Troubleshooting Sex

Troubleshooting Sex

Sex can be physically painful, and that doesn’t mean “you’re doing it wrong”.

When we speak with young people about sex in frank and honest ways, one question that we often hear is “does sex hurt?” We hear this question because there’s a common line in media and conversations about sex, which says how much it hurts for girls (people with vulvas, more accurately) to “lose their virginity.” We hear phrases like “popping the cherry” and “tearing the hymen,” and sex educators everywhere grimace to hear these phrases.

My comprehensive sex education class in high school taught me that if a girl has penetrative intercourse – if something is inserted into her vagina – that her hymen will tear. That you just have to grit your teeth and bear it, and that once it heals, sex will be less painful without that pesky hymen in the way. It was a surprisingly sex-positive program, but even our woman health teachers perpetuated some of the myths that haunt women’s sexuality into adulthood.

The hymen is a thin membrane of skin that often covers the vaginal entrance, but it can look any number of ways. It can be smooth and largely unbroken, just a few holes that let out menstrual blood; it can be a half-covering, and just stretch across one part of the vagina; it can be barely present at all, or not present. These differences could have developed naturally as the vulva grew, or the hymen could have been damaged or stretched from physical activity, masturbation, using tampons, or sex.

Experiencing penetration for the first time doesn’t have to be painful. With lots of foreplay, masturbation, digital penetration, and slow care, most people can have pain-free intercourse.

But not everyone can.

Sometimes I hear a young person ask “does sex hurt?” and their sex positive, hymen-aware educator or parent says “not if you’re doing it right!” or “if it hurts, you’re doing something wrong!”
This has the benefit of reassuring people who have never had sex before. The dominant conversation surrounding having sex for the first time is around how much it will hurt, so the reassurance is necessary. But what it also does is isolate and confuse people who do experience pain when they have sex.

Why do some people experience pain when they have sex?

Some of them might actually be tearing or stretching their hymens. It might even heal the way it was before it tore (we like when things heal, usually), and need to be stretched again, or more entirely, before penetration can become pain-free. Some people’s hymens are thicker than others, and may take some concerted stretching before penetration will be comfortable. Some people have especially fragile hymens, on the other hand, and will tear very easily, even if they or their partners are gently stretching it out. If people with hymens want to have penetrative sex, it might be painful at first. This isn’t as common as the media tells us – no, there isn’t always blood or pain – but it does happen sometimes, and we need to make sure that we leave room for that experience, even as we try and reassure young people that sex shouldn’t hurt.

Sex is something that your body needs to get used to, just like all physical activities. Just like you can’t run a mile for the first time without some soreness, sex is an activity that activates a lot of muscles. Thrusting is surprisingly difficult, and can cause abdominal soreness, and soreness in any muscles you’re engaging to have sex (thighs, arms, butt, tongue, fingers, etc). The vagina has muscles, as well, and those muscles can hurt during or after sex, especially when you’re new at having sex. With lots of foreplay and arousal, the vagina should “unfold”, kind of like an origami balloon. The aroused vagina can fit a lot more into it than the unaroused vagina, but a person newly having sex may still be unused to having anything inside of their vagina, which can cause some pain or soreness. Plus, some people have smaller vaginas, and some people have bigger penises – trying to fit those two together could be painful for either partner (though more likely to be painful for the partner with the vagina).

Some bodies don’t naturally produce a lot of vaginal lubrication, and penetration can cause micro-tears or abrasions inside of the vagina or around the vulva, which can be painful. It can also cause micro-tears or abrasions on the penis, which can be painful. Using store-bought lube is a great way to fix that problem! Unfortunately, there’s a lot of stigma against using store-bought lube. I remember a health teacher in high school who said to the girls, “if you’re not wet enough for sex, there hasn’t been enough foreplay. Tell your boyfriend to put away the KY jelly and get back to work!” It was certainly a statement meant to put focus on sexual pleasure for women, which I appreciated, but it had the side effect of making it clear that a lack of vaginal lubrication meant a lack of arousal, which isn’t always true. Lots of bodies don’t produce enough natural lubrication for easy sexual intercourse, and that doesn’t mean anyone is doing anything wrong.

