For many years, one of my jobs was answering anonymous sex questions for a teen website.
And while the work could be monotonous (how many times can you really say, “Yes, it is possible to get pregnant from unprotected sex,” and “No, it isn’t possible to get pregnant from giving a blow job,” without getting a little numb?), it was also a pretty serious education into how much misinformation is floating around about sex.
I hadn’t thought about those questions in a while, but the other day I decided to pull some of them up. And when I did, I was reminded just how common it is for people to either worry that first sex will be painful, or to actually have painful first sex.
Typical questions looked like this: “My boyfriend and I started having sex for the first time, and I was still a virgin. When he put it in, it hurt really bad. Is their any way for it not to hurt?” and “After you have sex, do girls bleed? And if we do, why?”
I also got questions from concerned partners, like this one: “My girlfriend bleeds a lot every time we have sex and sometimes when I finger her. What is wrong?”
Then there were the questions that revealed multiple layers of misinformation, like: “I’ve had sex twice, and I want to pop her cherry so she will feel good, too. What’s a good way to do this?”
What these questions, and the multitudes of others I answered over the years, revealed was that a lot of people’s first experiences with vaginal penetration are painful and do involve bleeding. As a result, this type of experience seems totally normal, becomes expected, and then goes unquestioned.
But the thing is, just because an awful lot of people are experiencing pain or bleeding with first time vaginal penetration that sure doesn’t mean it has to be this way!
So what is to blame for this situation? Well, a few things actually.
Some of this is based on confusion about anatomy. Some is the result of an inability to communicate about sex. And some is due to continued attempts to control women’s sexuality.
But while some people will never be able to experience pain-free vaginal penetration, (possibly due to underlying medical situations, issues related to gender confirmation surgeries, or past experiences with pain or sexual assault) for cis women who are not coming from these places, the notion that pain is an expected part of penetration is really off base.
Here are four myths that allow this situation to continue.
Myth #1: Losing Virginity Should Involve Breaking the Hymen
Yes, people still buy into this one and the fact that we live in a world where there is a market for hymen reconstruction tells us something about how much emphasis can be put on an awfully small piece of skin.
But this emphasis, and a lot of what people think they know about the hymen, is really off base.
So let’s clear up some misinformation.
The hymen is a thin membrane that stretches over the opening of most vaginas at birth. Far from being an almost impenetrable steel drum, the hymen has natural openings in it. How else would someone’s menstrual fluid get out of their body if they got their period before this tissue got stretched?
And stretching is really a more accurate description of what happens with the hymen than is “breaking” or “popping.”
There are a few reasons for this.
A big one is that like many other parts of the body, the hymen begins to change shape during puberty, and as the result of increased estrogen in the body, it also becomes more elastic.
There is also the fact that many active people with hymens have stretched theirs gradually over the course of daily life long before they ever have vaginal sex. This can happen by riding bikes, doing gymnastics, using tampons, or just plain old living.
How to Deal With an Intact Hymen
There are, of course, plenty of people who still have a lot of hymen tissue when they first have sex. If this is the case for you, the helpful folks at Go Ask Alice have some advice:
Place a finger into your vagina (you can slick it up first with lube) and apply pressure on the vaginal entrance by pressing downward toward the anus. Keep the pressure on for a few minutes, and then release it. Repeat this procedure several times, each time with a little more pressure. Then insert two fingers and apply pressure to the sides of the vaginal entrance, in addition to the downward stretching. You can repeat this process over several days in order to help reduce any discomfort during your first vaginal intercourse.
Sounds a lot better than trying to force your way in!
Occasionally, estrogen doesn’t increase how elastic the hymen is, which can make sex painful. In this situation, a doctor can prescribe a topical estrogen cream to apply to the hymen to help it stretch.
And about 1 in 2000 hymens are imperforate, which means they don’t have openings in them. People normally discover this at puberty when menstrual fluid is unable to leave the body, and they experience abdominal pain. There are also a number of medical procedures to treat this.
But while these medical situations can arise, the much more common reason for pain and bleeding related to the hymen is the idea that one simply has to force their way past this barrier, and the resulting discomfort and bleeding is to be expected.
Myth #2: The Fact That Sex Hurts Is Nature’s Way of Making Sure Girls Aren’t Promiscuous
Perpetuating the idea that sex will hurt is a good way to control female sexuality. Women and girls continue to get the message that if they have sex, they’ll be sluts, get diseases, and yes, be in pain.
Far from explaining how to make sure sex isn’t painful and how to avoid excessive bleeding, or reassuring students that sex should actually be pleasurable, such programs often include the message that that sex will hurt – as another way to scare girls out of becoming sexually active.
But that just doesn’t work.
Studies have found that kids who get abstinence-only education are no less likely to have sex than are kids who get comprehensive sexuality education.
The main difference, however? Those who get abstinence-only education are actually more likely to get pregnant and contract sexually transmitted infections than are those that don’t.
And then there are the virginity pledge components.
What they have been demonstrated to do, however, is increase guilt and shame.
They also promote the idea that negative outcomes of a broken pledge – like, say, having painful sex – are one’s just deserts for not sticking to something that was a ridiculous ask in the first place.
But even for those pledgers who do wait to have sex until marriage, the outcome can be poor.
As one woman writes on xoJane, “I lost my virginity on my wedding night, with my husband, just as I had promised that day when I was 10 years old… Sex hurt. I knew it would. Everyone told me it would be uncomfortable the first time.”
