Does Sex Hurt the First Time?

by | Mar 18, 2024 | Making Sex Feel Good, Preparing for Marriage | 68 comments

Is sex really painful the first time?

That’s one of the most common questions I get asked from engaged women waiting for the wedding night. How much is going to hurt? What should I expect?

This month I’m going to look at some “myths” that we often have around sex. We’ve looked at the 72 hour rule and the blue balls/blue bean idea. I want to turn now to the idea that sex hurts.

And I’d like to approach it in a slightly different way. Rather than write about whether or not sex hurts, I’d like to start with a simple premise:

We shouldn’t be normalizing sexual pain.

Instead, we should be normalizing arousal.

Because here’s the thing: If you’re aroused, then pain shouldn’t register a whole lot, or at least not so much that it’s more than momentary, and it will go away if you deliberately relax. So if pain does register, then there’s likely something else going on.

By making it seem that sex always hurts the first time, we increase the anxiety that many women feel, which can also increase pain. But we also make it sound like “sex is going to be awful for her anyway the first time, so it’s best to just get it over with.”

In fact, many couples have told me that’s what their premarital counselors told them–just get it done and over with, and then it won’t be so bad.

Doesn’t exactly sound appealing, does it?

Now, think about that University of Toronto study we’ve shared that when women’s first sexual encounter that includes intercourse results in orgasm, then her libido going forward is pretty much on par with her partner. What women’s bodies experience at those first sexual encounters plays a tremendous role in her libido long-term. If we’re setting women up for an extremely disappointing first sexual encounter, then what are we doing to that couple long-term?

We’re creating self-fulfilling prophecies when we say that sex will hurt.

The couple then ignores all the normal sexual response cycle (that we talk about in detail in our books that are awesome for premarital use, The Good Guy’s Guide to Great Sex and The Good Girl’s Guide to Great Sex). Instead of aiming for her arousal, they just aim to get sex over with, often using an awful lot of lube.

That’s likely why so many women told us that their honeymoons were “bewildering.”

And that’s why I believe we need to normalize arousal instead. If she is aroused and really ready to go, then sex long-term will be a much more pleasurable experience.

That does not mean that sex won’t hurt. It definitely can. But by normalizing pain, we make those with actual conditions that are causing pain ignore those conditions, thinking this is normal, and we can even cause some conditions by creating anxiety and ignoring arousal.

With that out of the way, let’s talk sexual pain.

Why can sex hurt?

Sexual pain can come in four big types:

The Four Types of Sexual Pain

  1. Hymen pain, which is typically minimal or non-existent
  2. Muscular pain, which again–should be minimal or non-existent
  3. Autoimmune and other disorders, such as lichen sclerosus, that affect the tissue of the vulvar area
  4. Temporary infections of some sort, such as yeast infections or UTIs

Let’s talk about these in turn!

1. Hymen Pain can Make Sex Hurt

When people say that “sex hurts the first time”, what they’re usually talking about is that the hymen, that layer of skin that partially covers the vagina, “breaks” the first time you have intercourse.

The problems with that?

  • Not every woman has a hymen;
  • many, many women break their hymen earlier in their life through normal activity;
  • typically hymens don’t hurt that much when they break anyway, especially if you’re aroused.

We seriously overblow the pain that the hymen can bring.

That being said, if there is a lot of pain right at entry, there are some hymen conditions that can cause pain. Some women have thicker hymens, or ones that are merely perforated. Often this is caught at first menstruation, but if it isn’t, a doctor can perform a simple procedure to fix this. Having a doctor simply look at you before the wedding can put you at ease, because this condition can be spotted and prevented.

2. Muscular pain can make sex uncomfortable

First intercourse is usually the first time that many women have had anything of that diameter inside them. Tampons are tiny compared to an erect penis! Any time you put something larger inside something that hasn’t held it before there is going to be some stretching.

But you know what? Vaginas are designed to stretch. Think about how big a baby’s head is. Women can push that out! So stretching doesn’t have to be painful, and can even feel quite good.

Stretching, though, feels a whole lot better if you are already aroused. An unaroused woman, even if she has a lot of lube, is not going to like being stretched for the first time. So please, please, work at arousal first!

Now, one of our big areas of research is sexual pain, and in our survey for The Great Sex Rescue, we found that 23% of evangelical women do suffer from it, primarily due to a condition called vaginismus, where the muscles in the vaginal wall contract, so that penetration becomes painful, if not impossible. Many of the messages that we’re taught about sex increase the rate of vaginismus significantly (such as believing modesty messages in high school, or believing the obligation sex message once you’re married). But the way we do the wedding night also increases vaginismus rates by about 25%. When you expect it to hurt, have sex because you feel like you have to, and aren’t aroused, it’s hardly surprising that vaginismus increases.

If you’ve tried intercourse a few times while you are aroused, and it stlll hurts, please see your doctor to rule out other issues, and then see a pelvic floor physiotherapist if it is vaginismus. There are treatments available.

We talk a lot in our books The Good Guy’s Guide to Great Sex and The Good Girl’s Guide to Great Sex about how to do the honeymoon differently to reduce the chance that you experience this at all!