Many STIs cause physical pain during sex. Sores, infections, swelling… all of these can cause pain that is only apparent during sex, especially if you’re not the sort of person to masturbate or do some genital exploration on your own. If sex with a partner is the only time that you get up close and personal with your junk, than it might seem like sex is the cause of pain, when it’s really just something exacerbating an existing problem. This is one of the reason that it is important to know what your genitals are up to, even during a dry spell. You can’t ignore them when you’re not getting any, because they don’t stop existing when you stop paying attention to them.

Non-transmitted infections, like UTIs, yeast infections, and bacterial vaginosis can also cause some serious pain during sex – even if you don’t notice a yeast infection in its earlier stages, you certainly will if you try having penetrative intercourse – ouch! Plus, things like the above all disrupt the delicate flora balance of the vagina, leading to things like labial tears.

Some people just have dry skin in their vulva, and sex causes little tears around their vagina and labia, and those tears hurt. It has nothing to do with a lack of arousal – it’s just a lack of moisture that’s the problem! Regularly massaging the labia with a moisturizer can help with this kind of pain! Just make sure it doesn’t have scents or sugars…

Some people have vaginusmus, a pain disorder caused by over-reactive pelvic muscles, which tense up whenever there is any kind of genital contact. It can be moderately mild – some achiness when there is intercourse or penetration – or a major problem – debilitating muscle spasms when underwear is too tight, or when touching anywhere on the vulva. Vaginusmus generally requires medical intervention like physical therapy for pelvic muscles, TENS therapy, or muscle-relaxant suppositories. One of the most dangerous parts of vaginusmus is how under-diagnosed it is; thousands of people tell their doctors that they’re experiencing vaginal pain, and their doctors tell them that they just need to engage in more foreplay. Ugh.

Pain for people with penises is a little less common, but besides pain from chafing or STIs, wearing a too-small condom can cause penis pain, lack of sensation, or difficulty orgasming. Another well-meaning fact from sex ed teachers is that “all condoms fit any penis!” and they show this fact by fitting a condom over something improbably large, like a baseball bat. “If he says he can’t fit a condom,” the teacher says, stretching the condom over her entire shoe, calf, and knee,” he’s either lying, or is bigger than this, in which case: run.” And the whole class giggles, and resolves to not listen to men when they say that their penises hurt. But just because a condom CAN stretch large enough to go over a July zucchini from your teacher’s garden doesn’t mean it would be comfortable for the person with that penis to wear it. Some condoms are uncomfortable tight on the penises they’re on, and the people with those penises don’t realize that it’s not supposed to be painful, because their health teacher told them that any condom will fit. Well, no, there are condom sizes for a reason.

Something that we don’t tell young people too often is about sex-accidents. Most sexually-active adults that I know have stories about bumped heads, bruised elbows, scars, scrapes, strains, etc from sex. Sex is a physical activity, like a sport, except we do it without protective gear over our genitals! It can hurt to have your cervix bumped by a bad angle, or to be inside someone’s vagina or anus when they sneeze. You could use a toy without a flanged base for anal play, and end up in the hospital. You can get accidentally bitten, or inhale when you meant to swallow. You can fall off the bed, or skid sideways, or strain tendonitis, or hit the headboard. It just happens sometimes, and it hurts first, and then (hopefully) is funny.

We forget to tell our young folks that sex is ridiculous, and that all sorts of mishaps, injuries, weird noises, weird fluids, or weird sensations come part and parcel with the physical act of engaging with genitals.

I’m not here to scare anyone reading this who has never had sex before. On the contrary – I want to show you that sex isn’t mysterious or sacred or unknowable – it involves parts of your bodies that you already own and (hopefully) have had a lot of one-on-one time with, getting to know them. It involves other people that you already know and (hopefully) have a good and respectful relationship with. It can hurt sometimes, and it doesn’t mean that you didn’t have enough foreplay or that you’re using the wrong hole. It just means that you need to do a little trouble-shooting. Talk to a parent, if you can. Talk to a doctor, if possible, or a trusted peer or mentor.

And if you don’t have any of those, talk to me.

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