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Painful sex

First thing’s first: sex should not be painful. However, many people will experience pain during sex at some point in their lives and it’s not always obvious why. 

We expect sex to be fun and pleasurable, so it can be very confusing if sex is painful or uncomfortable. It can even be upsetting if it affects sex you usually enjoy, your relationship, or how you feel about yourself.  

We all deserve to have enjoyable sex that doesn’t hurt, and if you find sex is often painful it’s important to get help. 

Why does pain happen?

Pain during masturbation

A lot of this page talks about sex with a partner, but sometimes masturbation can be painful as well and this information will be helpful for that, too. More about masturbation

Pain is your body’s way of telling you that something is wrong or that part of you needs some care and attention. It’s not your fault and painful sex is actually very common, though it isn’t supposed to be, whether it’s your first time having sex or not. 

It can help to understand why pain might happen during sex: 

  • Some parts of our bodies, especially our genitals, can be very sensitive! Touching them in a way that’s rougher than you enjoy, uses sharp nails or is without lubrication can be uncomfortable or even painful. 
  • Pain can be a sign of sexually transmitted infections (STIs), thrush, urinary tract infections (UTIs) like cystitis and other medical problems. 
  • Pain can indicate damage to part of your body, e.g. tearing or soreness from previous sex. 
  • If you’re not physically aroused, touch of any kind can be uncomfortable – especially if it’s somewhere sensitive, like your clitoris or the tip of your penis. Being wet/lubricated, relaxed and with lots of blood flow in the area (so penises get erect and vulvas swell) helps with this. 
  • If you’re not feeling turned on or ‘in the mood’, touch can be unpleasant. For example, being tickled is rarely fun when you’re tired and irritable! The same is true of sexual stimulation.  
  • Receiving penetration (a penis, finger or toy being inserted into your vagina or anus) can be more demanding for your body than penetrating someone else. Your muscles have to relax to let something in, and the skin in these areas is sensitive and can be easily hurt. 
  • A previous painful experience with sex might make it harder to feel aroused and enjoy touch. It can also make the muscles around the vagina and anus clench (to protect you from the pain you’re worried about) and make penetration difficult and more painful. This is also known as vaginismus.

What is vaginismus?

Vaginismus is when the muscles of the vagina tighten on their own when something is put into it – fingers, penis, sex toy or tampon. This tightening of the muscles can make any penetration painful.

Vaginismus is often caused by anxiety or previous bad experiences but can also be from birth.

There are lots of treatment options that can help including therapy and relaxation techniques so it’s really important you go to a sexual health clinic or your GP.

More about vaginismus

Opening quotation marks

Whilst I felt incredibly alone at times, vaginismus is actually far more common than I had every imagined.


What is vulvodynia?

Vulvodynia is an unexplained pain in the vulva. The pain may be constant or triggered by touch, in just one specific spot or the whole area.

Vulvodynia can be a long term problem but there are things that can help so it’s important to visit a sexual health clinic or your GP.

More about vulvodynia

What can you do about it?

Medical help

If you are experiencing severe or persistent/frequent pain when having sex, or painful sex is negatively affecting how you feel, you should seek help from a medical professional. They can test and treat for infections, help soreness and tearing heal, and help you to find and access any further support required. 

Find a local clinic

Whilst it can feel awkward or embarrassing seeking help for pain or concerns with your vagina, vulva, penis or testicles, it’s really important that you don’t avoid speaking to someone if something is wrong. Healthcare professionals are there to help, not to judge, and chances are it’s something they will have seen lots of times before. 

Practical tips

Here are some other practical tips for when you’re worried about pain: 

Tell your partner when something hurts, or what might hurt less (and what feels nice!) It’s ok to ask for someone to go slower, be gentler or touch somewhere that’s feeling less sensitive instead. 

Make sure you’re checking in with your partner what feels good and what they need. Pay attention to their body language and if they seem tense or uncomfortable. If you’re trying penetration, thrusting less deeply or only putting in a little bit of the finger/penis/toy at a time can help.

Try to wait until you’re feeling very aroused and excited about sex before touching your genitals or trying penetration. Things that make it hard to feel excited about sex include:

  • Feeling tired, stressed or rushed. 
  • Feeling unhappy with your partner, e.g. if you’ve had an argument or if you don’t feel attracted to them. 
  • Feel anxious about sex, e.g. because of pregnancy, STIs, relationships worries or something else. 
  • Feeling pressured or like you should be having sex.

Listen to what your body wants and needs. You can always return to sex another time when you’re in the mood and do something else that will make you feel good in the meantime.

Lube can help reduce friction which can help make sex more comfortable. There’s no such thing as too much lube, and it isn’t just for penetrative sex.

Make sure you use water or silicone-based lube if you’re using condoms or dental dams. Some people need more, some less, some always need it and some never do. 

Speak to a trusted adult, such as a counsellor. If painful sex is making you unhappy or affecting your relationship, these are great reasons to talk your worries through with someone supportive and non-judgemental. 

Give yourself a break. Be nice to yourself and don’t listen to people who give you a hard time. 

Take your time, be kind to each other and listen to your body. It might take a while, but most people that experience pain during sex find ways of overcoming, managing or working around it.

Pain during your first time having sex

A lot of people believe that first time sex (be it anal or vaginal) will always be painful. However, sex is never supposed to be painful, whether it’s the first time or the 100th.  

There’s nothing special or different about the first time, except that you might be feeling very nervous (especially if you’re worrying about pain) and this can make it harder for your body and your mind to be ready for and excited about sex. When you feel aroused and get wet/hard, sexual touching is usually easier and more likely to feel good.  

Find out more about having sex for the first time.

Page last reviewed: May 2024

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