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3. Autoimmune disorders can cause sex to hurt

Other disorders, such as lichen sclerosus, can make any contact with the vulva really painful. Thankfully, these conditions are relatively rare, but they really need a medical professional to help. There are creams that can be prescribed which can minimize the pain, and often diets can be changed to help control it.

There are several conditions here that fall into this category, and because I’m not a physician I don’t want to give medical advice here, except to say that in this case, medical help is really warranted.

4. Infections of some sort can make sex painful

UTIs and yeast infections can make intercourse super uncomfortable. Usually you know you have these conditions because of pain and/or itchiness, and they’re fairly easy to treat. If you know you are suffering from one of these conditions, please don’t attempt intercourse, even if it’s your wedding night. Even if he’s anxious, you don’t want this to be your first experience. You can always do other things. Wait until you’re well.

The big thing to remember: Pain should be unusual, but it also matters.

Don’t keep having sex if sex is very painful. All you’re doing is teaching your body, “this isn’t for me. This is a big threat to my well-being. My husband feels pleasure from causing me pain.”

None of those are healthy messages long-term, and they can take a long time to entangle if we don’t treat pain well.

One woman shared this story with me on Instagram last week:

My husband and I got married in 2014, both virgins, both believers, both raised in the church. On the advice of the pastor who did our premarital counseling, I told my gyn at my annual appt (a month or so before our wedding) that I had not had sex before, but that I would be once we got married and is there anything I should know? She kind of awkwardly laughed it off, suggested we use lube, and then made sure I had my birth control Rx. Fast forward and sex DID hurt and it hurt everytime (when we actually had it) for a 6 months before I found the courage to bring it up to a friend who suggested maybe we should have sex every few days to help my body adjust… then 6 more months before I finally brought it up to a new gyn, who then was able to diagnose me vulvar vestibulitis— a rare autoimmune reaction causing chronically inflamed tissue of the vulva. It was another year or so of trying topical medicines under this wonderful doctor’s care before I finally had surgery to remove the damaged tissue (successful!)…. That was 7 years ago, and while my husband and I have fought for our marriage and grown and healed so much together (!!), we still struggle from the scars of those first few years— especially the first months of not knowing anything was wrong, when it so clearly was!!

This is why we need to stop normalizing sexual pain.

A slight sting, or discomfort that goes away when you relax, or that you can still feel pleasure through, is very different from what this woman experienced.

If women were actually aroused the first time they had sex, sex wouldn’t hurt as much. And then, if it did hurt, they’d be able to more easily know there’s a real problem here.

So let’s normalize arousal, and then normalize not having sex when you’re in pain. I think that would fix a lot of problems!

 

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Sheila Wray Gregoire

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Sheila Wray Gregoire

Author at Bare Marriage

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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68 Comments

  1. CC

    I am one of the women for whom the expectation of pain made everything worse! I had so much anxiety going into my honeymoon. Basically everyone told me intercourse would hurt the first time including my OB who said just to relax and drink wine before. Even secular resources and books where a woman loses her virginity paint the first sexual experience as being painful! I also didn’t understand that you can have vaginismus and still be able to have intercourse in many cases (with persistent pain), so I endured pain for months before seeking a diagnosis. This set me up for years of struggle. I have anorgasmia and am still not cured from vaginismus despite years of physical therapy, sex therapy, and a medical procedure. I was also affected by purity culture messaging and patriarchal beliefs in the church, but the narrative around losing your virginity being painful contributed a lot to my struggle. Thank you for all the work you are doing to help prevent women from having to go through this!

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Oh, I’m so sorry, CC! I keep wondering if women like you (and me!) could have been spared so much of this if the expectation that you would have intercourse right away was gone, and if instead we expected that we would figure out arousal and orgasm first. If the pressure was off, would the pain disappear too?

      After all, most teens/young adults who end up having sex often do so after making out for ages, so they’re both aroused. But once we’re married, it becomes really perfunctory, and I think that’s a lot of the problem. We’ve missed the whole sexual response cycle.

      Reply
      • Claudia

        Please, I really like your content and bought your books too, but noticed you don’t talk/write about vaginal/perianal tears as cause of sexual pain. This is a possible cause of pain women can have if it’s superficial rather than deep pain and it may cause pain after sex as well but sometimes it can cause intense pain during the start of (and may also in the middle and end to but usually the start is most painful) sexual intercourse even if you’re aroused but not so much after. It would be helpful for me to be more aware of it as a possible cause as I thought because the pain was superficial it was because my vagina was not used to stretching and that I need to have sex more often to help with it whereas we needed to avoid sex for some time to let it heal.

        Reply
        • Sheila Wray Gregoire

          Yes, absolutely that can happen! What I’d really like people to do, though, is not feel like they had to have sex if it’s hurting for any reason. Often we create these cycles where we’re tensed and not stretched, and then we get tears, and then we keep doing it, and now we’re tensing up to avoid the pain, and causing more pain, and it’s awful. If we could just teach women that they don’t have to do something painful I’m hoping they can avoid all of this in the first place!

          Reply
      • Estelcyll

        While I agree with encouraging arousal as opposed to just assuming first time sex is painful for all women, I have to admit some frustration when it feels like the issue is over-downplayed. It’s hard not to feel like you’re being told, “Well, if you just did better and had arousal fully figured out your first time, your wedding night should’ve been a blast.”

