Painful penetration? Here’s how you can still have a fulfilling sex life

The used panty marketplace

For twenty percent of people with vulvas, painful penetration is the norm. That’s one in five of us – and even if you think you’re alone, you know someone else who’s going through it right now. But although we tell each other penetration is the main act, conversations about penetrative pain are shoved into the corner and ignored. Until recently, painful penetration was written off as little more than “hysteria.” Even now, many male doctors fail to believe those of us who say we’re experiencing chronic pain during intercourse.

When you compare that to the attention, money, and panic surrounding erectile dysfunction, it’s enough to make your blood boil. Penetrative suffering is isolating. Not being able to have the kind of sex we want is embarassing and isolating, and sometimes leads to the end of relationships. In a world so riddled with sexual shame, pain during intercourse can make even the most sex positive of us shut down. 

To explore all the reasons why this pain might happen would be a whole article in and of itself. Often, this hurt stems from an under-researched condition like vulvodynia or endometriosis, but it can also be caused by scar tissue, menopause, or emotional trauma. 

No matter the cause, we’re all in this together – and we don’t have to suffer in silence anymore. As someone with endometriosis and with no cervix, I’m no stranger to painful intercourse. Going through my stages of recovery, there were times when I couldn’t even be penetrated digitally. I was frustrated by what I couldn’t offer, and each new partner filled me with anxiety. The pleasure I’d once enjoyed from penetrative sex seemed beyond my reach.

In reality, my sex life was far from over; it was just getting started. And no matter where you or your partner are at in your penetrative pain journey, your sex life is about to take off again, too.

Start by expanding your definition of sex

If you watch any television or porn, you might believe one thing about sex above all else: penetration is the star of the show. Anything leading up to it is an afterthought, and the idea of a life where penetration isn’t second nature is a nightmare.

Young hispanic couple holding hands in bed at home. Happy man seducing woman, kissing her shoulder.

I have news: television lies, and penetration isn’t everything. In a rich sex life, penetration is actually far from the starring role. 

To people in straight relationships, this may seem like a shocking take on sex, but the rest of us have been exploring pleasure in different ways this whole time. Yes, even queer people in straight-presenting relationships. Pleasure of all kinds abounds when you’re not just focused on reaching that moment when intercourse starts. Removing penetration from the menu (even if it’s just temporary) can inspire you as a couple to try new things and discover the allure of the other sides of sex.

When penetration is the end goal every single time, you feel pressure to get there. It’s common to rush things, exacerbating your pain and creating a self-feeding loop of misery in the bedroom. And as nice as penetration can feel when we’re not in pain, it’s still not the way most of us with vulvas orgasm. Only 7% of us can hit our Big O through intercourse alone. If you don’t have a vulva, take a second to read that again. That’s less than one in ten, so don’t bet on your partner being in that 7%. The magic for us lies in other kinds of stimulation – and it turns out you can skip the pain completely to embrace the strongest orgasm of your life, while still enjoying intimacy with the person you love.

Rerouting your sex life can end up being a beautiful thing. All of these suggestions aren’t meant to imply that you shouldn’t try for penetrative sex – you should, in ways that work for you. But by taking the focus off of it, you have more ideas for how to have intimacy and fun without worrying about pain. Pleasure has a thousand faces, and once you start exploring, you’ll find more and more ways that you love to get it on.

First, focus on oral

One of the most surefire ways to enjoy sex again? Take the main stage away from intercourse, and give it to oral. While many couples brush it off as foreplay, and give little more than a cursory lick, going down on each other can be the most erotic act of your night.

Take turns driving each other wild. As your partner pleasures you, give yourself permission to enjoy each sensation. Relax into it. Allow your partner to really explore your body with their mouth, traveling along your soft belly and hip bones and thighs, and build up your anticipation, until you burst. If you’re both new to focusing on oral, or you’re sleeping with a new partner, communicate when you’re getting close to orgasming, and tell them how you like to be touched.

Just like with intercourse, you should always be learning new ways to improve your oral game. Read books on it, watch YouTube videos, or find a good article on the topic. Even if your partner already raves about your skills, there is always room to improve. 

Instead of thinking of this shift away from penetration as punishment, think of it as a divine opportunity to learn how to use your tongue in ways you never even thought about before. Oral may feel so good for you both, don’t be surprised if you and your partner forget that penetration was ever the main course.

Focusing more on oral may sound like a small act, or one that couldn’t possibly be enough to revolutionize your relationship to sex, but I’m speaking from experience. There is no underestimating the power of oral in recovering from the trauma of penetrative intercourse. It’s intimate, a guaranteed orgasm-bringer, and the focus is all on mutual pleasure.

