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Sex With My Boyfriend Hurts

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I am 28, I lost my virginity two years ago and since then sex has been painful. I am confused and now I don't want to have sex because all I am expecting is pain. I don't even get aroused that much, but I still force myself to do it because of my boyfriend. I am worried I might be gay or asexual. Every time I read people talk about sex in such a positive way I want to cry because I can't experience it! Maybe you have some advice?

I'm very sorry that you're in this situation, it sounds confusing and difficult emotionally in addition to being physically painful. I think the first thing I want to say is that if it's possible for you to stop forcing yourself to have sex that would probably be a very good thing to do. If you are worried that not having sex with your boyfriend will lead to the end of the relationship that isn't necessarily the case. It might not be easy, and of course it could be the end of the relationship, but whatever is happening for you that is leading to pain during sex, it isn't going to get better by force. Persistence maybe, but force probably not.

So if it's possible for you to be gentle with yourself and make the decision to only have sex when you really want it, that seems to me the best way to start. It isn't always easy to talk about sexual problems but if you feel safe and able to do that, and if your boyfriend cares, he should want to know what's going on with you. Of course if you aren't ready to get into the details you also can just say that you need to stop having sex for a while. If you enjoy other kinds of intimacy with him you can make it clear that it's just the sexual activities that you want a break from.

You've shared a lot in very few words, and to provide specific advice I'd need to know more. I'll ask some of those questions below and also offer some ideas. And I'll wrap up with some concrete advice.

In terms of questions, I guess I'm wondering about how you felt about sex and whether or not you experienced desire and arousal before two years ago. You say you lost your virginity and I know that when most people say that they mean that's when they first had intercourse. But in trying to figure out what's going on for ourselves sexually it can be useful to broaden the picture and consider our entire sexual history.

Before that experience two years ago did you engage in any sexual activities, on your own (like masturbation) or with others? If so, was it enjoyable? And if it was then it may be worth thinking about what, if anything, is different about the sex you are having now.

Of course for a lot of people their first sexual experiences aren't enjoyable, in fact for many people they are forced, unwanted, and sometimes violent. The experience of being forced to engage in any kind of sexual activity can often make it difficult for people to enjoy sex even with people they trust and want to be sexual with. Changing that pattern is possible, but it almost always means dealing with some aspect of the past trauma.

Other Causes of Painful Sex
There are many reasons why you might experience pain during sex. Of course it depends a lot on what you mean by sex. Even though our bodies and our minds can't ever be separated, one way to think about the causes of painful sex is to break it down by body and mind:

Our Bodies. There may be something going on in your body, something anatomical or muscular or related to your nervous system, that triggers pain when you start having sex. The trigger might be physical stimulation, like friction, or it might be the changes in your body that accompany sexual arousal. You mention that you don't feel aroused, so that's probably not it, but in fact not being aroused and then having sex can often lead to pain, as your body doesn't do things (like relax or produce lubrication) that it does when you do feel turned on. Lack of arousal is a common cause of pain during sex. It's also possible that physical pain is related to medication, to hormones, even to diet. For all these reasons one of the next things you might want to do, if you have access to a doctor, is to have a check up and let your doctor know that one reason you're there is to try and figure out why having sex is painful.

Our Minds. Saying something is "in your head" doesn't mean it isn't real and doesn't mean it isn't important. Our thoughts and feelings can have a huge impact on our ability to enjoy sex, and if we aren't feeling aroused and excited about the sex we're having, we're less likely to enjoy it and/or experience pain during sex. Psychological causes of pain during sex could be tied to traumatic experiences but it can also be related to feeling pressure and expectations from others and from ourselves. You mention how other people talk about sex and how it makes you feel like crying. There is so much pressure built up from these kinds of expectations, and they can get stuck in our heads and get in the way of us being able to relax and focus and enjoy sex. It is also common for people who have experienced pain during sex to come to expect the same pain every time, and in anticipation tense up in such a way as to actually make sex painful, even with a patient and loving partner.

There's far more to say about this, and if you want here is a more detailed article about why sex causes of painful sex.

You mentioned that you are worried you might be gay or asexual. Those are, of course, two very different things, but they are both usually used to describe sexual orientation or sexual identity. Our sexual orientation or identities don't make us physically unable to have sex with anyone, and I can't see how they could be a direct cause of pain during sex. But, if your orientation is such that you have no interest in having sex with your boyfriend, and that lack of interest means no desire and no arousal, then that could be contributing to pain during sex. Similarly, if you felt no desire for sex or sexual attraction to anyone (which is one definition of asexuality) it could make sex unpleasant, boring, and possibly painful. I'd want to know more about why you're worried about these possibilities. While sexual desire, orientation, and identity are related, the relationship isn't simple, and if you are feeling confused about orientation you aren't alone. It's something worth thinking about, but it would be good to rule out physical causes first.

Finally I want to say something about the way other people talk about sex. My opinion is that the way that sex is talked about in public is mostly nonsense. People either talk about how earth shattering and amazing sex is, how great they are at it, and how wild they or their partners are. Or they are talking about how evil sex is, what a sin and a shame it's become, and how everyone who enjoys it is going to hell. Sex can be great. And it can be awful. And it can be both of these things sometimes at the same time! I know that my saying this isn't going to make you magically believe it, but I still want to add my perspective, which comes from years of talking and writing about sex and listening to other people talk about their sex lives. My perspective is that the way people represent their sex lives in public bares little resemblance to their experience of sex in private.

I promised some concrete advice as well.

Where to start?
As I said, I think you need to start by stopping having sex that you don't want. If you feel okay doing it, talk with your boyfriend and let him at least know that you want to take a break from sex for a bit.

If you can access a doctor I would recommend getting a physical exam to rule out anything physical. You may want to talk to them about getting a referral to a physiotherapist who specializes in pelvic pain. There is a book I highly recommend, called Healing Painful Sex (compare prices) that you might want to check out.

Before you go to the doctor you may want to do some exploration on your own. Only if you feel comfortable doing so (that is: don't force yourself!) it would be helpful to know if there's any kind of sex you do enjoy. It would also be good to know at what point the pain occurs. Do you feel pain when you're thinking about having sex? Once you've started? One way to do some research is to masturbate and see if you're able to feel arousal and pleasure in your body when you are completely alone. If you can enjoy masturbation and get aroused and feel pleasure (whether or not you have some big orgasm) then chances are the things that bring on the pain are less physical and more to do with things like your relationship, your life, your feelings and thoughts.

I know that's a lot. I'm really glad you emailed. Talking about sex, even with a stranger via email, can feel risky, but it sounds like you're doing your best to feel better and figure out what's going on. I hope you can feel good about yourself for having taken that step.

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