Some Women Just Go Along With Painful Sex — And It's Time For A Culture Shift
Sex should not be painful.
And yet the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists says nearly three out of every four women1 have experienced pain during intercourse at least once in their lives, and research shows up to 20% of women deal with dyspareunia, which is persistent pain during sex. To top it all off, a new study recently published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine found that half of all women experiencing pain during sex don't even tell their partner it hurt.
A team of researchers led by sexual health scientist Allison Carter, Ph.D., MPH, surveyed over 2,000 women about their most recent sexual experience, including asking about their levels of pain, pleasure, and what they disclosed to their partner about it all. Nearly a quarter of the women reported experiencing sexual pain. Of these 382 women who did experience sexual pain, 49% didn't tell their partner about it. Moreover, those who'd experienced little to no pleasure during the sexual experience were three times more likely to not tell their partner about the pain.
Why some women don't tell their partners about their sexual pain.
The researchers left space for women to explain why they didn't talk to their partners about how their sex had hurt them. These were the four most common themes among their responses:
- Thinking it's normal. About 30% of women who didn't tell their partner about their sexual pain said they didn't say anything because they felt the pain was normal, an "expected and accepted part of sex."
- Thinking it doesn't matter. About 24% of women said their sexual pain was "insignificant" or "not a big deal."
- Prioritizing her partner's pleasure. About 14% of women who experienced pain said they didn't tell their partner because they didn't want to ruin the sex for their partners. "I didn't want to stop his pleasure," one woman wrote. Another woman said, "I believed the sex would become less enjoyable for him." A third said she was "fulfilling his needs, not mine."
- Gendered pressures. About 15% mentioned things like not wanting to complain, be too demanding, or make their male partner feel insecure about his sexual performance. "Historically, women's pleasure has taken a subordinate position in sexual interactions, at least in the context of heterosexual intimacy," the researchers wrote, noting the orgasm gap between men and women.
Why addressing sexual pain requires a culture shift.
If sex is hurting you, why wouldn't you say anything?
It's actually a pretty complex question. As it turns out, women might be suffering through painful sex largely because our culture has told them that it's expected of them.
"Women go along with sexual experiences that meet men's needs even if it induces physical or psychological discomfort for them," Carter and her team write. "Consistent with other research showing that some women frame bad experiences with sex as natural and expected, the decision by some participants in our study to have or continue sex despite experiencing pain and not to engage in pain-related discussions was oftentimes situated as normal, inconsequential, and unproblematic."
Where did we get this idea? Well, back in the day when women were literally property to men, it probably was the case that most sex really sucked for a lot of women; moreover, telling women that their first sexual experience would be bloody and painful sure was a good way to keep them from exploring it, right? Even today, consider a lot of our dominant narratives about women and sex: that women naturally have lower sex drives than men do, that penetration is the main and most important part of sex, that a man's orgasm is necessary to "complete" sex whereas a woman's orgasm is optional, and that being a good partner as a woman means fulfilling your man's sexual needs. When our culture tells us sex is something that women mostly just put up with for the sake of maintaining their relationships, it's no surprise that some women just accept pain during sex as part of the package.
"This should go without saying: Pain is not a sexual affliction that women should have to endure," the researchers emphasized. "Although sex in any relationship or life phase is unlikely to be consistently good, pain should not be expected or considered normal, even in those who have considerable experience."
Why speaking out about sexual pain is crucial.
If you're dealing with pain during sex, first and foremost talk to your doctor. You may need to find a gynecologist, sex therapist, or other pelvic health specialist who specializes in treating people who deal with sexual pain. (Consider looking up terms like dyspareunia, vulvodynia, endometriosis, and vaginismus—these are just a few of the many different physical conditions that can cause pain during sex, and finding doctors who are well-trained to diagnose these types of conditions is key to getting proper treatment. Make sure you're seeking treatment from a health care practitioner who will take your pain seriously.)
You should also open up a conversation with your partner. Research consistently shows that people who talk about their sex lives2—including what feels good and what doesn't—experience more sexual pleasure and overall sexual satisfaction. This study itself found that communicating openly with your partner about feeling pain during sex was associated with greater sexual pleasure. Some studies3 have even found talking about sexual concerns is linked to a reduction in sexual pain.
"This may be through enhanced emotional closeness and intimacy, changes to physical positions and movements, or an interaction of both increased intimacy and physical responsiveness," Carter and her team write. "Just as pleasure is not always physical, the experience of pain may be influenced by how much women feel their partner is attentive, communicative, and loving. ... Further, expressing pain and having a partner check in, adjust their behavior, or otherwise acknowledge and address the experience of pain could lead to greater intimacy, trust, and real reductions in the pain, in addition to reducing the possible emotional distance associated with such pain."
Some of this is also a larger cultural change. We all need to contribute to a culture where sexual discomfort or pain is not accepted or normalized. People should know without a shadow of a doubt that they can stop abruptly in the middle of a sexual encounter if it's hurting them without feeling like they're going to disappoint their partner or damage their relationship.
"A shift in the culture of 'fulfilling his needs, not mine' and even more so of 'men fulfilling their needs such that they don't notice their partner's needs' may be a necessary step toward making sex less painful and also more pleasurable for women," the researchers conclude.
Kelly Gonsalves is a multi-certified sex educator and relationship coach helping people figure out how to create dating and sex lives that actually feel good — more open, more optimistic, and more pleasurable. In addition to working with individuals in her private practice, Kelly serves as the Sex & Relationships Editor at mindbodygreen. She has a degree in journalism from Northwestern University, and she’s been trained and certified by leading sex and relationship institutions such as The Gottman Institute and Everyone Deserves Sex Ed, among others. Her work has been featured at The Cut, Vice, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and elsewhere.
With her warm, playful approach to coaching and facilitation, Kelly creates refreshingly candid spaces for processing and healing challenges around dating, sexuality, identity, body image, and relationships. She’s particularly enthusiastic about helping softhearted women get re-energized around the dating experience and find joy in the process of connecting with others. She believes relationships should be easy—and that, with room for self-reflection and the right toolkit, they can be.
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