How much pain during sex is normal?

How much pain during sex is normal?

How much pain during sex is normal?

By Nicole Guappone

Let's bust some sex myths.

You’ve probably heard them all—if you have a vagina, “the first time will be painful.” “It’s normal for penetration to hurt if it’s been awhile since you last had sex.” It’s even “normal for it to hurt when penetration begins during any sexual encounter”! Also, ”it’s all your fault.”

Pain during sex isn’t normal, but it IS common—and we’re calling BS on every one of these. 

The first time is painful

Women and AFAB folks are often told that their first time having sex will hurt and they shouldn’t expect it to be pleasurable. This is a sad misconception that can end up leading to a future of disappointing and even painful sexual experiences.

Pelvic pain doctor Sonia Bahlani, MD, told us that “during a new sexual experience—whether the first time you have intercourse or just with a new partner—there is a possibility that there can be some temporary or slight discomfort due to new positions or unfamiliar friction that generally subsides quickly.” The key word here is temporary. “If the pain is consistent or if it’s exquisite, that’s not something that you should shrug off as ‘normal’ or acceptable.”

How to make your first time not hurt

So while it can’t be guaranteed that you will have a completely discomfort-free first time, know that the pain or discomfort is normally brief and subsides quickly. To make sure this is the case…

  • Try to relax. Diaphragmatic breathing can help with this. Breathe into your ribs, side body, back, and pelvic floor. Breathe in for at least 4 counts and out, slowly, for 4-8 counts. 
  • Take your time. Warm yourself up, explore different kinds of foreplay.
  • Have lube on hand and plan to use it no matter how wet you are. 
  • Know that if it does end up hurting a lot or consistently, this would be a good indicator to see a doctor. Complete this pelvic pain assessment to create a document you can take into your appointment. It includes a brief pain history and even some tips so you can get the most out of your appointment!  

Remember, don’t expect your first time to hurt because with patience and gentle touch, it doesn’t have to. 

But what about the hymen? 

One reason women and other AFAB folks expect their first time to be painful is because they are told that when their hymen “breaks,” it will hurt. The hymen is a membranous tissue that partially or (rarely) wholly covers the vaginal opening, however, this tiny piece of anatomy doesn’t actually break or tear. For some folks, the hymen will stretch and thin over time with regular physical activity (like biking or gymnastics) or with tampon or menstrual cup use. Many people won’t even know this happens because it doesn’t hurt!  

Dr. Jen Gunter, gynecologist and author of The Vagina Bible, explains that the purpose of the hymen, which is much more rigid at birth, is to keep the infant vagina clean and protected from bodily fluids and bacteria, as the vagina is much more sensitive to irritants. By age three, the hymen has started to thin because its purpose had been fulfilled. 

So why so much emphasis on such a small part of the body that really has nothing to do with sex? Short answer: purity culture. A woman is “pure” until she bleeds on her wedding night (so the heteronormative story goes). However, the blood vessels in this membrane are so few that there would be very little blood, if any, but making intercourse sound painful and bloody is a good way to keep people (women) from doing it before marriage. 

It’s normal for penetration to hurt if it’s been a long time since you've had penetrative sex 

If you have pain or discomfort after a “dry spell,” it may be for very similar reasons as having pain your first time. You may be with a new partner and you’re nervous or not properly warmed up. If this is the case, try to extend foreplay and use lots of lube

The pain is not a result of not having penetrative sex; Contrary to popular belief, your vagina doesn’t shrivel up or need to be “stretched out” again if you haven’t had anything inside of it for awhile (although if vaginal atrophy is a concern, like after menopause for some people, inserting something into the vagina to increase blood flow can help the tissue maintain its integrity). However, that old saying, “if you don’t use it, you lose it” has some truth to it when it comes to sex: the more you are able to experience pleasure, and the more familiar sexual activity is to your body, the easier it will be for your body to relax and receive pleasure.

The vagina is a muscle and muscles need flexibility: they require the ability to relax and contract and have a healthy range of motion. The more supple and flexible your vagina and pelvic floor muscles are, the more pleasurable sex can be. This is why kegels are not necessarily the answer to better sex: being able to contract the pelvic floor is good, but we also need to be able to release those muscles. 

Don’t let anyone tell you that sex hurts because you aren’t doing it often enough. That is a total myth. 

It’s normal to feel pain when penetration begins in a sexual encounter

False! It is common for this to happen, but again, it shouldn’t be expected or tolerated. The entrance of the vagina is called the vestibule, and pain that is experienced there or just upon entry is vestibular pain. People often describe it as a tearing or burning sensation, and it may be temporary or last throughout intercourse.

To help relax these muscles and potentially ease this pain, lubricate a finger or thumb and gently insert into the vagina. Slowly run your finger along the bottom of your vaginal opening. This can help relax the superficial muscles that are right inside the vagina. 

Go more in depth with our Pelvic Gym program for superficial pain (that is, pain on the vulva or just inside the vagina).

If you are expecting sex to hurt, it is more likely that it will. This does NOT mean that it’s all in your head, it just means that there is a connection between our emotions or expectations and our physical bodies. If your body is expecting pain, it may tense up to “guard” itself against that pain. That tension can then lead to pain. Yes, it can be a vicious cycle. 

Now that we’ve busted these myths about painful sex, how do you know when your pain is something that should be examined by a professional?

When should I see a professional about painful sex?

According to Dr. Bahlani, if your pain “lingers, if it is a burning sensation, or if it continues after intercourse, you should be evaluated by a professional. If there’s any sensitivity during arousal or sensitivity to light touch or pressure, that’s something to get evaluated as well.”

Dr. Bahlani says your health history is one of the most important parts of the equation. Once your gynecologist has ruled out an infection (like yeast or bacterial vaginosis, which can cause pain and burning during penetration), you may consider seeing a pelvic pain specialist. 

“There are certain questions that we really need to ask to properly explore sexual pain,” Dr. Bahlani tells us. “Did you have pain the first time that you had intercourse or have you had pain-free, pleasurable sex before developing pain? Do you have pain during periods? Are there certain things that make it better or worse? Are you able to achieve penetration with a finger or toy or is it completely impossible?”

All of these questions can help your doctor find the root cause of your pain (and don’t forget to take your pelvic pain assessment with you!). The three-part exam that Dr. Bahlani performs includes a vulvar and vaginal examination with a microscope to rule out dermatological causes like lichen sclerosus, and a q-tip test which involves inserting a q-tip into the vagina to test for any pain or sensitivity. If you are comfortable with it, you may then have a manual exam.

Tools and toys for less painful sex

Our goal is to help you have more pleasure, less pain. Our flagship product, Ohnut, was created to give you control over the depth of penetration during sex so you can experience more “yes!” and less “yikes!” Then we added a vibrator for a little extra relaxation and sensation (for all parties involved).

Dilator therapy can be helpful if you have chronically tense pelvic floor muscles, and pelvic wands can help you find trigger points deeper inside the body. 

And don’t forget the lube! Aloe isn’t just for sunburns anymore. 

Painful sex is not your fault

Women and AFAB folks are taught to expect sex to hurt and that if it does, it’s our job to endure it. There are many reasons why penetrative sex may be painful for you—some of those reasons are simple (just add lube!) and others are more complex and may require professional help. Either way, do not accept painful sex as your “normal.”

“I think the goal should not just be pain-free sex, but pleasurable sex,” Dr. Bahlani says. “Oftentimes when we’re suffering from pain, it’s hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel and to see that despite the pain, we are worth more than just getting rid of the pain. We deserve to feel pleasure, too.”

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