Really, in this world of abstinence-only education and virginity pledging, there is just no winning!
Myth #3: Losing Your Virginity Is a One-Time Event That You Just Need to Grit Your Teeth and Endure
Pain and bleeding from first-time sex can be the result of a lot of things. Going too fast, not using lube, an intact hymen, and an infection or injury can all be culprits.
But when there are so many expectations wrapped up in “losing virginity,” and so many assumptions about how it should go down, we fail to account for these issues and instead just accept pain and bleeding as the default.
Luckily, there are a lot of things we can be telling people about sex and their bodies that can help them avoid having their first sexual experiences marked by pain.
One of the more important things is that vaginal intercourse does not have to be a one time “ram your way in, get it over with as fast as you can, thank god we got that out of the way” kind of thing.
People need to learn that they can ease their way in. They should think about penetration as a slow process that may or may not continue during that particular session, and they should know that it can take a number of times before vaginal penetration feels like it should move forward.
As Therese Shechter, the filmmaker behind the documentary How to Lose Your Virginity says:
In my film, Ellen, who was brought up in a Conservative abstinence-until-marriage program, says she had no idea what lube was and neither did her new husband. She described intercourse on her wedding night as ‘surgery without anesthesia.’ In contrast, Brita and Dan, another couple profiled in the film, were also waiting until their wedding night to have intercourse. In contrast, they planned to use graduated vaginal dilators until then to ensure that it would be painless for Brita (and it worked).
There’s more, too.
Here are some really solid tips for first-time vaginal penetration from sexuality educator Cory Silverberg:
- Want it: Sex you don’t want to have is much more likely to hurt.
- Like sex: If you only hold negative ideas about sex, it can get in the way of your enjoying having it.
- Mentally prepare for first intercourse: Ask yourself why you want to do it, what you’re expecting from it, how you’ll know if it went well or not well, and what you really think of the person you’re planning on doing it with.
- Prepare your feelings: When you imagine having intercourse, how do you think it will make you feel? How do you think you’ll respond if you don’t feel that way?
- Practice on your own: Masturbating will let you know a bit about how your body responds to touch and sexual stimulation. Experimenting with penetration on your own is also a great way to prepare yourself for the experience of allowing someone to penetrate you.
- Get on top: Being on top will allow you to control the depth of penetration, the angle, the speed, and most of the movement.
- Use lubricant: If you’re feeling tense and nervous, your pelvic and vaginal muscles may be tense, which can make penetration more difficult and painful.
- Avoid drugs and alcohol: Both drugs and alcohol get in the way of you paying attention to what’s happening in your body. If it hurts, that’s your body’s cue telling you to stop or to try something else.
- Talk first: You can do this as a theoretical conversation, starting off with something like, “Let’s say we were ever going to have intercourse, how would we deal with __________?”
- Prepare your body: Thinking about how you’ll feel physically and what you need to feel safe and comfortable is important to enjoying intercourse. Physical preparations also include knowing what kind of contraception and STI protection you’ll use.
Taking the time to consider how the experience can be enhanced, not only in a rose-petals-on-the-hotel-bed way, can actually be the most important part of making the experience enjoyable.
Myth #4: We Don’t Need to Look for the Source of Pain Because It’s Just Part of Having a Vagina
Recently, I was talking to a woman I know about the fact that so many people take pain with first sex as a given. I mentioned that I tell my health classes that unless there is a medical or physical situation, vaginal penetration should never hurt – not even the first time.
The woman was skeptical. She recalled the first time she had vaginal sex during her freshman year of college. “I knew it was going to hurt. I could never use tampons comfortably, and always bled a bit when we fooled around. So I got really drunk. And thank god I did because it was excruciating! Then I bled on and off for days.”
She paused for a second and said, “You’re telling me I could have had sex without that?”
“Yep,” I said. That was exactly what I was telling her.
Partly that is because this woman has now gone on to have a few decades of pleasurable sex since then. So I suggested that she consider what could have happened had she and her partner taken it slower, not set herself up for one first time, and instead saw losing her virginity as a process.
There is no way for her to go back in time for her to have a redo. But I stand by my assessment.
We are so sold on the notion that “losing virginity” has to be a one time big moment event that we lose sight of the myriad ways sexual encounters can go down.
However, while the focus on the one time nature of virginity is a huge issue, so too is something else: complicated misogyny.
According to Therese Shechter, there is a system that perpetuates the idea that first-time sex will be painful. She says,
“Historically, men weren’t that interested in whether women had positive experiences with sex – or whether female pleasure was even possible. It’s really no wonder that vaginal pain seemed like a given, instead of the self-reinforcing result of not knowing or caring whether a woman was ready for intercourse.
“Historic ‘virginity’ tests also grew out of a lack of interest or understanding of how women’s bodies worked. This is how you get the culturally accepted myth that pain and blood are definitive proof of ‘virginity.’ What they really indicate is how sensitive the vagina is on any given day, whether it’s the first or twentieth time someone has intercourse.”
But just because this system seems established doesn’t mean it has to stay that way, and challenging this notion is an important step in sexual empowerment for everyone.
Ellen Kate is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism. She’s a health educator, sometimes writer, and mom. She has worked at Manhattan’s Museum of Sex, developed sex education curricula in Mumbai, India, and run HIV prevention programs for at-risk teens in the South Bronx. Currently, Ellen runs a middle and high school health education program and teaches human sexuality at Brooklyn College. More of Ellen’s writing can be found here. Follow her on Twitter @ellenkatef.
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