        I agree that toxic teachings should be dealt with, and couples on their first night should have a good understanding how to help her get aroused — but let’s consider that. If they waited until marriage, it’s their first time? Maybe just her first time? That’s a pretty tough thing to get right the first time, and that’s not even taking into account some women are smaller and tighter to begin with, even if they do figure out the arousal part.

        My first time was the most painful thing I have ever felt besides childbirth (and I have had my MCL snapped). It hurt like a veritable gunshot, and that was with a very careful, gentle husband who did his best. I just find it hard to believe in my case there was any way it wasn’t going to hurt. We tried everything and finally just had to go for it, and that’s the best we could do.

        I’m glad we have resources like the updated Good Girl’s guide–Lord knows I wasn’t able to detect the errors in the thinking of many books that were recommended like His Needs, Her Needs and Sheet Music… but I think it’s far fetched to say it either shouldn’t hurt or it should probably only hurt minimally. That feels like painting with a very broad brush something that has a lot of factors in play beyond just, “Get her aroused”. I feel like we are setting up some young ladies for disappointment, when maybe for some of us, physiology just wasn’t going to work on our side. It would be nice maybe to advise some tips for what to do in these cases should a young couple find themselves in that situation? Instead of just saying it shouldn’t hurt when it might hurt like hell even with the rest of intentions?

        Reply
        • Sheila Wray Gregoire

          I understand. But what if we just changed the expectation so that no one HAD to have sex on their wedding night? What if we worked on arousal and orgasm FIRST? There really is no reason to have intercourse when someone isn’t aroused. And I think we put so much pressure on couples to do so early in the marriage when her body may genuinely not be ready.

          I’m sorry you went through that. And, yes, for some women there will be pain. But that pain would be so much minimized if they were aroused and comfortable and some of the fear had subsided. And we know from our studies that feeling like you were now supposed to have intercourse as soon as you were married greatly contributed to pain. So if we can stop that dynamic, we can also stop a lot of pain. The fact is that sex is not as painful the first time for people who have sex before the wedding, where it’s not an artificial “now we have to.” That’s the dynamic we need to recreate.

          Reply
          • Estelcyll

            Ah, I see where you’re coming from, and yes, I think that could make a significant difference. In truth, the potential pain was such a worry for me (we had tried to get to where we needed, but I could tell very quickly it was going to really hurt), we couldn’t get it done the first night–we were just too tired, and yes, there was a lot of sadness and really bad disappointment because of that unspoken pressure. It became a “okay, let’s figure out how to power through this unpleasant part” the next day, and then after that awful bit was over, we had a nice bath and legitimately bonded feeling quite victorious lol. In hindsight, I see there is a lot that could have at least helped avoid the worst of it if that unspoken pressure were just taken off.

      • Rebecca

        Another category to consider is mass effect from something in the pelvic area that reduces the physical space for penetration making penetration very painful or nearly impossible. For example large uterine fibroids. Just another reason why pain despite arousal should be taken seriously and evaluated by a physician, but why, as you said, arousal is so important from the very beginning to help differentiate real issues!

        Reply
        • Sheila Wray Gregoire

          Yes, that’s a another big issue (and endometriosis!).

          Reply
  2. Cynthia Bretz

    I was definitely taught to expect sex to hurt. In fact, I was so worried about it, I tried to talk to my fiance about it. While he seemed eager for our wedding night, I was terrified. We read the books our pastor recommended (“Intended for Pleasure” and “The Joy of Sex”), but while these explained the technical act, there was nothing that said what we could do to make it more comfortable for me. So I went down the aisle so anxious I couldn’t eat, even after the ceremony. I avoided sex as long as I could when we got to the hotel, then finally decided I should get it overwith. We had no lube, and he was not concerned with my experience at all. When I cried, he didn’t stop. Needless to say, it was not a great experience for me—but I kept having sex because that was expected. Daily. Now, at 53 and in a healthy marriage with a good man, I realize that my lack of sex education was only half the problem. The other half was an entitled man whose selfishness had been encouraged by the church. If I had been taught to look for qualities in a man besides “Christian, preferably Baptist,” I would not have married someone who would later use sex as a weapon, letting me blame myself for his porn use and infidelity, coercing me, threatening me, and eventually making me so afraid of his rage at being denied that I called a domestic abuse hotline. Changing the conversation needs to include “how to tell a good man from one who sees you as an object for his gratification.”

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Amen, Cynthia! I’m so sorry for what you went through, and I’m so glad you’re safe now.

      Reply
  3. travellinghope

    I so wish someone had been around to tell me all of this 15 years ago. Neither my husband nor myself knew that sex shouldn’t be painful, and that what I was experiencing was not normal. We are still trying to get on track, with the assistance of books, podcasts, a counselor, a physical therapist, and my obgyn. It’s hard not to grieve the many ways it seems like we were failed, the damage that’s been done, and time we’ve lost. I am determined not to let this be the end of my story, and clinging to the truth that God cares about my pain and there can be change and progress, and even beauty from the ashes. Even more determined to make SURE that my 4 daughters are not in this boat someday. So thankful for all of your work, research (yay evidence-based! lol), and materials that have helped us along this journey.

    Reply
  4. Angharad

    This post needs to be given to everyone when they start getting serious about dating.

