painful sex: how to have penis in vagina sex without pain

Painful sex – how to have penis in vagina sex without pain

Painful sex is something that a lot of readers contact me about – usually from young women with vaginas experiencing pain after trying penis in vagina sex (also known as intercourse or, to some people, as ‘sex’). So that’s what this is about. I’ll tell you the causes of why sex can be painful which should give you some advice about having sex without pain. A lot of this may also be true for painful anal sex.

(This article is a bit more in depth than my how to have sex article or the how to make first time sex better article so you might want to read those if that’s what you’re interested in.)

So, what are the causes of painful sex?

Bad sex education and bad sex advice

One of the causes of painful sex is that people are not given good enough sex education or sex advice before they first have sex. In fact often, sex education and sex advice make things worse not better.

It’s often said that ‘when a woman has vaginal sex for the first time, it can be a little painful’. So this means a lot of people hear ‘oh, first time sex always hurts, so I should just keep doing it and eventually it won’t hurt so much.’ This is a self-fulfilling prophecy, and it’s said so much that a lot of people have quite a lot of painful sex.

So it’s partly our fault. Really what we should say is ‘sex should not be painful, and if you experience pain it’s a good idea to stop and try something else’ whilst also teaching people about how sex can be comfortable, nice and even enjoyable. It really annoys me that I’m even having to say this in 2018, but anyway.

People not being taught about anatomy

One of the things that really grinds my gears is that we keep telling people about how the only kind of sex is penis in vagina sex, but we don’t tell them how penises and especially vaginas work. I mean, not here obviously.

If you’ve been doing your reading about the clitoris and vagina and the penis you’ll know that genitals are either resting or aroused. When they are aroused it’s because blood is sent to the genital area by the brain and trapped in the spongy tissues of the clitoris and penis — in short, they get hard. The vagina also goes through changes during arousal.

There’s lots of blood flow around the very strong muscles surrounding the vaginal walls which helps the vagina to smooth out and stretch. This means that when the vagina is aroused it also relaxes – that’s important. If this doesn’t happen, sex can be painful.

Often during arousal (but not always) there is a lot of additional lubrication which comes through the vaginal walls. So, the vagina will be throbbing but also more relaxed and often quite a lot wetter (I would say moist but a lot of people hate that word for some reason). Sometimes more lubricant might be needed (saliva, or stuff which you can buy from shops or get free from clinics) but often not.

Once the vagina is that aroused (which means it’s relaxed, it’s confusing, do keep up) then it should be able to expand really easily around whatever is being put inside it. This means that not only will it not be painful but it might also feel really nice – let’s aim for that.

Try this at home

Try this: if you make a fist with one hand and then allow it to wrap around a finger or a pen or something, that’s how intercourse should work. You shouldn’t need to push your finger inside your fist. Does that make sense? I was going to make a video of me doing that but I thought it would look weird.

If you have a vagina you can get to know how this feels for yourself. Having solo fun times (aka masturbating) can help you get used to what your vagina might feel like when it’s aroused (again, relaxed). This means that if you do decide to have penetrative sex you’ll know more about what that feels like. Just like you wouldn’t try to have intercourse with a non-aroused penis, don’t try to have sex with a non-aroused vagina. However, even if you have tried this you might still find that it might just be too uncomfortable because of the size of your bits.

Some penises are not going to fit in some vaginas

The other thing you might want to know is that there is a huge variation in the size of penises and vaginas. So some vaginas are going to be too narrow and short for some penises, or some penises will too wide or too long for some vaginas.

Sorry (not sorry) to get all technical but according to this study the average length of the opening to the vagina (the introitus) is 28mm, but that varies between 6mm and 75mm. Looking at the penis this study finds that the average width would be 39mm, varying from 9mm to 60mm. In this study the length of the vagina varies between 40.8 – 95mm, compared with erect penis lengths of between 40 and 260 mm.

The smaller the vagina the more this stretching and relaxation would have to happen. However, for many couples the penis and the vagina are just not going to be the right size for each other even when the vagina is well aroused and stretchy and relaxed. So this means that for a lot of couples, the size and shape of their bits means that this kind of sex is just not going to do it for them. In short, some penises are not going to fit comfortably in some vaginas – so let’s not do that.

