Healthy lives for young people

Painful sex

Most people experience pain during sex at some point in their lives and it’s not always obvious why.

We usually expect sex to be fun, 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. 

Pain can be your body’s way of telling you that something is wrong or part of you needs some care and attention – but it’s not your fault and doesn’t mean that something is wrong with you. Painful sex is actually very common, but it isn’t supposed to be, whether it’s your first time or not.

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

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

Why does pain happen?

It can help to understand why pain can 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 or with sharp nails or no lubrication, can be very uncomfortable
  • Pain can be a sign of STIs, thrush, urinary tract infections like cystitis and other medical problems
  • Pain can be a sign of damage – 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
  • And if you’re not feeling ‘in the mood’ (mentally aroused) 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 angry! 
  • Receiving penetration (a penis, finger or toy goes in your vagina or anus) during sex can be more demanding for your body (than penetrating someone). Lots of 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?

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

  • Speak to a nurse or doctor to rule out other causes of your pain. –They can test and treat for infections and help soreness and tearing heal. Find a local clinic.
  • 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 – you’ve had an argument or you don’t feel attracted to them
    • Feel anxious about sex – because of pregnancy, STIs, relationships worries or something else
    • Feeling pressured – feeling 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 (These are all good times to forget about 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 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 – dealing with pain sucks. 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 first time sex

A lot of people believe that first time sex (be it anal or vaginal) will always be painful, or even that this is what is supposed to happen and if it doesn’t, you’ve not done it right.

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. 

If you’re hoping to have sex (whether that includes penetration or not) for the first time, here are some useful tips:

  • GO SLOWLY. Go as slowly as you possibly can. For a lot of people this means putting off touching genitals for a good while and focusing on kissing and touching other parts of your body to begin with. It can feel much better to be touched somewhere when you’ve been dying to be touched, than before you’re quite ready. If you already know where and how you like being touched, try and let your partner know this as well. Whatever feels good – do lots of it!
  • Try not to get hung up on making penetration happen, if that’s what you’re doing for the first time. Our genitals don’t always match up with what our brains want and erections, wetness and relaxed muscles sometimes just don’t want to happen. Try and be comfortable with the possibility that even though you’ve been looking forward to this for ages, you might not be able to make it happen and that’s ok
  • It’s ok to change your mind – if you’re feeling too nervous or scared, in pain or just not quite ready, you can do something else that you and your partner enjoy, or stop completely and come back to it another day
  • If your partner changes their mind – it’s ok to be disappointed, but if you’re so unhappy that your partner feels they have to have sex in order to cheer you up, this isn’t consensual and is a recipe for you both having a very unpleasant first time
  • It’s harder to get excited about sex if you’re worried about pregnancy or STIs – a lot of people like to visit a clinic before they have sex so that they can get tested, get free condoms or dams and get comfortable with a type of contraception before they think about actually trying to have sex.

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