    When I was preparing for marriage, and before I found this blog, I was looking for advice on how to reduce the risk of sex being painful (I already knew I had medical issues which increased the likelihood of it being painful) and all I found was a blog written by another Christian woman who said that it was ‘abnormal’ for sex to be painful, and that if you educated yourself and weren’t ‘ignorant and fearful’ then you’d be fine. I’m sure her intentions were good (and I did appreciate the statement that painful sex is abnormal), but a)she is putting the blame for any painful sex onto the woman for being ‘ignorant and fearful’ and b) she is assuming that any pain is caused by vaginismus. I have two medical conditions that can make sex painful when they flare up, and neither is caused by fear or ignorance!

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      I’m so glad you found me too!

      Reply
  5. Laura

    Thank you for this. For me our first time was ok, but sex on our honeymoon became more and more painful and uncomfortable. It got to the point that we were just going to give up forever! Eventually we came to the realisation that perhaps my husband had actually been too gentle. I was definitely aroused the first time, and after that, though as it became more painful I dreaded trying again. After a night where I just cried in bed, I heard Cheryl Cole’s song “Fight for This Love” and did some internet research. A few websites and a conversation with my husband later and we tried again. Without going into too much detail, he pushed harder, and after that sex was finally enjoyable and pain free. I think perhaps I was one of those with a thicker hymen, or maybe we just didn’t have a clue what we were doing, but I will always be grateful to Cheryl Cole!!

    Reply
  6. Jo R

    Hmmm. Well, if the choices are (1) women in pain during sex, all too often for decades, and (2) men doing anything that doesn’t directly increase their own sexual pleasure, then ooooobviously the choice will be #2, especially when it’s coupled with a huge heaping side dish of teaching that “men are in charge, and women can’t question men.”

    And WHO, pray tell, perpetuates aaaaaallllll of these teachings? Hint: it ain’t women. Well, unless the women have been vetted for having the same opinion as men.

    And that’s why this site is such a breath of fresh air. And coincidentally, why it’s such a threat to the millennia-old status quo. Because it requires effort by men in ways that, at least at first, only indirectly benefit men. Hint: men, if you help women enjoy sex, by making it unpainful and especially if the women orgasm like their clitoris-bearing bodies are multiply capable of, then—here’s the part that will interest you, fellas—there’s a good chance you’ll enjoy sex more yourself, and more often to boot.

    But by all means, continue making sex awful for women, who can manage to put up with it for a couple decades, then be all surprised when women finally say that they’re never again having crappy, painful sex. After all, that strategy has been working for a long time, right?

    And before you trot out #notallmen, please read this after pre-clutching your pearls:

    https://zawn.substack.com/p/hello-youve-reached-the-not-all-men

    (Oh, I’m sorry for my tone too. As the much-missed Jane Eyre once famously said, going without orgasms makes me bitchy.)

    Reply
    • Lisa Johns

      And Zawn nails it again…

      Reply
  7. Grace

    My husband and I were both virgins when we got married. My gyn told me to drink some wine and that I could “try to stretch things out while I was in the shower” if I wanted it to hurt less. My friends and family mostly told me nothing. Not only was I unaroused and scared when we had sex on our wedding night, my husband, who was on a high dose of an SSRI, was unable to “finish” during intercourse. I felt like a total failure because I hadn’t known what to do to bring him to orgasm, but the fact that I wasn’t anywhere close to orgasm didn’t really seem to be viewed as a problem. It took a long time to figure out that if he skipped his medication and waited a certain amount of days, he was more likely to have “success”. But the fact that I was consistently in pain because I was having intercourse while unaroused or because it just took him so long was just seen as “the way things were”. Add in that we were acting out hierarchy in marriage, I had received lots of obligation sex messages, my husband felt entitled to my body, and that he thought that me saying “no” was starting point for a negotiation and you have….. not a good situation. 20 years of marriage and I’ve never had an orgasm with my husband. (Although last year after I read “Come as You Are” I went out and bought a vibrator and figured out that actually nothing is wrong with my body, but something was very wrong with my situation.) It wasn’t too long after that that I heard about She Deserves Better and The Great Sex Rescue, both of which impacted me deeply. Thankfully I am now working with a good trauma therapist. I hope that I can reclaim this part of myself, but I very much regret that I did not have more information when I got married. I feel like it might be too late for me to recover the necessary sense of safety and intimacy for me to work things out with my husband.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Oh, Grace, I’m so sorry! I’m glad you found me and found a therapist though. I’m so sorry for the years that were taken from you!

      Reply
    • Lisa Johns

      If the husband is willing to do his work while you do yours, and if you can then do work together, then all is not lost. I do wish you the very best!

      Reply
  8. Stefanie

    One issue I’m curious about is why gynecologists are not trained to screen for potential issues. I had such a bad case of vaginismus that intercourse was impossible for 6 months, and then when we finally did the deed, there was so much blood my husband remarked that it was like his penis committed a murder. (I thought this was all normal. The Old Testament mentions bloody sheets prove virginity.) In hindsight. there were signs that my gyn missed. Like the pelvic exam was difficult, she had to use the smallest speculum, and it was still really painful. I wish there was some kind of training for gynecologists, similar to screening for domestic violence. Like: here are common issues among the conservative population. Is your patient sexually active? Does she have access to adequate sex education? Red flags include….

