instant searing pain and an unbearable stretching feeling and cramping during and after sex. Tearing and bleeding is very common too.” She has been diagnosed with vaginismus but the problem has become so distressing, she has experimented with nearly every treatment available. “I have tried surgery, acupuncture, female health physiotherapy, pelvic floor dilators, and now am being referred for psychosexual counselling,” she adds. “Nothing has had the desired effect, so psychosexual counselling is the next step for me and more surgery might be needed.” It’s clear more research is necessary to help women get to the bottom of their sexual issues quicker.
Let’s talk about sex
Opening up the conversation about sexual health is the first step towards a resolution. Problem is, many of us unknowingly developa negative attitude towards sex from day dot. Thanks to sex education classes at schoolthat focus on male ejaculation and avoiding pregnancy, our views about sex are moulded early on to celebrate it as an act of pleasureonly for men. For girls, rather than talking about pleasure as an outcome of sex, the focustends to be on the risk, anxiety and socially constructed shame around it. “If people have grown up with unhelpful or difficult messages about sex, this can also make it difficult to talk about what’s bothering you,” explains Major.
Our shaky early education also means many of us struggle to grasp the correct terminology for our genitals. According to Eve AppealUK, 44% of women in the UK are unable to identify the vagina on an anatomical diagram, while 60% are unable to identify a vulva.And if you’ve seen Netflix’s The Goop Lab,you’ll know that Gwyneth Paltrow isn’t sosure, either.
FYI, the vulva is the outer part of the female genitals and the vagina is specifically the birth canal. “The problem is that we go into relationships not really knowing how to describe our body, not really feeling confident to ask for pleasure,” says Dr Gurney. “Sex requires communication to go well. You can’t expect your partner to automatically know what you want or need.” There’s also an immense amount of pressure being placed on women in the bedroom. “Sometimes clients tell us they feel under pressure to orgasm,” says Major. “Just focusing on enjoying the sensations and less on the need to perform often leads to a more enjoyable experience.”
Her advice? Get to know your own body and what gives you pleasure, then communicate this to your sexual partner. “Sexual desire ebbs and flows – that’s normal. Occasionally putting your needs first is great for reigniting things together,” she says. “Feeling you can be honest and open with each other will help to build a positive sexual experience.”
Thankfully, change is afoot. This year, it will become compulsory to teach school children about menstrual health, consent and sexual relationships. Meanwhile, the sexual wellness market, which is now considered a subsector of holistic wellbeing, is exploding with new products. We no longer have to visit sex shops now that more and more beauty retailers are stocking sex solutions, meaning you can fill the same virtual basket with both kegel trainers and face creams. Online retailer Cult Beauty was one of the first to lead consumers into a new age of sex shopping with its Sexual Pleasure & Wellness category. “The last two years have been a time of great social upheaval and awakening,” says co-founder, Alexia Inge.
“Women are shedding the constrictive chrysalis of patriarchal diktats; they are starting to own their sexual health and fulfilment and search for solutions that don’t come from the NHS, porn sites or sex shops.” Similarly, after noticing a 115% increasein sex and wellness-related searches on itssite, Feelunique launched its Sexual Wellness category, selling products that cover three categories: sexual pleasure, mood and intimate care, while high street stalwart Boots has unveiled its own sexual pleasure and wellbeing category. By stocking sexual health supplements alongside skincare, female-focused condoms alongside fragrance, these retailers are positing the idea that taking care of your sexual wellbeing is as standard a daily practice asthe rest of your beauty routine. Of course, there’s still a long way to go before women reach sexual parity.
No longer does the rhetoric insist we have to ‘fight through the pain’ or ‘just get on with it’. We can approach health problems safely, so more pain-free – and more pleasurable – sex is in reach. Purchasing products won’t necessarily fix all sexual health issues and you should consult your GP if something is seriously botheringyou. However, read on to discover the useful innovations created to help you find empowerment in the bedroom.
The six intimate products to know about
From female-friendly condoms to a pain-reducing buffer, here are the products aimed at improving women’s sex lives.
Neighbourhood Botanicals Ooh I Feel Love Cooling Lube, £17
This water-based and pH-balanced lubricant contains plant-derived glycerin, reducing the chance of getting a yeast infection. Suitablefor all genders, the brand notes it’s especially great for keeping the vaginal microbiome undisturbed after sex.
Elvie Trainer, £169
Insert the Elvie pelvic floor trainer into your vagina and follow the exercises on the app to help strengthen the muscles to improve core stability, bladder control and sexual activity. Buy one or, because Elvie has partnered with the NHS, you can request one through the NHS Supply chain or seek referral from your GP.
Hanx Condoms, £12.99 for 10 pack
Born of a frustration that traditional condom packaging is “overtly masculine, garish and with cringey names”, HANX’s contemporary white and gold design aims to make women feel comfortable both buying condoms and leaving them in their handbags. Plus, they’re made from Fairtrade, vegan, natural latex.
ilapothecary Feminine Happy Oil, £46
If stress is having an effect on your sex life,this mood-balancing body oil contains macato ease anxiety and two varieties of roseoil to soothe emotions. Apply all over thebody, or place a few drops in a warm bathto aid relaxation.
Anatome Libido + Energy Capsules, £32
Containing adaptogens such as Siberian ginseng and liquorice, these daily capsules regulate stress and help balance hormonesto reduce the impact of stress on libido levels and boost sexual desire.
In 2017, a survey of 7,000 British womenaged 16 to 74 revealed that nearly one in 10 found sex painful. Ohnut aims to change that. These wearable rings are worn by a penetrating partner at the base of the shaft. During sex,the Ohnut compresses down, acting likea buffer to control the level of penetrationand reduce pain during sex.
Main image: photography by Dennis Pedersen
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