For the first decade of Emily Sauer’s sex life, pain felt like an unavoidable aspect of the pursuit of pleasure. During certain positions, she’d be struck with a deep pelvic pain, one that made it more difficult to get excited about sexual experimentation or truly let herself relax and get into the moment.
Sauer’s experience with sexual pain extended beyond her pelvis. “When I was having sex and it was painful, it wasn’t just a physical experience—it was also an emotional one,” she says. “I felt like I wasn’t just disappointing to myself, but also to my partner.” And because her pain intensified during periods of stress, that feeling of disappointment made her problem worse, fueling a cycle in which her stress about her pain intensified her pain during sex.
Although Sauer repeatedly tried to broach the topic of her pain at her annual gynecologist appointment, the conversations never led to a satisfying resolution. “I was generally rushed out the door without any advice or suggestions that were helpful,” she says. It was this reaction from health professionals that led her to view her pain as a personal issue, “and not one that a doctor found worth solving,” she says.
Painful sex is a common condition: According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, three out of four women experience pain during sex over the course of their lifetime. While some of that pain is fleeting and temporary — due, perhaps, to anatomical incompatibility or an overenthusiastic partner — many women experience pain during sex as a long-term problem or even as a chronic health condition. Different conditions, like vaginismus (an extreme tightness of the vaginal muscles), vulvodynia (pain around the vaginal opening), dyspareunia (pain during, before, or after intercourse), endometriosis (when tissue grows abnormally outside the uterus), fibroids, or even postpartum pain, can all make penetrative sex uncomfortable or excruciating.
Eventually, Sauer was diagnosed with deep dyspareunia, a term used to describe pain deep inside the pelvis that’s not due to an underlying disease. Having a name for her condition was a relief, but it didn’t make the act of having sex more comfortable, and she wasn’t getting help on that front from her doctors, who, she says, didn’t offer any treatment.
She decided to take matters into her own hands, coming up with a custom solution that would allow her to navigate sex without fear of pain. In May 2018, Sauer launched a Kickstarter campaign for the Ohnut, a set of soft, squishy rings that allow partners to customize the depth of penetration. A year and a half later, she’s the CEO of Ohnut, and helping people navigate pain during sex has become her career. Given how common painful sex is, Sauer sees the Ohnut as a product that’s long overdue.
Sauer isn’t the only person to see a protective buffer as a solution to sexual pain. Perfect Fit, a sex toy company known for products like the Fat Boy sheath, recently debuted the Bumper, a shield-shaped “thrust buffer” paired with circular “donut buffers” that similarly promises customizable penetration depth. While Sauer was inspired by personal need, Steve Callow, CEO of Perfect Fit, was drawn to the space by consumer ingenuity. When customers reported that they’d been using the company’s chunky Cruiser cock rings to modify the range of penetration depth, Callow saw an opportunity to create a product specifically designed for that purpose.
“As much as humanly possible, I try to find the actual reason or reasons for the underlying pain and make every effort to try to cure it.”
Both Sauer and Callow see their products as potentially liberating for users—and not just for people suffering from diagnosable conditions, but anyone who feels anxiety about how their anatomy will fit with a partner’s. Callow notes that during anal sex, the shape of someone’s penis might not play nicely with the shape of their partner’s colon. For some positions, depth reduction is an ideal way to navigate this anatomical incompatibility.
For Sauer, there’s an additional benefit that comes with using her product: improved communication. Because the device is modular, it requires partners to talk about how they want to use it, determining how many rings are necessary to make certain positions mutually comfortable. In the process of using the Ohnut, partners are encouraged to talk more openly and honestly about what pleasurable sex means to them, a dramatic shift for people who previously treated intimacy as a grin-and-bear-it type of activity. “(Ohnut) opens up a space of play where previously there was fear,” Sauer says.