    Reply
    • Anonymous

      I agree. It took nearly four years for me to find a specialist who diagnosed my vulvar vestibulitis. My first gyn did several tests but could find nothing wrong. He never referred me to anyone else. After we moved to a different city, I tried another doctor. I told him I was worried that it was all in my head and that maybe I needed a psychiatrist. His response? “No, you don’t need a psychiatrist. You just need to pray to your Heavenly Father.” I wish I were joking. I finally found a doctor who knew exactly what it was, and confirmed it with a simple test. I was shocked that the 2 other doctors had no idea. I wonder how many women have just given up and suffered. I wonder if it’s really that rare after all.

      Reply
      • Sheila Wray Gregoire

        I think a lot just suffer. I hear from so many women who have had painful sex for decades. It’s heartbreaking.

        Reply
      • lisa j

        I think that’s a damning indicator of how much the medical profession often cares about women’s issues. Yikes.
        I am so glad you finally found the help you needed.

        Reply
    • Angharad

      The biggest problem I found (UK here so may differ in the US and Canada) is that ALL medical staff assume that EVERY woman is sexually active by the time she’s out of her teens unless there is something seriously abnormal with her. When I first started to experience major gynae issues (as a single woman) I was asked if sex was painful, and when I said I wouldn’t know because I wasn’t having any, I was just advised to seek counselling to help me get over my ‘inhibitions’ about sex – because OBVIOUSLY any woman in her mid 20s who isn’t having sex multiple times a week HAS to have some deep-rooted psychological problem. I practically had to stage a sit-in strike in the doctor’s surgery before they agreed to send me for tests, which uncovered physical issues which were causing the problems.

      I didn’t get married until I was mid-40s, so I had a good 25 years of being treated like a weirdo every time I went to see my doctor about anything…

      Reply
      • Stefanie

        I was in NYC when this happened. Yes, I think they assume every young woman is sexually active and I was a “weirdo.” But still, there are plenty of conservative people in NYC (Hasidic Jews, Muslims, recent immigrants), including Evangelicals. And it would seem to me that a profession that specializes in female sexuality would be educated on pathologies in the subject area.

        Reply
    • JoB

      Honestly, this makes me unbelievably angry. I’ve come to accept that most “Christian” experts are uneducated fools/pervs pushing their own agenda born of their own emotional arrested development. But as we share our stories, it’s the many stories of DOCTORS, including alleged SPECIALISTS in women’s health, quite a few of whom are FEMALE and not terribly old, who are unbelievably ignorant of female sexuality and its potential pathologies (pain and/or lack of pleasure)- it just.makes.me.so.angry. They can refer you to someone who will help you surgically change your gender, but they can’t help you navigate the body God gave you. And these are stories from patients who are educated, actually have the courage to bring up issues with practitioners, speak the same native language as the doctor, and have the resources to look for another doctor or follow up with a specialist. Heaven help the women who don’t have that.

      I think I learned about the podcast “You are not broken,” (hosted by a female urologist) on this site. She really addresses the medical ignorance of female sexuality that still exists.

      Reply
      • Sad

        It’s not just virgins they treat this way but anyone who has never had sex outside of marriage. I married young and after a decade of violence from my first husband, he ran off with a mistress. By then though I had a child with him and had been complications with the birth leading to the strong possibility of no further children. Years later, not long before I remarried, I went to see a gynaecologist to see if more children was possible. As it was a public hospital clinic, I got a different registrar at every appointment. I can not even begin to explain the constant ridicule and disbelief I got from these so called professionals when I tried to explain that I hadn’t had sex in years since my divorce, but there was nothing wrong with my sex drive, or with my mental state, that no I had never had sex outside of marriage but had previously had lots of sex IN marriage.
        The frustrating part too is every test they ran and every surgery I had had for my pelvic injuries involved having them insist on doing a pregnancy test and not being believed when I said I hadn’t had sex for 5+ years since my divorce.
        I asked more than once about why they treat women this way, and the few that would even give an answer sadly gave the response that sadly there are 1. “Religious” women who lie due to shame about premarital sex and 2. Far too many women (especially younger ones) who know so little about sex that they don’t even realise activities they’ve done with their boyfriends are sex.
        What a world we live in!

        Reply
        • Sheila Wray Gregoire

          That is honestly so sad that they didn’t just listen to you! I’m so sorry.

          Reply
        • Lisa Johns

          Both of the reasons they gave are — sadly — somewhat valid! It’s no excuse for them not listening to you, but they do see both scenarios. Young girls not even knowing that they’ve had sex is, in my opinion, even worse than religious women lying to cover shame (why are we not teaching our daughters about their bodies?!), but even I have known it to happen, and I’m not in the medical profession.

          Reply
        • Laura

          Sad,

          I experienced this too in an emergency room visit. They insisted on making me take a pregnancy test after I told them I have not been sexually active in years. They wouldn’t believe me and said they had to rule things out to get to the bottom of an issue that never got figured out.

          Reply
          • Hannah

            At this stage I just accept the pregnancy test even though I’ve never had sex. They can’t know who doesn’t know they’ve had sex, and who isn’t representing the situation accurately, especially in emergency situations where they don’t have an ongoing professional relationship with the patient. They can’t take the risk of harming an unborn child which the individual might want to keep when they find out it exists, and then being sued for not doing the proper checks. It’s usually organisational policy and the individual you’re speaking to has no power to change it.

