It turns out that a surprising number of people report feeling pain during vaginal and anal sex, and not in a good way.
That’s according to research recently published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine. The researchers used data from the 2012 National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior, a nationally representative survey that was conducted on the internet. The study participants answered questions about experiencing pain during sex, including how long the pain lasted, and where on their bodies they felt the pain.
The researchers limited their data to self-reported men and women who said that their most recent sexual encounter was either anal or vaginal sex with an opposite-gender partner. The study authors admit in the paper that gays, lesbians, and bisexuals are underrepresented in the findings.
With those caveats, here are some interesting findings:
2. For the women who felt pain during P-in-V sex, about 3/4 of them said they felt it inside the vagina, or around the vaginal entrance.
This kind of pain could be caused by a number of things, from not being wet enough to having a too-tight fit with your partner, study co-author Debby Herbenick, Ph.D., associate research scientist at the Indiana University School of Public Health, tells BuzzFeed Life.
3. Most of the other women who had painful P-in-V sex said they felt pain deep inside, around the cervix.
This kind of pain is possibly from sex that’s a bit too rough (think jackhammering cervix poundings), or positions that facilitate too-deep-for-comfort thrusting.
4. 43.9% of the men who felt pain during vaginal sex said it hurt their penis; and about one in five guys said it hurt in and around their scrotum.
Herbenick says one possible reason could be from bacterial infections in the penis that can make sex feel painful. (PSA: If you’re feeling pain in your penis during sex, you should definitely talk to your doctor about that.)
6. The men who reported pain during anal sex mostly said they felt pain in their penises and/or around the ball region.
This is likely due to the fact that the anus can be really, really tight and finding the perfect fit isn’t easy, Herbenick says.
7. Some men reported feeling pain in their own rectums or anuses, though.
The sample size was small, but it offers some evidence that during opposite-gender sex, some men can be on the receiving end of anal play, Herbenick says. The researchers don’t know what kind of anal play that is, though — it could mean that women are using their fingers, or using strap-ons, or other toys. That’s another study for another day.
9. But for some people, the pain during anal intercourse lasted longer.
53% of the men who experienced pain during anal said it lasted less than 5 minutes, and so did 63% of the women. But an alarming number of women who experienced painful anal sex said it lasted a really long time: 25.5% said it stayed painful for more than an hour, and 14.5% said the pain lasted longer than a day.
10. Most people don’t tell their partners when they feel pain during sex.
According to the study, about 2/3 of men and 43% of women said they didn’t speak up about their pain.
Herbenick says people generally fell into a few categories when it came to why they didn’t speak up. Some thought it wasn’t that big a deal, and others said that it’s just something that happens during sex. A few women made comments about how their partners wouldn’t have cared anyway, or that speaking up wouldn’t make a difference. And then this: “Quite a few people talked about not wanting to ruin the mood or the moment, and there was also this sense of there’s nothing to be done about it anyway,” Herbenick says. That doesn’t have to be the case, though! If you feel pain during sex, there are some things that most people can definitely do to help make it hurt less (or not at all).
11. If you want to feel less pain during sex (vaginal OR anal), lube is your friend.
Friction only sounds sexy — when someone isn’t wet enough, it can be painful for both people. “Use a water-based lubricant,” Herbenick suggests.
Worth noting here that some women suffer from serious conditions, such as vulvodynia, vaginismus, endometriosis, among others, that can make sex incredibly painful, and in some instances completely impossible. These tips to help with painful sex are more applicable to women with general or occasional pain during sex, rather than chronic pain or underlying medical conditions, unfortunately. If you experience chronic vulva pain, consistently painful sex, or sex that is incredibly painful, you should talk to your gynecologist about potential diagnosis and treatment.
12. If you’re feeling pain because of, ahem, poor genital fit, try fooling around for longer before penetration.
Painfully large penises and painfully tight vaginas can hurt for everyone involved. One way to loosen the grip is to make sure that the woman is sufficiently aroused before penetration. Fool around in other ways (lots and lots of kissing, oral sex, using your hands, humping, and more) before trying to get it in.
13. And if you’re dealing with cervical pain, try switching positions — or speaking up.
Cervical pain can result from the head of his penis ramming into your cervix too hard or too much. You can let your partner know that it kinda hurts when he does that, and would he mind going a little slower? You can also try positions where you have a bit more control over speed and depth. Herbenick recommends girl-on-top. (Although, speaking of pain during sex… girl-on-top is one of the riskier positions when it comes to breaking penises. So be mindful of that, and go at a safe speed, lovers.)
Thanks to some commenters who pointed out that vaginismus, endometriosis, and other conditions can make sex incredibly painful, if not impossible, for some women. We’ve added that information to the story.
Dr. Herbenick works at Indiana University School of Public Health. An earlier version of this story misstated the name of the university.
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