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Why is manual sex painful?

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Zoey asks:

My boyfriend and I have been have been kinda sexual active for about 6 months. No sex, just playing with each other. Now since he is the first guy I've done anything of this sort with and with him I'm the first girl, I expected some pain and tightness when he first started out fingering me. However, now I've loosened up more, I still feel a slight discomfort type pain along with pleasure. I can try and ignore this but it makes me tense up and he accidentally hurts me more. We have tried most things like kissing during it, and many different positions but I still have that pain. I just want to know what this pain is and how I can stop it. Thank you for your time :)

Sarah replies:

Let's toss out the idea of being "tight" because you haven't done anything with anybody else. Sex of any sort (manual sex, intercourse, or whatever else) doesn't permanently change the dimensions of one's vagina. So thinking that people who haven't engaged in penetrative activities are tighter than others is really off base. Women can give birth to babies (which are MUCH larger than any penis or finger) and not have any significant changes. You can find further discussion of that topic in these links:

So let's get to the real issue here of why you are having pain. There could be a couple of culprits here.

First off, are you only engaging in sexual activity when you really want to and are completely relaxed and aroused? Often when women experience sexual pain, it is related to doing something you really don't want to be doing at the time. Also, our bodies are not 100% ready to go for penetration (of any sort) 24-hours a day. So if you're not engaging in plenty of other activities that help you be truly aroused and relaxed, your body may simply be signaling to you that you need to slow down and take some more time with things.

If you are only engaging in sex when you want to and when you're ready to do so, the next thing to consider is whether you've got some other issue going on. With any pain of this sort, it's always wise to head to your health care provider and get things checked out. If you are sexually active (and yes, manual sex or any other sort of sex for that matter, counts as being "sexually active") then you need to be getting annual sexual health care anyway. So this would be a good time to head in and make sure that you don't have some sort of infection or other issue that's causing problems.

If you're ok on both other counts, then it's time to consider exactly what your partner is doing. Fingers often have rough or ragged nails or cuticles or calluses that can cause injury. Vaginal tissue is pretty delicate stuff. Even things that would not normally cause abrasions to your other skin can cause little tears or cuts in your vaginal tissue. So those little rough spots can really do some damage. Hands and fingers are also notorious for carrying around bacteria and germs, especially in the "hard to reach" spots like cuticles or nail beds where most people don't take the time to scrub. Any bacteria or other nasties that might be hiding out on your partner's hands can easily make it's way into your body that way. So the first thing to do is make sure that your partner's hands are well groomed (short, smooth nails, no calluses, etc.). Next, you want to make sure that they are clean (as in, that they have been thoroughly scrubbed with warm water and soap directly before you start engaging in any activity). The very best thing to do would be to use latex (or polyurethane) gloves and lubricant to smooth the way and make sure that everything is clean. You may also want to consider how you and your partner are approaching penetrative manual sex. Remember that the vaginal canal is not straight, it has a curve. So if your partner is sort of poking around rather than following your natural curve, it's likely to cause some discomfort. You may also want to experiment around and find out exactly how you prefer things to go. Perhaps an in-and-out movement isn't going to do much for you, but you might prefer a twisting movement or other wiggling around. Everybody likes something different, so try things until you find something that works for you. Also, don't neglect the external part of your vulva. Penetration (of any sort) by itself usually isn't the bee's-knee's for most women. We've got many more nerve endings in the clitoris and external genitals than we do deep in the vaginal canal.

And finally, if you're having pain, just stop the activity. You said that you're becoming afraid of the pain and are tensing up, which is almost definitely making things worse. Now you may be expecting the pain and are causing your body to react in ways that will cause or worsen discomfort. So when you do have pain, either stop all sexual activity or switch to some other sort of stimulation (non-penetrative, for example). Consider the other issues I've mentioned and visit your health care provider, take some time to get this sorted out rather than continuing to engage in something that causes you pain.

written 25 Nov 2007 . updated 25 May 2008

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