When my supervisor – the glorious founder of Everyday Feminism, Sandra Kim – mentioned in an editorial team meeting that she wanted to see more articles addressing specific questions that folks have around the various topics that we cover, I derailed the entire conversation in my excitement.
You see, because just earlier that day, I had received a message for probably the 857494th time (that’s a rough estimate – it might be more) from a young, cisgender woman in a straight relationship with a cisgender man, asking me to help her understand why, upon attempting penetrative sex for the first time, her partner couldn’t get very far.
And I mean, I get this question a lot – probably more than any other sexuality-related question that I get on Tumblr.
And it’s a good question.
So if you’re wondering the same thing, I have an answer for you. (Spoiler alert: You’re going to be fine.)
But the problem is that this question – and the many iterations of it – is often couched in a paragraph of highly telling scenarios and dangerous solutions, such as the myth about being “too tight,” or the unlikely possibility of having “a medical condition,” or settling for the painful strategy of “just letting him force it,” and believing his claim that “it’s because he’s too big.”
That is, it’s based on a whole lot of bullshit sexist lies that we need to unpack if we really want to understand ourselves.
And I think that understanding ourselves – which includes our bodies, in all of their glorious complexities – is a necessary part of feminism. Because our feminist revolution, I think, starts with our relationships with ourselves.
So, step by step, let’s walk through those myths on our journey toward the answer, shall we?
Myth #1: You Are Broken
One of my least favorite parts about being a sexuality scholar is how often I learn about the ways in which Western medicine – as an extension of society – is oppressive in the name of science.
And one of the ways that that this has happened historically is in the treatment of quote-unquote “female sexual dysfunction.”
And that isn’t to say that female sexual dysfunction doesn’t exist – although I don’t like the idea of calling people “dysfunctional” for having bodies that simply work in a unique way, as all of ours do, really – but rather that the way that science has been constructed to discuss female sexuality is actually based on—well—cis men.
For example, the famed Masters and Johnson (thanks for bringing these two back into “household names” territory, by the way, Showtime) primarily studied the human sexual response cycle and sexual disorders and dysfunctions, and their research in the 1960s laid the groundwork for our understanding of how bodies work when sexually aroused.
But what they decided was that if (cis) women didn’t experience sexual response the same way that (cis) men did (particularly, if the women weren’t prone to spontaneous desire), then that was the result of them having some dysfunction.
Luckily, they were criticized for this, and other researchers – who created alternative sexual response cycle models – pointed out that vaginal physiology can’t be based off of penile physiology (like, duh?).
Further, it was established that calling women dysfunctional – or, essentially broken – for working differently from men is—um—blatantly oppressive.
Shere Hite, for example (who, by the way, we have her to thank for the “70% of women cannot orgasm through penetration alone” statistic), made the point that Masters and Johnson’s work was clearly influenced by patriarchal attitudes about sexual behavior – and that it’s positively necessary that we examine the ways in which our understanding of sexuality is socially constructed.
Because without that critical analysis, we’ve been socialized to believe that if our physiological response to sex differs from men’s that we are irreparably broken.
And that’s fucked up.
But given this history and the biases behind it, and the fact that patriarchy loves to blame women rather than encouraging a little self-reflection and accountability amongst men, is it any wonder that every time we experience something that seems off – like our bodies not seeming “ready” for sex, when our partners’ penises are rearing to go – we automatically assume that something must be wrong with us? And only us? That we must have an arousal disorder? That our experience can only be explained away by labeling it a medical condition?
It’s not true.
And I promise that no matter what your anatomy and physiology do – even if it turns out that it could be categorized as sexual dysfunction, which is possible – you’re not broken.
Myth #2: Your Body Should Magically Be Ready for Sex
Part of how this “I might be broken” fear manifests is in the belief that our ovens don’t need to be preheated, so to speak.
When we understand sexual arousal in terms of how a penis works, what we come to gather is that blood rushes to and gets caught in the genitals, which causes them to swell (the fancy word for that is vasocongestion, by the way), resulting in, for example, an erection.
But while vaginas also experience vasocongestion, there’s more to being sexually aroused – from a physiological perspective – than just that.
What I’m saying is: It’s super important to be well-lubricated in order to avoid friction.
The vagina is made to be well-oiled. It has to be slick (read: wet) in order to be penetrated comfortably. And the cool thing about our vasocongestion is that it aids in exactly that: vaginal lubrication, which is a must-have.
(And if you want an interesting tidbit: Vaginal lubrication is actually caused by plasma from the caught blood seeping in through the vaginal walls. Or maybe you think that’s gross and not at all interesting. But there you have it.)
The thing is: Your body might not produce enough lubrication on its own – and that’s okay. All bodies are different. You can always buy some from a drugstore. I recommend KY or Astroglide.
But the other important thing to remember is that you need to be relaxed in order to be penetrated. Otherwise, your muscles might clench.
The vagina is actually a muscle (which we’ll talk about in myth #4), and just like any other muscle in your body, if you’re nervous, anxious, or scared, it’ll tighten up to protect itself.
So you want to make sure that you feel safe, comfortable, and ready for penetration before you go at it.
This shit takes time, so take it slowly. You’re introducing your body to something new, and it might be confused.
And if you’re convinced that your body should be ready to go without any preparation, then you’re going to run into problems.
Myth #3: There’s Such a Thing As a Too-Big Penis
The face I’m making right now is like this. Sometimes I can’t believe that I even have to say this.
