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One Bloody Mess: Myths & Realities of Bleeding with First Intercourse

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go_warriors_cc asks:

How long after a girl's first time should they bleed for and how heavy should they bleed?

Heather Corinna replies:

There aren't any "shoulds" here. Not all women bleed with first-time intercourse or other kinds of vaginal entry: in fact, most don't. Why some women do -- and for how long they do -- and some don't also varies.

As to how many women do and don't bleed after first intercourse, very little scientific study has been done on that. That's unsurprising since bleeding from one specific act of intercourse (rather than it happening with frequency) often doesn't have any real medical relevance, and healthcare providers and sex educators -- if we've done our homework -- also pretty much have the answers we need already. One study which was done, cited by my friend Hanne Blank in her book, Virgin: The Untouched History, was an informal one in 1998 published in the British Medical Journal by Dr. Sara Patterson-Brown. She found that at least 63% of the women she asked about bleeding and first intercourse reported that they did not experience bleeding. We say at least because in her study, some of the women she asked about it couldn't remember. (And if that surprises you, please understand that the idea no one will ever forget every detail of their first time simply doesn't hold up to reality: some people, especially over time, wind up remembering little to nothing about it at all.)

We know that some women have bleeding and that others have none. For those who do, how much is something else that varies, largely because what causes the bleeding varies. Some women who have bleeding will only lightly spot for a few hours, others will have near-period level bleeding for a day or two, some more or for even longer.

For the most part, just like bleeding from any other part of your body, bleeding that comes with or follows intercourse or any other kind of sex is due to an injury. How can injury happen during sex? In a few different ways:

1.) If a person with a vulva isn't aroused (sexually excited) enough, or at all, before and during entry, often the vaginal opening and vagina will have not loosened and/or self-lubricated enough for entry or intercourse to be pleasurable for her or truly workable. In other words, it may be possible, in that their partner can manage to force their penis (or whatever else) into the vagina, but it often won't feel good to that receptive partner, and often results in tearing of or abrasions to the tissues of the vulva, vagina or cervix. Suffice it to say, if a woman isn't consenting to sex at all, but is sexually assaulted, bleeding is very common for this reason.

2.) When a partner is too rough. If a partner is too rough or forceful with their penis, fingers or a sex toy, whether a woman is aroused or not, that can cause injury and bleeding.

3.) Because of an infection or other medical condition. For instance, the sexually transmitted infection Chlamydia can sometimes cause bleeding with intercourse. The STIs Gonorrhea or Trichomoniasis can also cause bleeding. So can endometriosis, fibroid tumors, vaginitis, yeast infections, uterine or cervical polyps, cervical dysplasia and other kinds of cervicitis, and more rarely, cervical cancer. Because of cervical tenderness during pregnancy, some pregnant women experience bleeding from intercourse, too. Another possibility for women much older than you are is that menopause is playing a part: decreasing levels of estrogen that accompany menopause can cause vaginal walls to become thin, making them less flexible and resilient.

4.) If the corona or hymen is still in the process of wearing away or has worn away very little, and that intercourse or entry tears (in which case this is bleeding usually actually due to #2), stretches or erodes it. This is the reason people tend to most commonly think is why vaginal bleeding with intercourse happens: some people even think it's the only reason. Age can be a big factor when this is the cause. Because this tissue wears away over time, the younger a woman or girl is when she has intercourse the more likely it is that there's more of the corona to wear away, and the more likely it is there will be some bleeding. Consider that in our modern day, for as much as you hear adults talking about how young people having sex in their teens and twenties are, many women in history, and in some places still, had first intercourse (and marriage) at even younger ages than now. So, when it comes to specifically hymenal bleeding, it's something we likely see less of now than we did 500 or more years ago.

As well, arousal and lubrication is an issue with this one, too. The corona is usually very stretchy and flexible, so even someone who has one that's not yet eroded enough to be totally out of the way can have pleasurable sex without bleeding from that tissue when they are aroused and lubricated enough, be that lubrication from their own bodies or from a bottle. In that case, the corona often just slides to the side of the vaginal opening a lot like the inner labia stay to the side during intercourse.

Based on what we know from medicine, and what sex educators know from talking to people about this, the first three situations are the most common causes of vaginal bleeding, not the last.

A lot of people do mistakenly think that bleeding is a "must" or always happens, and that when it does it's always about the hymen/corona and one big reason for that has to do with outdated cultural ideas more than anything else. The same people also often think first-time intercourse usually or always will be -- or even should be -- painful. And that's not true, either. The most common reasons for intercourse being painful are also often 1 - 3 above, not 4.

