In this week's Sex IDK column, Emma McGowan, certified sex educator and writer, answers your questions about how to make sex feel more comfortable.
Q: Sex has never been pleasurable and is sometimes uncomfortable. What can help?
Oh, Reader. This question plucks all of my heartstrings. It’s also, unfortunately, the most common question I get. In fact, one of my very first Sex IDK columns was addressing the question of how much sex “should” hurt for people with vaginas. (Short answer: It shouldn’t — unless that’s what you’re into.) So, while I’m sorry this is such a common issue, I’m more than happy to help you with it.
The causes for un-pleasurable and uncomfortable sex vary greatly from person to person, body to body, and sexual experience to sexual experience. I can’t know exactly what is causing your discomfort based on this question alone, Reader, but I can give you some ideas. And I can definitely point you toward help.
But before we even dive in, I do want to clarify that most of my advice here is for people with vaginas. That's because when it comes to this particular problem — uncomfortable sex with little to no pleasure — it's usually people with vaginas who are suffering. But I will note when and if the advice applies to people with penises as well.
The very first thing I’d like you to consider is lubrication. How wet are you getting during sex? Because while lubrication is undoubtedly a sign of arousal in people with vaginas, different vaginas do different things. Some people just get a little damp, no matter how turned on they are, while others need to invest in rubber sheets.
If you’re closer to the “a little damp” end of the spectrum than the “don’t go chasing waterfalls” end, your solution might be simple: Just add lube! There are great lubes out there for every body these days. Having sex without enough lubrication can lead to chafing and even tearing of the delicate skin on your vulva and vagina, so there’s really no reason not to help a body out if it needs it.
Not enough lubrication can also cause discomfort for people with penises, as the lack of lube leads to an increase in friction. So if things are chafing down there, it behooves you too, penis-havers, to make sure your partner is properly lubed-up, either from their own body or a convenient bedside bottle.
The second possibility is related, but not exactly the same. I want you to ask yourself: Are you usually aroused enough before penetration? If you have a partner who goes from kissing to penetration in three minutes, it could be that you’re not properly warmed up.
Here’s what happens to your vulva and vagina when you’re aroused: Blood rushes to the area, increasing sensitivity and plumping everything up. (Including your labia, aka your pussy lips, which helps keep them from tearing.) Lubrication starts to flow. And the vagina lengthens, preparing itself for the insertion of a penis. (Or toy if that’s what you’re into!)
While arousal in a person with a penis is usually pretty immediate and very apparent, all of these processes in a vagina and vulva generally take more time. And they’re not super obvious, right? (Like you can’t see your vagina lengthen because it’s inside your body.) That, combined with a cultural norm that people with penises lead the way in sexual encounters, means that many people with vaginas aren’t really ready for penetration by the time they’re actually penetrated.
The solution to this lies mostly in listening to your own body and communicating with your partner about if and when you’re ready for penetrative intercourse. Show your partner what to do and what you like. Check to see if you’re wet enough by touching yourself. And advocate for yourself during sex — you don’t have to do anything, ever, until you’re ready.
There could also be psychological reasons for why sex isn’t working for you. For example, if you’ve experienced trauma, it can manifest in discomfort during sex. Vaginismus, for example — the involuntary contraction of pelvic floor muscles when something tries to enter the vagina — can be caused by previous trauma. A therapist can help work through any trauma responses you might be having around sex.
Another common psychological reason that people have trouble enjoying sex is that they come from a conservative background and are taught that sex was “bad” their whole life. This one, unfortunately, shows up in people of all genders and with both types of genitals. Years of sex-negative messaging don’t go away easily, and if you recognize that from your own past, a therapist would be your best bet for working through it.
Finally, you could be asexual, which means you don’t experience sexual attraction or you experience it to a lesser degree than average (also known as “grey sexual.”) To be clear, this isn’t a psychological problem but is actually sexuality. Some people (men, women, trans people, and non-binary people alike) just aren’t into sex, and that’s totally fine!
Those are only a few examples, of course. The human brain and body are incredibly complex, beautiful, and complicated. But I hope this helped you, at the very least, know that you’re not alone. And at best? Maybe you’ve found a solution. But if you haven’t, remind yourself that the process of figuring out sexuality can be a long one. It can be worth it, though — I promise.