Pain during penetrative sex—for men, women, and people of every gender who participate in it—is a surprisingly common and critically under-discussed issue.
One recent study found that sex may be painful for 30% of women, while another study found that 75% of women experience pain during sex at some point in their lives. The actual percentage of women who experience pain during sex is unknown, as many women fail to discuss it with their doctors, and many doctors fail to ask.
Pain during sex isn't just a women's problem. Men report feeling pain during intercourse in high numbers, too, and face stigma and shame, further obscuring the statistics on this issue.
Pain during sex is often caused by one of many medical ailments. It can result from allergies, UTIs, deformities, STDs, and yeast infections; all of which can be problematic no matter what kind of genitalia you have. Skin disorders, hormonal changes, and the like are all treatable issues worth inquiring about. For biological males, erectile dysfunction and prostatitis can create issues. For biological females, vaginismus (a reflexive tightening of the vulva), endometriosis, Vulvodynia, and eczema are also potential causes.
If you're experiencing pain during sex, especially acute pain, it's important to read up on the issue and consult your doctor right away. Make sure you don't let your doctor write off your pain or tell you that it'll just get better on its own. You should never discount your pain, or blame yourself, or try to force yourself not to feel it. "It is not normal to experience pain during sex, and you deserve to find a doctor who will take your pain seriously," writes Vanessa Marin for Lifehacker. Sometimes doctors fail to identify certain issues, so be sure to specifically look at your symptoms and ask your doctor to investigate whatever you're experiencing.
If you're triple-positive that pain experienced during sex isn't caused by an actual medical illness, then it's worth considering whether the cause might be a lack of arousal or nerves, all of which can result in a lack of lubrication and subsequent discomfort.
To avoid pain during sex, whether it's your first or fiftieth time, it's important to make sure that you are feeling comfortable with your partner. If you're nervous or unsure, there's nothing wrong with waiting or putting it off. (On the other hand, there's nothing wrong with diving right in if you're ready and excited). You can also get to know your own body through masturbation, and read up about what to expect (and what not to expect) from sexual activity.
It can be helpful to preface intercourse with clitoral stimulation for females or foreplay, which can relax the muscles and set the tone. Using sex toys can also provide a welcome change, and having a comfortable, private atmosphere can also help reduce tension for both parties. As with all sexual interactions, communication is absolutely key and will improve the experience for all partners. Relationship issues—which often relate to poor communication—can even be the root cause of stress or tension that causes pain during sex, and a conversation might lead you to a much-improved sex life or an important discussion that you should've had a long time ago.
To enjoy sex, you should be very aroused, and your partner should be investing time to make sure this is the case. During the act, know that there's nothing wrong with asking to stop at any point, or asking to switch positions or slow down if you're in pain. You can also try lubricant, or try different types of lubricated condoms, or no condom (provided that another form of birth control is in place and that both partners have been tested for STDs). If it's too painful, remember that there are plenty of other forms of sexual gratification, and if your partner is insisting on penetrative sex when you don't want to do it, or pressuring you into it, then you are always allowed to decline—and if they continue to pressure you, that qualifies as abuse and you should get out of that relationship immediately.
Always remember that there's nothing wrong with talking about pain before, during, or after sex, or with asking for what you need, be it arousal or a change in location. There's also nothing wrong with experiencing pain, and though you can take steps to address it, remember that it's not your fault and there's nothing to be ashamed of.
Listen to your body—it might be trying to tell you something, about your partner, about your sexuality (which could be asexuality), or past traumas, or unique needs. Be kind to yourself, and remember that you're not alone and you never have to force yourself to continue or grit your teeth through anything.
Sex is messy, natural, and different for everyone, and so often our impressions of it are heavily influenced by societal and cultural ideas, as well as unique biological factors. So do what's best for you, keep reading and learning (you're starting by reading this article!) and don't be afraid to speak your truth, whatever it may be.