Why We Need to Stop Normalizing Painful Sex

Two people hugging and smiling in bed

Two people hugging and smiling in bed

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I’d heard the rumors about first-time penis-in-vagina sex being painful, but I always had the sense I’d be just fine. My vibrator never hurt me as long as I was turned on, so how different could a penis really be?

But then, one of my friends told me it really hurt for her. She advised me to expect pain – and definitely not to expect much pleasure – so that I wouldn’t be disappointed.

I was still doubtful, but then she and another friend reiterated to me that first-time sex was just rarely ever good and often very painful.

So, by the time I actually got around to it, I was pretty terrified.

I held my breath, waiting for my boyfriend’s penis to go all the way in. Then he told me it already was.

“Oh, that actually feels really good!” I said, and we laughed. My friends had been wrong. It didn’t hurt, and it was great.

Meanwhile, two other friends of mine had PIV sex for the first time that year. Both experienced pain for weeks, but didn’t try to alter anything because they thought that was just how it went.

One of them later figured out that when she used lube and lots of foreplay, the pain went away. The problem wasn’t just part of having a vagina, it was with how they were doing it.

For another friend of mine, the pain never went away. After pushing through it for months, she finally realized it wasn’t supposed to be like that and decided she actually preferred to stick to other acts, like oral sex.

As these stories illustrate, learning that painful sex is normal can have negative effects no matter what your experience. If the prediction doesn’t come true, you get freaked out over nothing. If it does, you don’t change it. And if you can’t change it (for example, due to a pain disorder – more on that later), you assume you have to grin and bear it.

Our cultural beliefs about pain during sex involve women, and they also involve people with vaginas. These aren’t the same thing, but I’ll be addressing both because our views of vaginas and our views of women shape each other.

People with vaginas who aren’t women may have personal experience with this – as a non-binary person with a vagina, I certainly do – while other points may apply more so to women, especially those who have sex with cis men, since they’re more likely to be told these problematic things in the first place.

After first-time intercourse didn’t live up to the scary things I’d been told, I did some research and learned that what I’d been taught was a lie – namely, that people with vaginas all have a “cherry” that gets “popped” when you have sex for the first time – or at least gets “torn” by something or another.

Nothing in my vagina ever broke from anything, and a number of my friends have had the same experience.

That’s because the hymen or “vaginal corona” is just a thin layer of skin at the edge of the vaginal opening that can tear or stretch at different points throughout your life.

My best guess is that through exercise, tampon use, masturbating, being fingered, or other activities that can alter the vaginal corona, I had stretched mine, so it never had to tear to accommodate anything. Or maybe, like a number of people, I never had one in the first place or had a very small one.

And get this: Even if your vaginal corona is on the large or thick side, it’s actually not the most common cause of pain during first-time sex, according to Good Vibrations staff sexologist Carol Queen, which may be why most vaginas don’t bleed the first time a penis is inside them.

That more often comes from vaginal tightness or lack of lubrication, which can be fixed by making sure you’re emotionally and physically ready.

Now that I know all this, I’m determined to make sure other people with vaginas don’t go into first-time penetrative sex with the terror I had.

Because this isn’t just about one sexual experience. It’s about how we think of our sexuality.

When we start doing a particular activity with the thought “this will be good for my partner, but not me,” that sets the stage for how we envision all the future times we do it.

And this is especially insidious for women who partner with men, because we learn to expect less than what men would get. We become resigned to the idea that things just won’t feel good for us. We do things that don’t sound appealing at all because guys demand it.

And in the process, we accept the kind of dynamic women deal with in all sorts of relationships with men.

I call bullshit on this. If you’re not enjoying sex as much as your partner, that’s a totally valid reason to stop, whether it’s your first time, your second time, your third time, or your hundredth time.

If you’re in pain, that’s not your body’s fault. If you’re not into it, that’s not your body’s fault. If you don’t orgasm when you want to, that’s not your body’s fault.

So hold your partner accountable. And hold yourself accountable to advocate for what you want.

Painful sex is not inevitable for most of us. But despite that biological reality, we’ve clung to the idea that it is. Why?

Hint: It rhymes with shmachiarchy.

Normalizing painful sex upholds patriarchy, harms our sex lives, and promotes unhealthy relationship ideals. Here’s why it needs to stop.

1. It’s Part of a Really Effed-Up ‘Romantic’ Narrative

As I mentioned, my first reaction to having pleasurable first-time PIV sex was relief. But then, I experienced sadness. Yup: I was sad that I wasn’t in pain.

The more first-time sex scenes I consumed in movies and books, the more I felt this way. In Twilight: Breaking Dawn, the protagonist wakes up with bruises after her wedding night, which is supposed to be evidence of her partner’s passion.

In Fifty Shades of Grey, the main character’s sadistic love interest puts aside his kink when he learns she’s a “virgin” and treats her gently the first time they have sex, as if the pain she’ll experience earns her the right to be spared the whippings.

In A Dangerous Method, the camera zooms in on blood on the bed after Carl Jung and Sabina Spielrein first have sex so the audience can be sure he was the one to sexually liberate her.

After seeing media depictions like these, I was enamored with the idea that you could love someone so much, you want to give them the supposedly superlative pleasure of “deflowering” you no matter how much it hurt.

I craved a lover who would kiss away my pain, a knight in shining armor to be “gentle” and “protect” me from the men out there who would hurt me even more.

I wanted someone so passionate and “manly” he couldn’t help but get carried away and be a little too rough.

How effed up is that?!

