Student Learns Why Sex is Painful For Her
Leila* participated in a psychology study seeking female participants who experienced pain during sex. After a physical evaluation and multiple counselling sessions, she connected her physiological reaction to an ex-partner who was addicted to porn…
By Jessica Huynh, Storyteller for RU Student Life
Leila’s Story is Part 2 in the Let’s Talk About Porn Series. The series recounts the stories of four university students and the role pornography has played in their life. How does pornography influence the relationships we form with ourselves and others? Is there something between the sheets we aren’t talking about? Click here to read the other stories.
Content Warning: This article contains mature content and sensitive topics surrounding sexual violence, trauma, abuse, sex, and pornography.
In her freshman year of university, Leila* signed up for an on-campus psychology study seeking female participants who experienced pain during sex. The program consisted of two parts: counselling (talk therapy) and a physical evaluation.
The physical evaluation involved the researchers inserting a metallic, “dildo-like” sensor into Leila’s vagina to gauge how much pain she was experiencing from penetration. From this, the researchers suspected that Leila was over-exerting her body and clenching her vaginal muscles as a stress response. “[They] determined that I was not relaxing during sex,” she explained. “I was literally bracing.”
The researchers speculated that Leila and the other research participants had vulvodynia, an unidentifiable pain syndrome that affects the vulvar area. Specifically, they believed she had dyspareunia, a medical term for varying pain that occurs in the vagina just before, during, or after intercourse. Through talk therapy, the researchers determined that Leila was clenching her vaginal muscles as a physiological response from a traumatic experience in her past.
“Obviously, they couldn’t draw a definitive line [as to why I had vulvodynia], but they believed it was a physiological response that came from — it’s kind of a strong word but — an abusive situation where I was just being rammed [during sex by my ex-boyfriend],” Leila said.
The counselling aspect of the study helped Leila unpack some of the trauma she experience from her first relationship. “We talked about my ex a lot because I brought it up, and I didn’t really talk about him or my life with him without crying,” she confessed. “Whether the sessions were supposed to include as much talk therapy as it did, I don’t know. I may have tailored the sessions to what I needed at the time. I can’t remember the name of the PhD candidate who gave my first ever counselling, but I wish I did. I owe her a lot.”
Leila entered her first relationship when she was 15 years old. She started seeing a boy who was two years older than her. He checked everything off on her list: older, handsome, and athletic. She was immediately attracted to him. At the beginning of their relationship, he was charming, caring, and respectful of her decision to take things slow. She was smitten.
Everything was perfect…or so she thought.
In hindsight, she realized that he displayed problematic behaviors right from the get-go. There were several red flags early on in their relationship that she overlooked. Once, her ex “skull fucked” her until she puked. Leila explains that skull fucking is a sexual act in which the male partner holds the back of the female partner’s head and thrusts his penis into her mouth repeatedly. “I said through that I needed him to slow down or stop. I remember using the word ‘no’ but he followed through until I puked. That was enough to make him stop,” Leila recalled.
“I wish I puked on him instead of the comforter.”
Leila felt off-put by that experience and many others but continued to date him on-and-off throughout high school. She said she knew, somewhere deep down, he was manipulative and emotionally abusive, but she shared a vulnerability with him she had never shown anyone before. He was her first and only sexual partner at the time, and she wasn’t fully aware of how controlling he was.
Leila strongly believes pornography played a role in the way her ex treated her. He would pressure her to talk dirty in the bedroom and make her compliment his sexual performance even when she expressed disinterest in doing so. On several occasions, he would make sly comments about her weight — though she was in good shape and an athlete herself. During sex, he would often call her a slut and his slut which she found “really depreciating.”
“He’s a shitty person who thought he was worldlier than he was, but I don’t think he’s evil,” Leila speculated. “I don’t think he’s a sociopath. I think he’s insecure. I think a lot of his expectations were unrealistic and came from a place of exaggeration and unrealistic-ness which is porn.” Studies published in the Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy have also shown that those that use pornography frequently are more likely to be narcissistic than those who don’t.
Leila vividly remembers her ex having posters of Sports Illustrated, centerfold bikini models taped all over his bedroom walls and rows upon rows of pornography DVDs on his shelf. Leila said his obsession for pornography wasn’t exactly a secret but that nobody really interfered.
“Was his mom really going to sit him down and say, ‘Treat your girlfriend well?’ No! Those conversations didn’t happen ten years ago. Maybe they do now [but they didn’t then],” she pointed out.
In an academic study published in Violence Against Women analyzing 304 pornography scenes, more than 88% contained physical aggression (spanking, gagging, and slapping) and just under 50% contained verbal aggression (name-calling). In majority of the scenes, men were the ones who were perpetrating violence, while women were the ones receiving it. In most cases, the women in the pornography videos responded to the violence neutrally or with pleasure.