To understand why people think the way they do about this, it's helpful to consider history. We get asked what you're asking a lot, and have a lot of women writing in worried that they didn't bleed, and also hear from male partners who don't trust the sexual history of female partners who didn't bleed. So, I'm going to dig in here.

For a very long time, before there was the better understanding of women's bodies and sexuality we have in this century and some of the last, it was near-universally thought that women who had not had intercourse or any other kind of vaginal entry had a seal on the front of their vaginas (the hymen) which was only "broken" by their first sexual partner. The idea was that when that was broken -- people still talk about "popping the cherry" and this is where that comes from -- a woman would bleed, and if a woman did not bleed during first intercourse, that's because someone else "broke her seal" already.

Some of this was based in ignorance, and some in seriously hardcore sexism and viewing women, and our bodies, as property. The idea that women needed to prove a male partner or spouse got what they paid for (through most of history, marriage involved financial exchanges and benefits) when they married a virgin was the norm for most of history in many cultures, most certainly including Western culture. The idea that bleeding proved a man had truly "broken in" a woman via intercourse was, and sometimes still is, popular. The idea that "breaking in" or "deflowering" a woman was about male power and prowess, same deal. Historically, there have also been some issues of cultural expectations for men and women alike afoot around this, like the notion that a marriage wasn't really bonafide unless it had been consummated, so blood on the sheets proved a married couple had had sex.

Some ideas around virginity, first intercourse and bleeding as proof of virginity also involved paternity. We can always know at a birth who someone's mother is, since we can see an infant come out of her body. What we can't know just by looking -- the paternity tests we have now weren't invented until the 1980's -- is who someone's father is. So, some of the idea was that so long as you had sex with a virgin, proven by bleeding or pain with intercourse, you, as a male, could be absolutely certain that any children that were born were yours.

Lastly, historically, women's desire for intercourse or any other kind of sex was largely ignored, sometimes even considered an impossibility. We always need to understand that for many women through time, their first sex was actually either their first rape or something women just did not because they felt a sexual desire to, but because they understood it was something they had to do for men. If you're wondering why women would have sex like that when they didn't want to, remember that for many, marriage, or doing what men wanted, was a matter of life or death: for many women historically (and for some women still in parts of the world), marriage was the difference between having a place to live and not having one, between having food to eat or starving.

For most of history, sex was considered something that men wanted, that was 100% about men, that women didn't have any interest in but were obligated to do for men and had little choice or voice in, especially once they were married. Because of that, and because historically, first sex for women was not with someone they were in love with or attracted to, we can also know that for some women who had bleeding at first intercourse through history, that was because they were not aroused, were scared, and often sex was everything from only out of obligation to barely consensual to completely nonconsensual and by force.

Because of all of those kinds of ideas and cultural precedents, bleeding was usually seen as something that better well happen, and because sometimes "proof" needed to be shown that a woman was, in fact, a virgin as she said she was.

Check out this passage from Deuteronomy 22 in the Old Testament, to get an idea of the weight of virginity in history, as well as what the consequences for a woman could be if she hadn't bled with intercourse:

If any man take a wife, and go in unto her, and hate her, and give occasions of speech against her, and bring up an evil name upon her, and say, I took this woman, and when I came to her, I found her not a maid: Then shall the father of the damsel, and her mother, take and bring forth the tokens of the damsel's virginity unto the elders of the city in the gate. And the damsel's father shall say unto the elders, I gave my daughter unto this man to wife, and he hateth her; and, lo, he hath given occasions of speech against her, saying, I found not thy daughter a maid; and yet these are the tokens of my daughter's virginity. And they shall spread the cloth before the elders of the city. And the elders of that city shall take that man and chastise him; and they shall amerce him in an hundred shekels of silver, and give them unto the father of the damsel, because he hath brought up an evil name upon a virgin of Israel: and she shall be his wife; he may not put her away all his days.

But if this thing be true, and the tokens of virginity be not found for the damsel: then they shall bring out the damsel to the door of her father's house, and the men of her city shall stone her with stones that she die: because she hath wrought folly in Israel, to play the whore in her father's house: so shalt thou put evil away from among you.

The "tokens" they're talking about are something like a sheet or wedding garment with a bloodstain, to "prove" she was, indeed, a virgin. In other words, for many women in history, proving to be a virgin through blood could literally save their lives. In some cultures, new brides had to prove they were virgins on their wedding night by doing things like hanging their sheets outside the next morning for the whole community to be convinced -- by the bloody spot on the sheet -- that they were, indeed, virgins. And to think how much you all worry about someone seeing a menstrual stain on your pants! At least no one hangs them out for the neighbors to gawk at.

