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An illustration of a woman in bed grimacingRebecca Hendin / BBC Three

Why do women put up with painful sex?

The assumption that 'what feels good for men should feel good for women' is not necessarily true...

Gemma Askham

Contains adult themes

There was a clear message in my school’s sex education and among the older girls I knew: if you were female, sex was going to hurt.

Sex would likely make you bleed. If you had enough of it, you’d probably get an STI – which would hurt. Or get pregnant – which would end in labour. We all saw those birthing videos and they were not the screams of a lady who’d just won free Drake tickets.

While the boys were hearing about erections and orgasms, girls were being told to quietly brace themselves. And this idea - that we should expect discomfort during sex - leads many women to believe that a bit of pain is just part of the package, not just the first time but forever.

While they were busy scarring us with images of a baby’s head turning our lady-parts into something out of Stranger Things, no one thought to mention how to make sex enjoyable.

“I had no clue how to make sex anything other than sore,” says Jess, 24. “I was so tense that it was hard for anyone to get inside me, which made me more self-conscious. I thought the clitoris was something you touched for a few seconds and had an orgasm. That wasn’t enough to make me come, so I thought mine must be faulty. I’d been told that sex could hurt, so I just accepted the discomfort.”

Why do women put up with uncomfortable sexRebecca Hendin / BBC Three

It took an attentive partner (“a foreplay guy and a real giver”) as well as some solo exploration last year for Jess to realise that pain didn’t have to be a given. “It’s actually a lie,” she says.

The vlogger Hannah Witton is one of a crop of twenty-something YouTubers using the platform to have honest conversations about sex for women. “The reason that a lot of women have painful sex isn’t because sex is inherently painful – it’s because we're not taught how to have good sex,” she says.

Of course, in some circumstances, painful sex can be a sign of something serious. “Pain in the vagina can be caused by thrush or an STI, vaginismus (a condition where the vaginal muscles shut tightly) or irritation from latex condoms or soap,” says Swati Jha, a spokesperson for the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG).

“Pain inside the pelvis can stem from pelvic inflammatory disease, endometriosis, fibroids or irritable bowel syndrome.” She urges anyone who is worried about pain during or after sex to see their GP or visit a sexual health clinic.

But, as Dr Kirstin Mitchell, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Glasgow, says, “there’s a whole range of psychological and social reasons for pain as well.” She is the author of a 2017 study that found that almost 10% of sexually active UK women aged 16 to 24 consistently experience painful sex (the study’s authors defined this as regularly experiencing painful sex over three months or more).

Why do women put up with uncomfortable sexRebecca Hendin / BBC Three

“If a young woman isn’t having the kind of sex that she’d like to have, if she’s not properly aroused, if she lacks confidence talking about what she’s enjoying or not enjoying, then sex can be painful.” In her view, “Women often feel they have less of a right to pleasure than men do. Sometimes sex is painful and they think that’s just how it is for women.”

In a US study, researcher Sara McClelland asked men and women to describe what low sexual satisfaction meant to them. While the men talked about things like boredom and unresponsive partners, the women frequently answered “pain”.

One woman who has experience of this, and is now hoping to reinvigorate women’s right to pleasure, is Kim Loliya, editor of an online sex zine and founder of a London-based sex-education service. She believes that uncomfortable sex isn’t necessarily a physical problem, but a verbal one.

“Women can feel like they can't speak up when they're in pain during sex; it's the societal indoctrination that says ‘girls should be seen and not heard’,” Kim explains. “When pain arises, women often think there’s something wrong with them, and fear how that will impact their partner. They feel responsible for the pain, and embarrassed by it. Often, women completely miss that their pain is triggered by their body feeling unsafe.”

To re-establish a sense of comfort and security, Dr Mitchell encourages couples take a step backwards. “Sex doesn’t have to be penetrative. If having your clitoris stimulated with fingers is really pleasurable, do that. You should always be building up in ways that are mutual, gradual, and listening to each other.”

Why do women put up with uncomfortable sexRebecca Hendin / BBC Three

The images we get of sex don’t necessarily promote this model. “The only depictions a lot of people get of the logistics of sex are from porn or Hollywood movies,” says Hannah. “In both cases, the woman is simply good to go from the start. You don't see the reality of sex: the fumbling, the foreplay, the gentleness that can build into intensity (but which rarely starts off that way). Also, lube! It feels great, and can be really sexy.”

Lydia, 21, realised lube was what worked for her. “Sex hurt – it felt tight, almost chafing, and I just felt like I wanted to get it over with. There’s still this stigma that lube is only for anal sex, but I tried some and realised that lube equals better sex for me. Wanting to use lube doesn’t mean you’re failing as a woman,” she affirms.

As for Charlie, 24, sex became less painful when she took more control. “Lots of kissing, lots of foreplay and making sure I’m really relaxed. Then I go on top so I can control of the speed of penetration. That works better for me than asking a guy to slow down – which he does for three thrusts, then it’s like I never said anything.”

Ultimately, says Kim Loliya, “It’s about learning not to worry about female arousal being ‘too much’ or ‘hard work’” – ideas that still persist in our culture. There’s still an assumption that what feels good for men is what should feel good for women, too. But that’s not necessarily the case - as a lot of women can tell you. And it’s time we accepted that. 

This article was originally published on 19 March 2018.

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