        • Eliza

          I am wondering if they would be less skeptical and more accepting if you simply said you had not had sex since your last period. B/c that has been accepted for me as a married woman at least enough that they are content to do a waiver instead of a test. But I’m sure different practices have different rules.

          Reply
        • M

          I’ve had it work the other way too. I went to a doctor for abdominal pain and unexplained bleeding. I was told I was hormonal and given a prescription. I was married and sexually active. No pregnancy test, no abdominal palpitation – nothing. Just “take a pill and leave me alone”. I was livid.

          Reply
      • Angharad

        Totally agree about the cluelessness of many secular medical staff. It’s deep rooted in society that women just make a fuss about nothing. There have been studies where both men and women were told to contact doctors giving identical symptoms which indicated serious/life-threatening conditions, and the men were taken seriously while the women were dismissed.

        I had a friend who started experiencing painful sex and when her doctor found out that her husband was her only ever sexual partner and that she’d waited for marriage to have sex, he told her that it was all in her mind because she had ‘hangups’ about sex and suggested a few one-night stands to get rid of them. She demanded further tests and examinations and ended up needing an operation to fix the very physical cause of her pain.

        I had a potentially life-threatening condition dismissed as ‘health anxiety’ by several doctors pre diagnosis, and my friend’s sister is now dead because her cancer was also dismissed as health anxiety until a few weeks before it killed her.

        So it’s not just the church that dismisses women’s pain. But the church should be doing better than the world, not worse!

        Reply
        • Sheila Wray Gregoire

          This makes me so angry. I wonder if this will change as more and more females become doctors? But often the advice given by women can be just as bad.

          Reply
          • Lisa Johns

            The females are trained by a male-founded and male-dominated profession, and can be even worse than the males, sadly. It’s going to take more than numbers to change this.

          • Angharad

            I’ve found that with gynae issues, male doctors tend to be far better – the women tend to have the attitude of ‘well I don’t have a problem with this and I’m a woman too, so you must be making a fuss about nothing’.

    • Em

      I agree. My first gyn prescribed Xanax and suggested I relax. First OB referred to my vaginismus as “psychological.” Thankfully the last OB was much more familiar with and sympathetic to vaginismus.

      Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Yes, I wish that too. Gynecologists often know very little about vaginismus. It’s really frustrating.

      Reply
  9. Laura

    I was amazed that first-time sex did not hurt for me. I was 22 and engaged to my ex. He kept asking me, “Are you sure you were really a virgin?” because I did not bleed the first time. Looking back, what he said was insulting to me and I did think it was weird that I did not bleed. I figured that my hymen broke years before when I first inserted a tampon or from riding a bike. Plus, I was aroused before first-time sex.

    Now that I’ve been celibate for 22 years and I’m going to be married in less than 2 months, I will admit that I am nervous about first-time-in-a-long-time sex. Thankfully, my fiance is thinking about my needs and wants to please me well.

    Most of the time when I see a gynocologist they have to use the smallest speculum on me because I have never had babies. So, again, I’m praying I won’t feel pain on my honeymoon.

    Reply
    • Angharad

      Dear Laura, as long as you take it steady and are aroused first, you should be fine. I was told by my gynae that I definitely WOULD feel pain for the first few times because I’m ‘abnormally narrow’, and my dear husband was determined to prove him wrong. It did take us several attempts to go the whole way, but we had a lot of fun trying and the worst I experienced at any point was discomfort/soreness rather than pain.

      (Definitely take some lube with you though – the body’s own supply seems to tail off in your 40s which can be really annoying when everything else is ready to go but you’re still dry!)

      Reply
  10. Calliope

    Thank you for this post. I didn’t primarily have vaginismus pain on our wedding night – it was much different than how that is described – but I didn’t know what to call it. It must have been one of the four hymen conditions that can cause pain that you linked to on the Cleveland Clinic site. I remember having an extremely difficult time inserting a tampon the first time as a teenager as well. It FINALLY makes sense.

    CW: SA

    Our wedding night started out wonderful, but penetration was extremely painful, causing me to immediately tell him to stop. He didn’t. He had been taught pain was normal for women’s first time and you just have to get it over with. He also had a secret porn addiction at the time which I’m sure was a factor. His thought process at the time was that the church told him he had the final say in disagreements, and he decided to finish. (Nobody can ever tell me complementarianism isn’t harmful.) I was trying to scramble up the bed, push him off of me, anything to make the pain stop. I bled quite a lot. It still hurt the next day so I called my ob/gyn and was told to abstain for a week while I healed. (We were several hours away on our hooneymoon so I couldn’t go in to be seen.) I didn’t know what to do with what happened or that it was sexual assault, so I blocked it out for 25 years. I didn’t know how to process it. For some reason it all came flooding back as our anniversary approached last month. Thanks for this post because I finally have answers to why it hurt so much in the first place.

    #womentalking

    P.S. he has taken full responsibility the last few years for abusing me and has focused on becoming a safe, healthy man, making amends where he can, and making sure I feel as safe as possible. The Bare Marriage team has been a huge part of our (messy) healing story.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Oh, wow, Calliope, I’m so sorry! I’m glad he’s taken responsibility and you’re trying to heal. I wish that didn’t happen to you, though, and I wish he hadn’t felt so entitled (especially due to what the church taught him).

