I was always warned growing up that it would hurt the first time I had sex. This was disappointing to hear, because I really looked forward to it and wanted my experience to match my excitement. I felt sad to think such a special moment would be tainted with pain — and angry to think my partner would get more pleasure out of it than me.
When the moment came, I braced myself to "get it over with" and hopefully start enjoying sex one day in the future. I held my breath, waiting for my boyfriend's penis to go all the way in. Then he told me it already was. "Oh, that actually feels good," I laughed. A few minutes later, we heard my roommate coming in and stopped midway through. But those few minutes were some of the most exciting — and relieving — minutes of my life.
I wondered after that why I didn't seem to have a hymen, the membrane over the vagina that I learned would be broken during sex. Some online research taught me that some are born with out them, some break them when they're younger through other physical activities, and some gradually stretch them so that they never have to be broken to accommodate a penis. I did spend a few years experimenting with sex toys and fingering before having intercourse, so I might've fell into the third category. Or maybe the first one. I don't remember ever noticing a hymen.
My experience is more common than people acknowledge. In fact, 63 percent of women in a 1998 survey in the British Medical Journal said they did not bleed the first time they had sex. And for many of those who did, it may have been preventable — because the causes of pain during sex are not what we think, Good Vibrations staff sexologist Carol Queen, PhD tells Bustle. Here are the real causes — and exactly how to minimize them.
Cause 1: Fear
Pain during sex is often a self-fulfilling prophecy, says Queen. When we're afraid, we clench our muscles, which makes penetration a lot more difficult. "This is really a cultural expectation, and if someone is frightened enough, it can contribute to muscle tension and an increased likelihood that there will be pain. Ironic, right?" says Queen. "If this culture (and our extremely poor sex education) spoke up about the realities of intercourse, this problem would mostly disappear."
To minimize fear, it's important to do it with someone you're truly comfortable with, plan ahead so you're sure that you want it, and find a setting you feel safe in (perhaps, if possible, where your roommate won't walk in to interrupt it).
Cause 2: Lack Of Arousal
"First time or five hundredth time, intercourse can be painful if you are not turned on," says Queen. "Arousal changes the body in two main ways, both of which support pleasure and minimize pain." Arousal makes you wetter, increases your pain tolerance, reduces damage to your tissue, and expands your vagina, for example.
So, if you want to minimize your chances of experiencing pain, have lots of foreplay that includes clitoral stimulation. Make sure you're with a partner who cares about your pleasure. Masturbate or explore other activities first so you know what you like. Don't just choose the moment you choose because your parents or roommate are away; wait until you really desire it. And don't rush.
Cause 3: The Hymen
Though it's not as big a role as we tend to believe, the hymen sometimes plays a role. "Not everyone with a vagina has much of a hymen in the first place, and in many cases, it has stretched or broken already due to self-exploration, use of tampons, etc.," says Queen. You can look in a hand mirror or ask your OB/GYN if you want to know if your hymen is intact.
However, even if it is there, you do not have to break it (or "pop" it, as the popular saying "pop your cherry" would have you believe"). Instead, you can stretch it gradually. "If done with care, that would actually feel good," says Queen. Go Ask Alice! recommends putting lube on your finger, inserting it, and gently pushing it against your hymen daily to stretch it. This can also be done with a partner. In rare cases, you may have a very thick hymen that can't be stretched on your own, in which case you can see a doctor to have it stretched.
Pain during sex is often normalized, but it usually indicates some sort of issue that can be solved. Especially if it continues after the beginning, it could be a sign of a medical condition like endometriosis or vulvodynia. Here are some signs that your pain is something to see the doctor about.
Whatever your experience is, remember that having penetrative intercourse is not obligatory. There are many ways to make it more comfortable and enjoyable, but it's your choice if you want to. And if you don't, there are many other acts to enjoy.