The Case for Believing Women Who Are In Pain

If there’s only one important takeaway from the backlash to Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop, it’s that women seek alternative medicine — and therefore the “wellness” movement — because traditional doctors have never taken them seriously.

As Annaliese Griffin pointed out for Quartz, the American healthcare system, while undeniably terrible for nearly everyone, damages women to an extreme. Their “experience of pain is routinely minimized by health practitioners,” resulting in longer wait times, misdiagnoses and even an increased chance of death from things as common as heart attacks.

When Maxwell Williams learned a female friend of his was incapable of having sex without feeling excruciating pain but struggled to find a doctor who would take her pain seriously, he decided to investigate what was really causing the stabbing sensation that doctors kept telling his friend was all in her head. (Never mind that the head is part of the body, indeed controls all of the body, so it makes little sense to discount it.)

For his piece for GOOD Magazine, Williams spoke with about a dozen women who shared his friend’s experience, including one whose marriage unraveled because of it, and he learned of vulvodynia, a Latin medical term that roughly translates to “vulva pain.” The condition plagues far more than the dozen women he spoke with — as much as 16 percent of the female population, or 14 million women, markedly more than those who experience endometriosis or breast cancer. So why don’t we know about it? And why are treatment options so scarce?

“If you were a woman and you were asked, ‘In your last sexual encounter or your last series of sexual encounters, did you experience pain?’ what would you think the answer would be?” he says. “It’s a little over a third. That’s a freaking epidemic. One third of women in our environment are having pain during sex. That’s an unnecessary, bothersome, distressing issue. We need a lot more effort in understanding it.”

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