Sex and pain

Timaree answers your questions about sex, love and relationships.

Timaree headshot
Sex advice shouldn’t be syndicated. We wanted a local feel to ours so we’ve enlisted the sound advice of resident sex professor Timaree Schmit. Have a question about your love life that needs answers? Email her at asktimaree@philadelphiaweekly.com. | Image: Redlite photos

Q: “I have a question about sex and pain. My friend talks about enjoying pain with her sexual experiences: Spanking, slapping, choking. 

Meanwhile, I’m over here, hoping that sex won’t hurt me. Often penetration is painful, even if I’m super comfortable and very much in love. It’s been that way since I was a teenager. So, I guess I want to know what the difference is between us and if there is some way to tap into whatever it is that she’s having.”

I am extremely glad you decided to ask about this because there’s a huge, important announcement that you need to hear:

SEX IS SUPPOSED TO FEEL GOOD TO EVERYONE INVOLVED.

The tricky thing is that what “feels good” varies from person to person and across situations. There are many types of touch and levels of intensity and no true consensus on what is and is not “good.”

It’s kind of like hugs. You ever have one of those friends who loves to pick people up and give a giant squeeze so tight that their back cracks? And have you ever had one of those friends who hates hugs and prefers fist bumps and high fives? Same thing goes for fucking. And an individual will vary in their desired level of touch, whether in response to a person, the context, or just the mood of the day. All of that is entirely normal and healthy. 

But because our sexuality education is almost entirely devoid of conversations of pleasure, this idea can feel alien. Many of us are reared with the notion that sex is for a purpose: Procreation, acquisition, conquest, rites of passage, or fulfilling obligation. In this viewpoint, our big sexual concerns are avoidance of unwanted pregnancy, STIs or getting in trouble with someone for something. Our notions of “bad” will have more to do with what other people would think than whether we found an experience satisfying.  

An individual will vary in their desired level of touch, whether in response to a person, the context, or just the mood of the day.

Even if we ditch the general vibe of prudery, it can still be difficult to prioritize pleasure. Our culture simply does not make space for it. It’s easy to internalize the idea that every activity has to be productive or that doing something simply because it feels good is somehow selfish or sinful. 

And that’s how we end up with perfectly competent, intelligent, consenting adults – like you – engaging in sexual activities with the goal of it being…not unpleasant.  

First, let’s talk about unwanted sexual pain. There are a lot of reasons that someone might feel pain during penetration, the most likely (and easily fixed!) is lack of arousal. 

If someone isn’t sufficiently comfortable or into the situation, lubrication may be an issue. This can often be resolved with education about anatomy, more time spent on teasing touch and gentle stimulation…or finding a different person to whom you’re more attracted. Lubrication and arousal are not synonymous though, and they can occur separately. There’s zero shame in using an external lube if your body isn’t doing it on its own. 

There are also a wide variety of medical reasons that penetration may be painful: Muscular spasms, infections, endometriosis, cysts, pelvic inflammatory disease, injury to the tissue, or chronic pain. If more foreplay and lube aren’t doing it for you, please seek the help of a sex-positive doctor (not all doctors are!) who will take your concerns seriously. 

Brains love endorphins and there are many ways to get those delightful doses.

Meanwhile, your friend sounds like she’s playing with the line between pain and pleasure. In fairness, it’s more of a Venn diagram than a line of demarcation. 

Pain and pleasure light up similar parts of the brain, and the sensations have “mutually inhibitory effects.” For your friend, the experience is not pure hurt, but actually a complicated form of pleasure. Depending on the situation, a person’s emotional state and relationships, the application of pain paired with arousal can be comparable to what happens during meditation. Intentionally inflicted, focused pain can – ironically – be a successful means of alleviating chronic pain in the right context.

Not all kinky people are into physical pain, but for many BDSM practitioners, the psychological context of playing with power, domination and submission can be a reprieve from stress. And this isn’t exclusively a sexual thing. For your friend, it’s choking and slapping, for others this sensation is achieved by eating super hot foods, doing a hardcore workout or getting a tattoo. Brains love endorphins and there are many ways to get those delightful doses. 

Again, if you take anything away from this, I hope that you begin to prioritize your pleasure. Go on sabbatical from activities that cause you unwanted pain until you have identified the source and focus on experiences that leave you feeling satisfied and fulfilled, however that looks. 

Have a question for Timaree? Send an email to asktimaree@philadelphiaweekly.com.

  • Timaree Schmit Headshot

    Timaree Schmit is basically an episode of Adam Ruins Everything, but in the shape of a person. She has a PhD in Human Sexuality Education and years of experience in community organizing, performance art, and finding the extra weird pockets of Philly.

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