      Reply
      • Calliope

        Thank you. The Act of Marriage was the book I read right before our wedding, too. I think Aunt Matilda’s story contributed to me thinking this must be normal. Except I didn’t recognize the book deserved to be drowned in the bathtub like you did. 😆

        Reply
  11. Andrea

    I don’t think enough women know that an unaroused vagina is a collapsed tube, like a sock without a foot in it. No amount of lube is going to make that comfortable if your vagina is not expanded. It’s part of arousal like lubrication and engorgement. The reason for the hymen, which covers most of a newborn’s vagina and recedes by the time she’s a toddler, is to protect the vagina from feces. This is also why girls are taught to wipe from front to back. By the time a young woman becomes sexually active, her hymen is merely a ribbon and often too small, too loose, or too stretchy to actually tear from penetration. The bleeding is more often caused by vaginal bruising (which is, of course, more likely with a collapsed and/or unlubricated vagina) and that’s also what causes the pain. It it was just the hymen breaking, it would be a tiny sharp pain with the first thrust, but women feel like they’re being stabbed with every thrust and that’s vaginal bruising.

    Reply
    • Lisa Johns

      Wow, that’s the best explanation of the hymen I have ever heard. Thank you for that!

      Reply
  12. Sad

    I wish I had seen something like this before my honeymoon. My experience was likely in the 4th category (or perhaps the 3rd).

    Ironically, our wedding night was pain free. It wasn’t particularly exciting first time sex, but other than slight discomfort for a few thrusts, it wasn’t painful. The problem was, because I had been told by so many people it was supposed to be painful, when I did develop problems over the next few days, I just ignored it, thinking it was “normal”.

    I’ll never know whether it was just a skin irritation of some sort or possibly thrush or even related to my (at the time undiagnosed) auto immune condition, but it took months for the pain and burning I developed to go away. But I tolerated it because I thought it was normal.

    It more than likely was basically an allergy to my first husband as I eventually worked out that the burning went away completely if I washed out straight after sex or if we wore condoms but would come back if we didn’t do this. And when I remarried, I didn’t get this effect from my second husband at all. But those first few months with my first husband, feeling like my nether regions were on fire 24/7 were horrendous. And the sex messages I got from various people made it seem like it was just a normal part of being married. It’s only by chance that I realised that I was able to come up with a solution and in hindsight, perhaps we could have come up with a better solution if I’d gone to see a doctor and had worked out it was likely an allergy to my husband. (For several reasons I won’t go into detail, we suspect it was a specific allergy to a specific substance in his diet that I am allergic to and that is known to be secreted in semen).

    I mean basically, I could have saved myself months of pain if I had discovered decades earlier that our honeymoon issue could more than likely been fixed by taking a simple antihistamine when we had sex.

    But no one tells young couples these things! The message new couples get is “just stick it out, pain is normal, keep going, you’ll eventually work it out”.

    But pain is not normal. Not normal at all. And while I’m lucky that it didn’t put me off sex, I could have prevented myself a lot of pain if I’d gotten the problem checked out as soon as we’d gotten back from the honeymoon.

    PS while I’m sure semen allergy isn’t common, it sadly is a thing. I’m just glad my second marriage wasn’t effected by it.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Oh, dear! That is so very sad. I hope we can help other young women not experience this, so that this won’t be anyone else’s story.

      Reply
  13. CMT

    I feel sad for 20something me. I didn’t expect pain, exactly, but it never occurred to me that *me actively feeling good* was worth prioritizing or waiting for. When all you’re really taught directly is “sex is great, wait till marriage, and it’ll all work out,” you are missing a lot of important details! Layer on lots of crap about how your body and sexuality don’t belong to you, paying attention to your own needs is selfish, love means constantly sacrificing what you want for someone else, etc, etc, you’re stuck. Even if you know it’s supposed to be good (and your spouse really wants to make it good for you), you have no tools to get there.

    Reply
    • Jo R

      “paying attention to your own needs is selfish”

      unless you’re a man.

      “love means constantly sacrificing what you want for someone else”

      unless you’re a man.

      🙄 🤮

      Reply
      • CMT

        Well, yeah. It’s really weird, actually, how self-sacrificing love is talked about as the ideal for all Christians, because Jesus. Yet, when it comes to relationships and sex, men’s “sacrifice” is… to be leaders? And maybe do some bare minimum housework and emotional caregiving? Whereas women can be “emptying themselves” to the nth degree and putting everyone else’s comfort and convenience ahead of their own needs, but still hear they aren’t doing enough, they aren’t sacrificing enough, their expectations are too high, why aren’t they happy to make others happy, and on and on.

        Puke indeed.

        Reply
  14. Katherine

    Thought I’d speak up as I seem to be an outlier to Prob #1. I always knew I had a tight, intact hymen due to difficulty wearing tampons growing up and small speculums at the gyno sending me crawling up the wall (which they all found slightly amusing). Instead of one and done with it on our honeymoon, it took ten to eleven love-making sessions to break that band over about four days time (and pursued at my insistence since I knew it needed done). Those four days were not fun and were indeed painful. So while the norm might be “meh, the hymen is no big deal” for some, it’s def a tough deal.