Trouble is -- well, there's quite a lot of trouble with that, obviously, but let's just address the bloody matter at hand -- that idea was, and still is, massively flawed.

The corona (hymen) isn't actually a "seal" at all for most women. Rather, it's thin folds of membrane that wear away over time (due to hormones, vaginal discharges, menstrual periods, masturbation and/or general physical activity, as well as partnered sex), even for those who don't ever have intercourse at all. Some women are even born without hymens or with hymens whose appearance is such that you can't tell there's one there at all.

For most women, in childhood, very small openings to that membrane start to form and get larger over time, which is why 12-year-old girls can have menstrual flow, even if they never had any kind of sex. If those openings didn't happen, that flow and other vaginal discharges would get trapped inside. That can happen: some women have resilient hymens, but that's rare, and also is a medical problem that requires a minor surgery (called a hymenectomy), not a normality.

So, plenty of women through history wound up not bleeding at all, absolutely including women who truly had not had any kind of sexual partnership before that time. Because not bleeding could result in things like divorce, a public gynecological examination, being disowned by family or community or even a stoning or other kind of public execution, what many women did was fake bleeding. Many older women actually knew full well, from experience, that this idea that bleeding always happens with intercourse was a farce, so new brides would often be prepared by other women on how to fake bleeding in case they didn't. For instance, brides were often told how to keep a sponge full of animal blood handy so they could insert it into their vaginas to create the appearance of vaginal blood, or to sneakily squeeze it on a sheet in case they didn't bleed. Other women cut themselves on purpose to create blood.

Even in relationships or communities today where bleeding or not isn't such a dire matter, some women are still dishonest with friends, family or partners about bleeding because -- mostly because of all this history -- they worry something is or was wrong with them if they didn't, feel ashamed they didn't bleed, worry someone will question that it really was their first time, or feel they need to tell partners they bled in order to satisfy them.

And of course, because there are other and more common reasons for vaginal bleeding with intercourse, some women had bleeding, but it either wasn't just because of erosion of the corona during sex, or wasn't for that reason at all, but was because of things like a partner being rough, a woman being scared and/or unaroused, or a woman having a health condition that caused that bleeding. The same is true today.

These are the kinds of historical sources that the idea bleeding should or must happen come from. These were (and for those who still have them, still are) really lousy, creepy and inaccurate ideas and precedents that are hardly respectful of women, and most certainly didn't treat women as whole people. They have never been based in the reality of women's anatomy or sexual experiences. When it all comes down to it, they've never really been about women at all, but about the way men and the world at large decided women are or are not valuable based not only in sexism, but in ignorance about our bodies.

So, what SHOULD happen with first intercourse? Ideally, it should start by being something you (or any other woman, as well as her partner) very much want and feel ready for and comfortable with as a whole. It should be something that you only choose to do when a given relationship feels ready for it, including you and a partner having engaged in other kinds of sex or masturbation together before so that you both have a good idea of when you are and are not aroused, what gets you there, and have developed some skills and comfort openly and honestly communicating about sex together, which certainly includes speaking up if something hurts or doesn't feel good, not just quietly suffering in silence or pretending sex feels good when it doesn't. As with any other kind of sex, if it's something that is in any way painful or uncomfortable, it should be something you can feel very free to stop or make adjustments with -- like adding more lube, or going back to other sexual activities that get you more turned on -- as needed. Ideally, it's also an experience that everyone involved enjoys and feels good about, and where no one is coming to it with the kinds of ideas many have through history.

Maybe you will (or did) have bleeding, and maybe you won't (or didn't). In either case, that doesn't tell us, all by itself, anything about you, your value as a person, the state of your virginity or your sexual experience.

In the case you do or did have bleeding, and it was more than spotting, and carried on for more than a couple of days, or if it happens with intercourse often, checking in with a healthcare provider is a good idea. As you know now, that bleeding may possibly be due to a medical condition you need looked into and treated, or an injury from sex you need treatment for, or just an awareness of why it's happening so you can find out how to keep it from happening again.

There's nothing to be ashamed of when it comes to bleeding, just like there's nothing for a guy to be ashamed of when it comes to his body fluids, but you do always want to do what you can to avoid injury with sex, just like we want to avoid injury with anything else. If it does happen, you just clean it up, and then use a menstrual pad if you need to. If you do (or did) have bleeding, you'll also want to chill with intercourse for a few days so that whatever that injury was has a chance to heal.

It probably goes without saying that the one "should" I'd put in this is that if you do have any of the inaccurate or value-based ideas about bleeding with first intercourse I talked about here, I do think you should consider ditching them.

Here are some more links relevant to this topic for you:

written 13 Jan 2010 . updated 21 Jan 2014

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