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Painful sex

Many people experience pain during sex at some point in their lives and it’s not always obvious why. Find out about common causes of pain during sex and what to do about it. 

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. 

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. 

Find out more about masturbation.

Why does pain happen?

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 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 when you’re feeling playful and silly is usually more fun than when you’re tired or 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. 

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. 

Remember: medical professionals are used to supporting people with looking after all parts of their bodies. 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. 

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. 
  • If you’re with someone who’s experiencing pain, look for when your partner seems tense or uncomfortable, or if they say ‘ow’. 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. Get feedback from your partner! 
  • 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, even if the reasons to feel this way seem like great reasons, is not a recipe for feeling excited about sex. In moments like this, it can be helpful to stop trying to have sex for a bit and do something else that makes you feel good.  
  • Try more lubricant – 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. There’s no such thing as too much lube, and it isn’t just for penetration. 
  • Stop doing the activity that’s painful for a while. It doesn’t have to be forever, but for long enough to take the pressure off of you and your partner, so you can focus on enjoying other types of sex. 
  • 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 get past it and go on to have great sex lives. 

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.


    Other Stuff you might find useful…

    Real Stories
    Anxiety & sex: Iona’s story
    Consent myths and facts
    Having great sex (safely!)
    Do I have an STI?
    Do I need to see a doctor?
    Vaginas & Vulvas
    Having sex for the first time
    Deciding to have sex


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