Then, explore kinks together

With penetration set to the side, you may find yourself opening up like a sexy flower to receive new kinds of pleasure than you’d ever considered before. Consider painful penetration a chance to explore a side of you that may have gotten sidelined over the years thanks to your intercourse state of mind.

A facet worth exploring? The diverse and delicious world of kink – and get creative with it. Kinkiness is an umbrella term for all kinds of pleasure that deviate from the mainstream world of sex where a penis goes inside of a vagina. Instead, it’s about a focus on other things that titillate and tease. 

Foot play is common in the kink world, and for all you know, you may have been missing out on a new kind of ride. Try kissing, nibbling, and sucking on each other’s feet while blindfolded. You can also dive into sensory play, wax, role playing, buying or selling used undies, or giving lap dances.

But there’s another side to the kink coin that may be perfect for what you’re dealing with. If you’re looking to get control over your pain, consider turning to BDSM. At first glance, it may seem like adding more pain to your sex life is the last thing you want. But when you look closer at the bond between chronic pain and BDSM, you realize something funny. They work together perfectly. With BDSM, the script flips: you’re no longer a hapless victim to your pain. You choose when it happens, how intense it is, and for how long you feel it. Unlike with penetrative sex, which may leave you feeling out of control, you are the author of your pain and pleasure in a BDSM scenel.

Curious? Go to a play party. Chances are, your town has a bustling kink community. Kink spaces thrive on consent and are surprisingly warm and welcoming. So long as you respect everyone else there, you and your partner are welcome at parties. Find a taster event, so you have a full view of common BDSM practices. A taster event lets you see more kink without any pressure to have past experience. You can participate by watching, getting a demo, or engaging in a whole scene with someone. At a kink party, you’re in control, every step of the way.

Embrace sexual micro moments

I have a radical suggestion. Find the sexuality in your daily life together. Sex doesn’t have to go “all the way” to be fun. It doesn’t have to end in orgasm, or with you both panting on the sheets. Instead, refamiliarize your body with feeling sexy by embracing small moments of sexual energy zinging between you and your partner(s). 

Sink into the way your partner moves your hair from your face, or explore your lover’s sides with your fingernails. Let these moments shiver through your body without any expectation for them to go further. Similar to BDSM, these moments help remind you that you’re in control of your sexuality – not anyone else. By embracing the ways you’re a sexual being, you can feel safe as you explore how to get frisky.

When you go for penetration, up your foreplay

Even before your pain began, you probably weren’t giving your vagina the warm-up time you really needed. The average person with a vagina needs about half an hour of foreplay to be totally loosened up – and if you’re like the average hetero couple, your foreplay time is closer to ten minutes

If your bod is more sensitive than the average bear’s, you need to honor that foreplay time first. This helps you loosen your muscles, relax, and be completely ready for your partner to enter you when they do.

Sex is largely a psychological act. Although you may have a scar or painful space inside you that won’t go away, priming your mental state is a powerful way to relax the muscles surrounding that painful area, letting your body enjoy each sensation more.

And there’s nothing that relaxes you more than an orgasm. To untense your muscles the most before penetration, have your partner give you that sweet little death you crave. Clitoral orgasms are powerful, and don’t require any penetration. After that orgasm, see if you can have another. And then, once you’ve melted into the bed, you’re finally ready for penetration.

Never skip the lube

If penetration is painful, it’s vital to make sure you’re properly lubed up before you begin. Especially if your pain stems from menopause, you may be both tight and dry. A little lubricant can go a long way in making your sex life pleasurable for both of you.

Needing lube can be embarrassing for younger people (trust me, I’ve been there). It feels like being wet is a basic thing that everyone assumes you can offer, and not getting there can make you feel like there’s something wrong with you. But speaking up about wanting lube paves the way for better sex for everyone involved. And anyway, once your lover feels how slick the lube gets you, they won’t question your request next time.But be careful when you shop for lube: they’re not all equal. Many of us experience pain because of hormonal issues, and some lubes contain chemicals that can worsen your condition. Err on the side of caution and opt for organic products, like the ones at Good Clean Love. Their water-based lubricants are dreamy if you’re using condoms. For those of you in committed and condom-free relationships, then coconut oil may just be your new best friend.

Try different positions

Most of us facing penetrative pain know that not all positions hurt the same. Some feel fine, while others cause an immediate stabbing pain. But for those of us who love penetration, we want to keep trying in the name of finding that one delectable angle.

