June 28, 2023
When Ananya,* a 35-year-old Indian American, first tried to insert a tampon at age 14, she nearly blacked out because of how painful it was. Ananya* — whose name we have anonymized due to the sensitivity of the topic — didn’t tell her friends or her parents about it. Years later, when she tried to have penetrative sex with her college boyfriend, the issue reared its head again. Having sex was painful and impossible. It would take nearly 15 more years, many doctors’ visits, and multiple failed relationships before she would receive the correct diagnosis and treatment.
Ananya’s* story is similar to that of many women who struggle with conditions such as vaginismus, which causes the involuntary tightening of the pelvic floor muscles, and vulvodynia, or chronic vulvar pain. Sex can feel like razor blades cutting you, a knife stabbing you, or burning. Some also experience pain without insertion — wearing tight pants or sitting can trigger discomfort. Many don’t seek help or, when they do, are misdiagnosed, dismissed, gaslit, or told to drink a glass of wine. Taboos surrounding sexual health can make measuring the prevalence of these conditions difficult, especially for South Asian women. Female sexual dysfunction affects between 12% and 24% of women. To make matters more complicated, a recent analysis found that studies underrepresented women of color.
“Even though not every South Asian person suffers from vulvodynia, pelvic floor dysfunction, interstitial cystitis, or endometriosis, it is important to note that because [these conditions] are so stigmatized, [they] are probably underdiagnosed and not properly diagnosed,” said Dr. Sonia Bahlani, an Indian American OB-GYN specializing in pelvic pain.