Vulvodynia

Painful sex is often a sign that the woman is not lubricated enough, but it can also signal a medical problem. Women might experience painful sex as the result of a vaginal infection, an STD or a condition known as vulvodynia. Women suffering from vulvodynia experience searing pain during sex but also when exercising or even when wearing tight pants. Doctors are still trying to understand this condition, which may be due to an overabundance of nerve endings in the genital area.

Hymens

On the last few pages, we talked about the vagina's role in sexual pleasure. Historically speaking, the idea that women could enjoy sex is a relatively new phenomenon, and even today, many girls and women are told that sexual intercourse will hurt the first time they experience it. This pain is attributed to the hymen, which covers the vaginal opening; it's very common to hear that the first penis to enter the vagina must break through this layer of skin tissue, which will typically cause pain and blood. Hymens have thus become tied to virginity, and many people believe that the presence or lack of a hymen can tell you whether or not a woman has had sex.

It's true that women may experience pain or bleeding the first time they have sex, but it's not because of their hymens; more likely, they began having intercourse without proper foreplay to lubricate the vagina. And as it turns out, hymens tell you nothing about a woman's sexual history. Not every woman is born with a hymen, and the shape and size of a hymen differs dramatically from woman to woman. Since the hymen doesn't appear to serve any purpose, it may very well be vestigial.

The hymeneal skin tissue changes and stretches over time, particularly when a girl enters puberty. Once a girl begins menstruating, there has to be some sort of hole or break in the hymen -- otherwise, menstrual blood couldn't escape the vagina, which causes serious clots. Everything from exercise to tampons can change that layer of skin -- even having sex doesn't guarantee that the membranes will go away, because the hymen is self-repairing and holes can close back up. In other words, the angst that many women feel about the state of their hymen and what it means about their virginal status is all for nothing.

Even if a woman has a mostly intact hymen at the time of her first sexual intercourse, she may not bleed. However, in some cultures, blood on the bed sheets is expected the day after a wedding because a woman's virginity is directly connected to her family's honor. For that reason, some women undergo a hymenoplasty, which is surgery to reconstruct a hymen. The surgery, in which doctors sew skin membranes to the vaginal walls, costs several thousand dollars and may not even guarantee that a woman will bleed the next time she has intercourse. The media has highlighted a diverse clientele for this procedure -- everyone from secular women in the United States who have the surgery as a present for their husbands to Muslim women in Europe who have the surgery so that they will pass a hymen check required by their potential parents-in-law. This surgery angers women's rights advocates because the idea that a hymen is a requisite for virginity simply is scientifically incorrect.

Hymen reconstruction isn't the only major surgery going on down there. On the next page, we'll take a look at the extremes some women go to in pursuit of the best vagina possible.