Finding the right positions starts with the single most important aspect of any kind of sex: communication, communication, communication. Tell your partner you’d like to experiment with new positions to see what works for you. Pleasure is a two-way street, and if your partner learns a position isn’t working for you, they’d be eager to adjust in a way that transports you into ecstasy.

Doggy Style

Heather Jeffcoat, a pelvic floor therapist, recommends this position if you “have pain at ‘6 o’clock’ (the bottom or posterior portion of the vaginal opening).” By lessening the pressure on this spot, you can enjoy penetration without the pain that might accompany other positions for you.

Doggy style is also great if you’re the one moving your hips. This position awards you greater control of how deep your partner’s toy or penis goes, while they get an amazing view from behind. For added comfort and control, try putting a pillow under your belly or pelvic area to help you rotate your hips more precisely.

Get on top

If your thigh muscles are up to the task, try riding your partner on top. Depending on how you position your legs, you can control how deep your partner goes, and the angle they enter you at. For some, opening your legs up all the way  in a squatting position can make deep penetration possible without pain, since they’re entering straight in. For other bodies, you may find keeping your thighs close together helps you stay safe as you enjoy each other’s bodies without getting too intense and deep.


Lying on your side has a lot of benefits. When you’re dealing with penetrative pain, it can feel hard to let your guard down for sex to happen on its own. You can curb that problem with a position that fosters intimacy and gentleness – and this position is one of those. It’s a surprisingly versatile position that offers two main ways to lay: facing your partner, or with your back to them.

When you get it on lying on your sides, face to face, it’s a perfect position for communicating, and you can use your hand to control your partner’s penis or toy, dictating how deep and how fast they go in, or even adjusting your body for the ideal angle. This face-to-face position is also perfect for establishing trust or vulnerability with your partner. Being able to look them in the eyes and touch their face while you get it on is a powerful thing – and one you just can’t overlook when establishing trust with your own body and healing from the trauma of painful penetration.

If you’re facing away, you still have the deep intimacy of spooning, but with a sexy twist. By both lying on your side, you can control how deep your partner goes by the arc of your hips and butt during the moments Your partner can also reach around and touch your clitoris as you rock against each other, making this position feel incredible without being too deep.

Get a chair involved

Sometimes, the right moves need a little assistance – and a chair gives you two options built into one.

For the first option, lean forward with your hands gripping the back of the chair, and have your partner enter you from behind. You can then bounce up and down in a light twerking motion. Try keeping your legs close together or opening them wider for different depths. All that bouncing will feel delicious for you both while keeping the penetration shallow enough for you to keep the party going without all the pain.

If you want to switch it up while still using the chair, try another position. Sit your partner down on the chair. Facing away from them, slowly sink down on top of them before moving up and down. Keep your hands on your knees, and control how deep you go. It helps to hold onto a table in front of you for the most control. Just like with doggy style, they get a wonderful view while you maintain absolute control over how deep they go.

To make penetration gel, invest in the right kind of toy

Of course, even with a satiating kink life and the oral skills of a demigod, it’s OK to still yearn for penetration. If you’ve been avoiding it because it hurts, or trying positions to no avail, you’re not alone.

Many of us are fed up with pain disrupting our sexuality. One woman got so tired of her trauma that she did something radical: she created a whole business dedicated to designing a sex toy that helps people enjoy penetration again. Her device has forever changed the game in our collective quest for pain-free penetration. 

Her toy is called the Ohnut. This donut-shaped pleasure aid goes around the base of your partner’s penis to keep them from going deeper than your body would like. It’s made of a soft, flexible material that feels great for both parties, and is stretchy enough to fit your girthiest lover. This material cushions the space between your pelvis and your partner’s, putting you both in control. 

One of my favorite things about it? The Ohnut is adaptable, with four stacking rings to help you both tailor the experience to your own bodies. To get started, the folks at Ohnut recommend using three rings. After a few thrusts to test the water, you can add one or take one away as needed. These rings are easy to put on and take off in the heat of the moment, so you can both keep going as you please with as little interruption as possible.Couples who have struggled with painful penetration before now have nothing but rave reviews for the device, which completely revolutionizes pleasure for those of us who have been seeking penetration without all the baggage our bodies have attached to it. You can buy their product on their website or at progressive sex shops like Spectrum Boutique. With a little help, you and your partner can enjoy all the positions you used to, without worrying about how penetration hurts.

You’re the master of your sex life

Painful sex can feel like the end of the world, especially when you’re young or in love. But it doesn’t have to be a death knell to pleasure. You’re in control of this situation – no matter what your body has to say about it. Experiment tonight. One move at a time, you can take your sex life back in your own two hands.