Sex should be fun, but for many people pain is not. Nevertheless, sex sometimes surprises us with a side of pain. It might be fleeting–from a lack of lubrication, an unexpected muscle cramp, some chafing or pinched skin, or it could be the result of a more serious medical condition. But whether it’s from shame or embarrassment, people often don’t talk about it.
To find out more about how often pain appears during sex and what people do about it, researchers from the Kinsey Institute, Indiana University, and the University of Texas, Houston looked at data from the 2012 National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior. The NSSHB randomly samples adults across the United States about their most recent sexual experience: this study looked only at people who reported that their last sexual encounter involved heterosexual vaginal or anal intercourse. Here’s what they found out.
Presence of pain during penile/vaginal intercourse
Most of people surveyed for this part of the study, male or female, experienced penile-vaginal intercourse without pain. Hurray! But nearly a third of the women felt some type of pain in or around their genitals during sex. That tells us that pain isn’t a rare experience for many women.
Duration of pain during penile/vaginal intercourse
When people did feel unwanted pain during sex, it was usually (thank goodness) brief. Still, about one quarter of both the men and women surveyed felt pain that lasted more than five minutes after sexual intercourse. Here’s the big question: what do people who feel pain do about it?
Communication about pain during penile/vaginal intercourse
Most of the time, the answer was to “grin and bear it.” Although 38% of the men and 25% of the women surveyed changed positions, and about 25% of both sexes took the time to add lube, about half of the people surveyed did nothing about the pain. The data suggests that ‘doing nothing’ also included not mentioning the pain to their partner. C’mon people–if it doesn’t feel good, let your partner know. Stop doing what hurts and try something different.
Presence of pain during penile/anal intercourse
The sample size here is a lot smaller: only 53 of the men and 39 of the women surveyed had anal sex as their last encounter before the survey, but it seems that anal is often more painful for women than it is for men.
Duration of pain during penile/anal intercourse
Women report more severe pain during anal sex, but in most cases it seems to last less than an hour. For half of the (admittedly small) subset of men who said they felt a little pain during anal sex, that pain lingered.
Communication about pain during penile/anal intercourse
Again, the big question: if you hurt, what do you do about it? Interestingly, men and women trying anal penetration seemed more willing to tell their partners about feeling pain than their penile/vaginal counterparts. Most of the men in this group said they tried a different position or stopped having sex altogether when their penis started hurting. Women who felt pain were more likely to add lube; but close to a quarter of the group just lived with the discomfort.
I think the same advice applies here as before. It doesn’t matter which opening you prefer to use. If something hurts, let your partner know. No one should have to put up with pain they don’t want. [Herbenicke et al. 2015]
This post originally appeared on Throb, Gizmodo's blog for all things sex