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Poor genital hygiene: how to talk about it

Many of us don’t know the basics: a study showed 26% of uncircumcised men do not always wash under the foreskin, which can lead to a build-up of smegma, and can start to smell. Another study suggested that chemicals in feminine hygiene products and perfumed soaps may be connected with vaginal problems such as thrush


Ammanda Major
Friday 09 October 2015 15:24 BST
(Rex Features)

I’ve been with my partner for just over a year and things are generally good between us. He’s affectionate and caring and we’re really close. But I don’t think he washes his penis properly and when we have sex I’m aware of a really bad smell and it totally turns me off. I’ve always enjoyed oral sex in previous relationships but I just can’t face it with him so I do my best to avoid it. I know I should talk to him about it but I’m worried he’ll be really offended – how do I bring it up?

Most of us have been there. You’re about to get down when all of a sudden you catch a distinctly unpleasant waft from your partner’s body. You’re faced with a dilemma – do you say something and risk offence? Or should you just get on with it and try to recapture the moment? Maybe it’s not a problem at all? After all, we all have our benchmarks as far as ‘clean’ is concerned. The occasional case of whiffy breath or unwashed armpit may not be a problem during the heat of passion. Some would say that passion overrules everything and it wouldn’t or shouldn’t matter what your partner smells like at all.

But the reality is that for lots of people ‘bad’ smells are a turn off. And if that’s the case, dealing with the smell and the feelings of the partner emitting it can be tricky. Hint dropping may get the message across but it’s just as likely it won’t. Likewise, launching into a full blown attack and telling your partner how unpleasant you find the smell coming from their penis, vagina, anus or any other orifice for that matter, is likely to upset and offend them.

No one likes to be told that their personal hygiene leaves a lot to be desired, (although many may ultimately be grateful). Equally, saying nothing can actually be quite damaging. If one partner is avoiding sex and not saying why, the other person may think there are deeper issues in the relationship. At the same time, nobody should feel the to need have sex with their partner when they find the experience uncomfortable and unpleasant. So wording it in a way that gets the message across but allows your partner to retain their dignity is probably the best way of dealing with what is really quite a common issue between partners. More on this later.

We all assume we know what ‘clean’ means. The trouble is that a partner may have a different take on this to you. Where one of you may like to shower before work, bed and again after sex, the other might think that a quick wash of the vital areas every other day ticks all the boxes. It’s worth remembering that your partner may actually find you too clean and maybe they are on to something – because a study by the University of California has shown that showering too often could be bad for you because it strips away beneficial bugs that the body uses to help ward off infections. In another recent study, which admittedly was by a skincare range, as many as one in three women admitted that they had gone as long as three days without washing or wiping their face or body at all.

Sometimes, an issue with genital hygiene can come down to a lack of knowledge about how to wash your penis or vagina effectively. Uncircumcised men for example, don’t always appreciate the importance of gently retracting the foreskin when washing. Not doing this can lead to the build-up of smegma, which can start to smell and cause the penis to become red and swollen. This issue was highlighted in a survey in London of 150 uncircumcised and 75 circumcised men. Researchers found that 4% of circumcised compared with 26% of uncircumcised men had inferior genital hygiene behaviour, i.e., did not always wash the entire penis. This was because the uncircumcised men weren’t washing under their foreskins. It sounds like some of these men may have benefitted from the NHS choices advice on how to wash a penis.

Many women worry about how their vagina smells and sometimes avoid receiving oral sex, because they’re concerned their other half may be revolted when in fact, the aroma from a healthy vagina can be very arousing. The NHS advises avoiding perfumed soaps, gels and antiseptics as they can affect the natural PH balance of the vagina. A recent study suggested that chemicals in feminine hygiene products for vaginal douching may be connected with problems such as bacterial vaginosis and thrush. Instead of resorting to these, the advice is to use plain, unperfumed soaps to wash the area around the vagina (the vulva) gently every day. The inside of the vagina will then clean itself naturally. However, it goes without saying that if you notice any unusual or smelly discharges, get it checked. There may be health implications for both partners, particularly where oral or penetrative sex is concerned.

If the smell of your partner’s penis or vagina is well and truly putting you off sex, the best way to tackle problems like this is talking to them tactfully but honestly. Nothing is likely to change unless you do. But of course, it all comes down to timing and language and making sure that you include the good stuff too. Maybe say how much you enjoy sex but that you’ve noticed a smell that makes you feel uncomfortable. Perhaps suggest that you’re worried about it for them as much as for you because you want to be sure they’re ok. Even if they’re embarrassed to begin with, if you can offer reassurance that you see this as a ‘technical’ problem and not as a comment on them as a person, they may be more likely to hear you and do something about it.

Do remember though that personal choice needs to respected and how people choose to share intimate parts of themselves is a sensitive and delicate arena. Paying attention to that may help you compromise where possible whilst holding a line on what’s not ok. If you’re struggling, you may like to read Relate’s tips on talking to your partner about sex.

Ammanda Major is a Relate Sex Therapist and senior consultant on Sex Therapy. She has a regular agony aunt column on the Relate website ‘Ask Ammanda’, which deals with common relationship and sexual problems.

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