Only 51% of Women Tell Partners Sex is Painful

Many women don’t tell their partners when sex is painful, suggests a recent Journal of Sexual Medicine study.

When asked why, many feel that pain is just a normal part of sex or that their partner’s pleasure is the priority.

Using data from the U.S.-based 2018 National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior, researchers identified 382 women between the ages of 14 and 49 who reported painful sex during the previous year. Most of the women were heterosexual.

About 82% said their experience was “a little painful,” and for 73%, the pain lasted for less than five minutes. Pain was generally felt at the vaginal entrance, inside the vagina, or near the cervix.

Over 60% of the women said that they had wanted the sexual encounter “very much,” and just under 60% said they had found it “extremely” or “quite a bit” pleasurable. About 20% said they wanted the experience “a little bit” or that they didn’t want to have sex at all but agreed anyway. The same amount reported that the encounter was “a little or not at all pleasurable.”

Only 51% told their partner about the pain. Women who experienced little or no pleasure were three times more likely to not tell their partner about pain.

Among the women who did not tell their partner, 155 explained why. From these answers, the authors discovered several themes.

Some women normalized painful sex, saying that the pain was “expected and accepted.” Others attributed it to factors like age, virginity, or vaginal dryness. “No need [to discuss pain]; ever since my hysterectomy in 2008, I always have pain,” one woman said. Another, who discussed the situation with her doctor, was told, “It’s natural to feel that way sometimes.”

Some women characterized the pain as “inconsequential,” “minimal,” or “insignificant.”

Still others felt that their partner’s enjoyment was a bigger priority than their own. “I didn’t want to stop his pleasure,” said one woman. Another explained, “I felt a little pain. I was on top, so I was being careful. I knew my partner wanted it because we had not been sexual in two weeks.”

And some women were concerned that telling their partner about painful sex would make the situation “awkward.” One respondent said, “I did not want to make him feel insecure and uncomfortable.” Another said, “He should know. Not his fault. I am sensitive.”

“Many women, and men, are not taught how to have open, honest, and broadminded conversations about sex, and they are socialized based on the education (or lack thereof) received during childhood and adolescence, and therefore in adulthood, to accept (or expect) mediocre sex,” the authors noted.

They added that education and counseling on sexual communication strategies, as well as redefining “having sex” to include pain-free activities, could improve sexual relationships for both partners.


The Journal of Sexual Medicine

Carter, Allison, PhD, MPH, et al.

“ ‘Fulfilling His Needs, Not Mine’: Reasons for Not Talking About Painful Sex and Associations with Lack of Pleasure in a Nationally Representative Sample of Women in the United States”

(Full-text. Published online: September 21, 2019)

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