Outside the context of a BDSM relationship, we would never expect a man to romanticize a woman who hurt him. But we romanticize men who hurt women all the time.

Through books and movies like Fifty Shades and Twilight, we glorify intimate partner violence. Aggression – especially toward women – has been deemed a sexy male characteristic.

The romanticized narrative of painful first-time sex upholds both this stereotype and one of a chivalrous “Mr. Fix It” who will provide so much physical or emotional pleasure the pain will fade.

Both these archetypes can lead us to seek out and accept unhealthy relationships based on patriarchal power dynamics rather than equality.

2. It’s Part of a Sexist ‘Virginity’ Narrative That Punishes Women for Being Sexual

Part of the reason our culture has clung to the idea that people (and particularly women) with vaginas should feel pain during sex is that we rely on this idea to reinforce gender norms.

We’ve developed this imaginary concept of “virginity” that says someone has changed once they’ve had PIV sex. Myths about the hymen uphold the notion that this transformation is real.

In reality, having sex is just one of many things you can do for the first time, and PIV is just one sexual act among many. Yet, for women, it’s used to signify that they’re suddenly impure and now men’s property.

The belief that sex will tear part of a woman’s body provides a symbol of a man’s ownership over her. It lets us falsely believe we’ve determined whether she’s been good and loyal to him or allowed somebody else to tarnish her integrity.

This isn’t the only way we warn women they’ll be punished for having sex. We also warn them about “getting attached” or “losing it” to a jerk.

These warnings all serve similar functions. Since we view sex as something “bad girls” do, we have trouble imagining that women could become sexually active without negative consequences.  

Normalizing pain during sex reinforces the belief that by engaging in a sexual relationship, a woman has done something wrong.

3. Pain Could Indicate an Issue That Needs Addressing

I’m not saying pain during sex isn’t real. It definitely is. But the causes aren’t what we usually assume.

A recent study in BJOG: An International Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology found that one in ten cis women experience pain during sex. The sources range from chronic medical conditions to lack of arousal or comfort. Either way, they should be addressed.

Many people suffering from medical conditions like endometriosis, vulvodynia, or vaginismus don’t seek help because they think their pain just comes with the territory of having a vagina.

And if the pain is situational, they and their partners may not change the situation. I once told my ex he was hurting me by being too rough, and he responded, “I assume that’s a good hurt?”

The same often happens with very painful periods, because unfortunately, we’re taught that having a uterus is just a negative experience we have to deal with.

Instead, we should learn that pain points toward an issue, whether that issue is a physical condition or a psychological one (or both, since they’re so often related). Then, we can try to resolve it.

Some people don’t resolve it, and painful sex is a part of their reality. These people should be taught it’s okay not to have the kind of sex that hurts them, rather than viewing their pain as a normal thing you just have to push through.

That way, if people experience pain and/or no pleasure, they may think “maybe this isn’t for me” instead of “I guess I’ll just have to deal with it.”

4. It Contributes to the Larger Idea That Womanhood Is Unpleasant

Not all people with vaginas are women, and vice versa. But since people tend to associate the two, our cultural attitudes toward vaginas affect our attitudes toward women.

Because we expect women to be in a natural, nearly perpetual state of pain, we view being a woman as inferior to being a man (while not acknowledging non-binary people). And this shapes our view of women themselves as inferior to men.

Viewing our bodies as inherently uncooperative and destructive is disempowering in so many areas of our lives. How could it not damage us to be taught that just being the type of person you are is an overall bad experience?

I know it damaged me. I remember deeply wishing I were a cis boy when I first learned about periods as something painful. I remember feeling cheated when I learned sex caused pain and was less pleasurable for women.

If we were taught that our vaginas were a source of pleasure, not pain, we might feel very differently about our bodies.

And if we were taught that women’s sexuality was empowering, not disempowering, we might feel very differently about women.

***

Though my first time was only pleasurable, I experience pain during sex from time to time. Often, it manifests like a feeling that I have to pee. Sometimes, it feels like the skin’s being rubbed raw.

I used to push through it for the sake of my partner and with the hope that it would pass.

Then, I thought about how I’d feel if my partner did that. I’d feel sad for them and personally cheated out of mutually pleasurable sex. I only want to have sex with someone who’s enjoying it.

So now, I always say something immediately. Even if it means stopping multiple times. Even if my partner seems really into it. Even if it means he doesn’t finish. One person’s comfort trumps another’s fun.

Women and femmes have been socialized to always put their partners’ pleasure first and view their own as a nice, but optional side effect of pleasing others.

With that socialization, painful or pleasureless sex may not seem like a big deal. It can feel like if you’ve accomplished the “goal” of getting your partner off, the sex has been a success.

So, de-normalizing painful sex goes beyond learning about anatomy. It requires changing our priorities.

It requires that we revise our standard for good sex to include pleasure and no pain (unless it’s wanted) for both parties.

It requires that we embrace having a vagina as an experience that opens the door to pleasure and no more pain than any other body part.

It requires that we change our very definition of a vagina from something that causes problems to something that provides capabilities.

It requires that we reshape our relationships with our bodies from enmity to friendship.

And it requires that we transform our view of women, both cis and trans, as well as other people with vaginas, from territory to be conquered by men to humans free to enjoy the many pleasures their bodies allow.

Suzannah Weiss is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism. She is a New York-based writer whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, Salon, Seventeen, BuzzFeed, The Huffington Post, Bustle, and more. She holds degrees in Gender and Sexuality Studies, Modern Culture and Media, and Cognitive Neuroscience from Brown University. You can follow her on Twitter @suzannahweiss. Read her articles here.