    Reply
    • Nessie

      Please excuse my ignorance, and I’m not necessarily asking you specifically… is breaking the hymen something the gyneacologist could/should do at the office/hospital? It seems like that would be a less painful way to take care of that if one knows they may have trouble with it..

      Reply
      • Laura

        Nessie,

        Before my mom got married in 1973 and went to see her gyno to get birth control, he told her if needed he could break her hymen. She does not remember if he did that, but it was a procedure they did during an office visit.

        Reply
      • Lisa Johns

        Yes, I believe they do it with a small scalpel.

        Reply
      • Katherine

        Agreed – and in hindsight I would have gladly asked for some help from a doctor. But none ever offered and none ever said anything was unusual down there. So I assumed as this article states that it wouldn’t be a big deal after the first time. So not trying to share TMI – just want the outliers to know that sometimes it’s not just a flimsy membrane that breaks easy peasy and I’m not sure how you would know this until you’re actually in the situation. 🤷🏽‍♀️

        Reply
        • Nessie

          I’m so sorry that your doctor never offered that, especially when it sounds like a relatively simple procedure! Obviously they knew more about that area than you- they are trained, and can see/access what you cannot. Just another way I believe women’s medical care needs improving- or a complete overhaul.

          Reply
          • LTM

            I wasn’t given any advice before my wedding night. My husband and I were both young virgins from conservative families…we didn’t even know to use lube. I cried the first time, and many times after that. I remember praying on my honeymoon “God I thought sex was supposed to be nice! Why is it only nice for him?” My husband kept trying to tell me we didn’t need to have sex, but after all, it was my honeymoon,and my mom had told me to just push through when you didn’t want to. She didn’t mean when it hurt- but she didn’t know that was a possibility. I spent the first two years of marriage with painful sex that I dreaded, combined with huge guilt for being a bad wife because I should be enjoying sex. Finally after we had our first child it stopped becoming painful. Now five years in I’m just starting to learn how to enjoy it…I wish I could go back and tell myself that it’s not normal, that I don’t need to just suffer all the time. But I didn’t even know how to verbalize what was happening, and I didn’t have anyone I was close enough to to tell…My daughter will be a lot more prepared. I don’t want her to go through what I did

          • Sheila Wray Gregoire

            Oh, wow! I’m glad the pain is gone, but I’m so sorry you suffered like that.

      • Angharad

        They can – they don’t tend to remove it completely (not over here, anyway) but they put a crossways slit in it so that it breaks easily. Anyone who has issues with tampons might want to think about getting checked out – also if during menstruation you get pain that builds up and then vanishes when you pass a lot of blood it can be a sign that the hymen is too thick/has too small an opening, and it’s easily fixed.

        Reply
    • JM

      I had a very similar experience. My hymen was extremely thick/tight and penetration was literally impossible the first night. Even two fingers was too painful. I was fully aroused and we used lube and he was very careful, and it was still awful when we finally did manage. I bled a decent amount (like from a cut) but once I healed from that, I’ve only had pain again post-childbirth with a tear (and even that wasn’t as bad). Definitely not vaginismus in my case, and I wish I’d had a procedure to correct it before my very emotionally traumatic wedding night.

      Reply
  15. Pogo

    I have an honest question for Sheila that I’ve not seen addressed elsewhere. As someone with a high view of Scripture, I really
    struggle with the tension between the medical truth of what the hymen is/how it works…and the largely inaccurate info given in the hymen in the Old Testament (to the point that, you know, they were making laws with life-and-death implications, based on a really wrong view of what the hymen is and what it does). Why? How do we process that tension? Where’s Jesus in all of that?

    Reply
    • Katherine

      Can you cite references of the verses you are referring to please ?

      Reply
      • Jo R

        Deuteronomy 22.

        Reply
  16. Heather M

    Sheila,
    I’m surprised you’re propogating the myth that hymens “break” at all, when in reality they only stretch? Many girls are afraid to use tampons, see a gyn, go horseback riding, because of being told these things might “break” their hymens. That’s a myth and a damaging one too.

    Reply
  17. Megan

    When my husband and I got married, he had educated himself on female anatomy and he was really intentional about getting me very aroused before we began intercourse. As a result, I really did not experience pain the first time and it was a very pleasurable experience. However, we had both been taught that the first time usually hurts and then it’s smooth sailing from there. So we both expected that it would take less work after that and I was so mentally ready that I didn’t realize it would sometimes take my body awhile to completely catch up. We both thought that if I was “wet”, I was sufficiently aroused. The next few times were really painful and we couldn’t figure out why and then my body began to tense up every time we started to have sex. It would eventually relax, but initial penetration was so painful. It took a couple of months and a very tearful visit to my gynecologist to figure out that my body needs a good 15-20 minutes of foreplay to be completely ready, no matter how excited I am mentally and emotionally. Now that we’ve figured that out, it’s been great, but I will never forget the confusion and heartbreak when I wanted so badly to be intimate with my husband (and knew what it COULD feel like!) and couldn’t figure out why it hurt so much. I wish the disconnect between mental arousal and physical arousal was talked about more often because the impression I had going into marriage was that both happened at the same time and natural lubrication was the main sign of arousal.

    Reply

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