This has detrimental effect on the way we view sex. In a study that combined a total sample size of 12,000+ persons, they found that watching pornography increased ones risk of committing sexual violence. Those that watched pornography were more likely to trivialize sexual violence or victim blame. Pornography is shaping the way young people have sex and making some believe that extreme sex is the norm, according to Enough is Enough. Evidence from Fight The New Drug has shown that porn users are more likely to believe that women secretly enjoy being sexually violated than non-users. Studies have also shown a direct correlation between sexual perpetrators and the frequency in which they read sex magazines such as Playboy, Penthouse, and Hustler. Men who had engaged in date raped reported that they “very frequently” read these types of magazines.
Sports Illustrated, which markets itself as a sports magazine, has an annual ‘Swimsuit Issue’ in which female models are photographed in swimwear. The concept of the issue started as a way to make profit during the slower winter months by using women in bikinis as a marketing tactic. According to Slate, Sports Illustrated literally created the “sex-sports nexus.”
Leila has no doubt in her mind that her ex was addicted to to porn or, at the very least, addicted to the ideas of sex he formed from porn. “[Porn] is unrealistic on both parties and it can be really damaging for people who haven’t learned what realism in sex is for them is,” she said. “To use porn as a guiding point right at the beginning is damaging because their actors. Their not real people.”
Leila said her ex-partner was often dismissive of her pleasure. Sex with him was always about his sexual gratification. “He didn’t care whether I was into it or not,” Leila recalled of their sex life. “On more than one occasion he told me he was addicted to sex. He used it as an excuse if I got upset or [he would just] break up with me. He would never work through it with me. He would just say it was a part of him and that it was my responsibility to do more. The emotional burden always fell on me.”
Leila realized, in retrospect, that he didn’t really care about her as much as she thought he did. During their turbulent on-again-off-again relationship, Leila watched porn with him on several occasions. Initially, she took pride in this and saw the experience as empowering. “I thought him watching porn and having sex with me meant I was as sexy as a porn star,” Leila admitted. “Now I realize I don’t think that’s sexy [anymore]. Realizing that someone saw me in that light doesn’t really feel good.”
One weekend, Leila and her ex were driving home from a weekend getaway and her ex purchased an x-rated DVD for them to watch. Leila said the experience was awkward and made her feel like shit. “I already knew it was wrong [before we put it on]. [During it, it was] like, ‘Oh, you’re not even paying attention to me. You’re watching a video.’ That sucked.”
During a breakup, Leila’s ex convinced her to have a threesome with him and his current partner — the girl he had cheated on Leila with. He kept telling her how hot it would be and how much he wanted to have a threesome with the both of them. According to study exploring Pornography and the Male Sexual Script, men are more likely to request more sexually deviant acts from their partner(s) the more porn they watch as they require more visual stimulation to be aroused. “He was very manipulative, but I was in love with him,” Leila explained. “At least, I hope I was… otherwise I don’t know why I put up with it. Love is scary and dangerous.”
Although Leila said the threesome experience was “emotionally scarring,” it was also a light bulb moment for her. “The experience itself was damaging for me because it wasn’t on my terms, [but] it was a good thing for me because it was the first time I slept with someone who cared about me and made me orgasm [for the first time]. That someone being the female partner in the situation,” Leila said.
“I won’t make huge definitive, sweeping statement about my sexuality but I always wondered what happened there. I was kind of attracted to her but not enough to be in a lesbian relationship [with her]. It was also political. She was dating my ex. He cheated on me to be with her then cheated on her to be with me.”
After experiencing a real orgasm, Leila became aware that something was wrong with the sex she was having with her ex (and maybe all the sexual encounters she had had up to that point). Realizing this, she made a conscious decision to cut him out of her life completely in time for university. The distance, along with the counselling she received from the psychology study, made her realize how toxic his presence was.
Leila was ready to move on and begin a new chapter in her life — one that involved agency, respect, pleasure, and trust.
Leila is currently in a long-term relationship with someone she met in university. From the very beginning, she had nothing but highly positive experiences with him. “There was no expectation or rules [with him]. He just let me have control without being too passive either, you know? I never felt that before,” Leila said. “I have a lot of agency and control [in the relationship]. I remember telling him he can’t hold my head [during sex], and he respected that wholly. Within the first few times [we had sex], he got me off.”
Leila believes her current partner doesn’t watch porn. She said she hasn’t asked him but maintains that if he does, it doesn’t concern her because he doesn’t act like he does. “He’s just respectful enough to know that it’s a cause to make someone insecure. Actually, we’ve been having lot of sex after we started watching The Outlanders [on Netflix], and I’m the one initiating,” Leila said.
“Sex with him feels instinctual. It feels right.”
If you are a survivor of sexual violence and interested in receiving support, please visit Ryerson’s Office of Sexual Violence Support and Education for services and resources available to you.
As other stories in our series show, porn has a variety of influences. If you are concerned about your porn use (or a friend’s porn use), Ryerson University’s Health and Wellness department provides information and resources on sexual health. Counselling is also available for those interested in speaking with a professional.
You are not alone.
* Names have been changed to protect the subject’s identity.