There is literally no such thing as a penis that is too girthy to fit into a vagina, medical anomalies on either end notwithstanding.
One of the vagina’s possibly physiological functions is to push out a baby. Do we really believe that it can’t handle a penis?
Let’s do some math.
The average circumference (that means measuring around, by the way, not across) of an erect penis is 4-5 inches. A baby’s head? Thirteen-and-a-half.
That puts the average penis at about a third of the width of the average baby’s head.
So… no. Your partner is not “too big” for you.
Unless you’re experiencing a sexual disorder (which should be considered a last resort option), your vagina is likely able to accommodate fingers, toys, and penises without a problem.
If your partner is telling you that he must be (heh heh, wink wink, nudge nudge) “too big” to fit, then he’s… confused. And kind of macho-gross, besides.
Myth #4: Sex Is Supposed to Hurt
Now, I know that I just told you that since your vagina can handle the width of a baby, it should be able to handle the width of a penis, but let me be clear about something: Sex should not feel like giving birth.
Giving birth? Painful, from what I understand. Sex? That’s hopefully—you know—pleasurable, which is probably why you’re doing it.
This. Myth. Infuriates. Me.
Let me explain, and then we can backtrack.
The vagina is a pathway of muscles. Like any muscle in your body, if you don’t stretch it, it gets kind of tight.
Think of that feeling in your hamstring when you try to do a forward fold, reaching for your toes, after you haven’t in a long time. Holy shit, right? Well, your vagina is the same way.
Unless you keep stretching and exercising it, it tightens up again. So if you’ve never been penetrated before (or if it’s been a while since you’ve been penetrated, or if you’ve never been penetrated by something of greater size before), your vagina is like, “Whoa whoa whoa. Wait a second! Ow!”
Just like your hamstring.
And just like your hamstring, the answer is not to just force it (never, ever force it), but rather, to stretch it.
And that’s why sex isn’t supposed to be painful: because you need to walk before you can run, and if the first thing that you’re ever putting into your vagina is a penis, then that’s probably not going to work out too well.
The thing is: When your body feels pain, that’s a signal that something is wrong.
Think about it: In what other situation can you fathom that you would be in a playful scenario with another person where they’re causing you pain and you tell them to ignore your grimacing, crying, and bleeding, and keep going?
Hopefully none (unless you’re consensually into that kind of play).
And that’s why this patriarchal lie makes me so fucking angry – because it’s selling to women the notion that their partner’s pleasure is more important than their own physical pain.
Pay attention to your body. It knows what it’s talking about.
Sex should never be painful. Your vagina shouldn’t hurt.
You have to take it slowly and build your flexibility up like you would with any muscle. That’s the piece that you might be missing.
Which brings me to…
Myth #5: Masturbating Will Send You Straight to Hell
To put all my cards on the table: I’m a non-theist who masturbates and has yet to die, so I can’t really guarantee this one.
But I have a feeling that masturbation is probably not going to get you a whole bunch of afterlife punishment.
But what is a sin to me is how many of these women come to me with this issue and then admit that they’ve never touched themselves. Like, ever.
Well, that explains a lot.
Because masturbation is probably the best way to start introducing your vagina to penetration – for a whole bunch of reasons!
To start, you’re completely in charge of it. That’s kick-ass because it means that you can react to your body’s needs automatically, without having to try to communicate them verbally to a partner, which can be confusing.
And that includes being able to react to pain or discomfort.
Furthermore, getting to know your body is a good thing. Not only can it be an awesome practice of self-love, but it also helps you understand what works and what doesn’t.
And if you know what makes you feel good (and what makes you feel not-so-good), then you’re more likely to be able to help a partner understand that, too, through explaining and modeling.
And if you haven’t started there, then I highly recommend it. It’s great practice.
The thing is, though: You need to start small. You need to work your way up.
Remember how I said you need to learn to walk before you can run? Try just a pinky at first, and then work up to something larger like a thicker finger, more than one finger, or a sex toy. Get used to one size before moving up to the next.
And eventually, a penis (no matter how large!) should be no problem.
But the issue here is that women are shamed – immensely – for the practice of masturbation. And that stems from the bullshit belief that women are supposed to be chaste, pure, virginal, and without sexual desire. We’re taught that we’ll be punished for it.
Meanwhile, dudes get the (heh heh, wink wink, nudge nudge) pat on the back from society because “boys will be boys.”
But that’s all nonsense.
Your relationship with your body is important, and you deserve to get to know yourself in a way that is intimate – whether it’s because you eventually want to have penis-in-vagina penetrative sex or not.
If you’re engaging in sex with a partner for the purposes of pleasure, then the sex should be just that – pleasurable.
And if you’re afraid that it’s hurting, then it might be time to take a step back and reevaluate what your needs are – and how society has given you some really unfair messages about how to experience sexuality.
Unlearning this stuff takes time. But hopefully this gave you a place to start.
And if you’re still craving more information on how to prep your vagina for penetration, check out this video.
Melissa A. Fabello, Co-Managing Editor of Everyday Feminism, is a sexuality educator, eating disorder and body image activist, and media literacy vlogger based out of Philadelphia. She enjoys rainy days, Jurassic Park, and the occasional Taylor Swift song and can be found on YouTube and Tumblr. She holds a B.S. in English Education from Boston University and an M.Ed. in Human Sexuality from Widener University. She is currently working on her PhD. She can be reached on Twitter @fyeahmfabello.