Fear of painful sex, causes painful sex

So, even though it shouldn’t be, painful first time sex is common in women with vulvas. This study suggests that more than half of women feel pain the first time they have sex – more than half. For most of those women, they will manage to forget the experience of pain and go on to have non-painful and maybe even enjoyable intercourse in the future.

However, for many women, their experience of painful sex the first time round stays with them. This study, from Natsal 3, suggests that nearly 1 in 10 young women experience painful sex. So many women will carry on having painful sex in the hope that it will get better, but often it doesn’t and in fact it can get worse. The body remembers the pain and so then everything tenses up, which is the opposite of what needs to happen to make sex not painful.

Of course there are lots of other reasons why people may have experienced pain or trauma in the past. Such as abuse, assault, a painful infection, surgery, a feeling of detachment or dislike of their own genitals and the rest of their body. There may also be physical conditions causing painful sex that a doctor could look into.

Why do people keep having painful sex?

You might think that it’s daft that people keep doing something that feels painful, and I wish that people would just stop, but it’s not that simple when it comes to sex. People keep doing it because they don’t have enough information about how their anatomy works but a lot of it is also down to the pressure we’re under about sex.

We are all under a lot of pressure about sex, which means that for many of us we have rubbish sex or sex we don’t actually want. As I’ve said a lot of times on here the history of what we have been taught about sex is that the only thing that counts is penis in vagina sex. Doing anything else is often seen as being a bit strange, or weird, or just ‘not normal’. So even if this penis in vagina sex is meh, or even if it’s painful people still want to do it.

A lot of this is also down to gender and sexism too. The messages we get about sex is that men are supposed to have hard ons and then put them inside another person. Yes this is a real problem and yes it’s also heteronormative AF but I explain more about this in my post about Tops and Bottoms (it’s a very popular read on here). So a lot of this is about people having sex in order to somehow prove their gender (here’s another study).

This is also to do with the idea that the most important sexual organ is the penis and that so long as the man is enjoying the sex that’s all that matters. Again, yes, this is very sexist and the focus on the penis is often at the expense of the vagina. For example, there are loads of studies of the measurements of the aroused penis, but I could only find one measuring the aroused vagina.

Also it’s really common for people (especially for people who are not raised as men) to be focussed on making the other person feel pleasure or in mixing up their own pleasure with that of the other person (again, this was talked about in this study). If you would like some further reading about this I would suggest that you read The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir.

So apart from reading existential feminist philosophy, what’s the advice?

Advice time

Apply the information I’ve given you here about how genitals work to how your own body works. Genitals are a lot more diverse than people realise and if we are going to have sex with our genitals (which is well popular) we need to be able to understand our own and also try to work out what kind of sex will work for us. Speaking of which:

Stop seeing penis in vagina sex as the only kind of sex that exists. A lot of people have really amazing sex without having this kind of sex. When you think about ‘what is sex’ think about all the different kinds of sex that you could enjoy more. We have diverse bodies which have different needs — so we need to be thinking about different kinds of sex to match what our bodies might actually want.

Don’t just keep doing the same thing hoping that it will get better or less painful. It may get worse. If you have a vagina and it’s just too much please try and get some help from a professional. Your local sexual health service should be able to put you in touch with people who know how to treat people having vulval pain from sex. Remember, in the UK this is all free.

If you’re having sex with someone and think that they might be in pain, it’s on you to stop. Because all of the gendered nature of all of this stuff, women might not be able to speak up, particularly if you are a man. In this situation, you have more power. So if you are a man having sex with someone and you think you might be hurting them, please stop. It’s important in terms of consent but also, don’t do things that hurt other people (even if sex education told you that it should hurt).

Here are some of the papers and resources I found helpful in writing this:

A well technical description of female anatomy

Measurement of resting vagina lengths

Measuring aroused vaginas

The Natsal study about painful sex

Etiological correlates something something IDK

Anxiety, pain and sex

If sex hurts am I still a woman?

Experiences of first time sex

Also if you would like to hear me and my mate Meg-John chatting about avoiding painful sex check out our podcast about it. It’s aimed at a grown up audience.

© Justin Hancock, 2018


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