Get Real! What to Do When Sex Has Only Either Felt Painful or Like Nothing?

It either hurts or feels like nothing. You don't know what to do, or what's wrong, and your partner is handling it really poorly. Here's some information and advice to the rescue.

It either hurts or feels like nothing. You don't know what to do, or what's wrong, and your partner is handling it really poorly. Here's some information and advice to the rescue. Dissatisfied via Shutterstock

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yougivemefever asks:

I seem to not be able to feel any sort of pleasure from anything sexual. I’m 17 and have never been able to achieve an orgasm. It hurts being fingered. I’ve never been able to masturbate, because I could not keep focus or it started hurting. It also feels too awkward. When my boyfriend tried doing it, it hurt. He tried giving me oral sex, but that was painful. I tell him it hurts, and he tries to go as gently as he can, but it still hurts. I’m frustrated because I get no satisfaction, and my boyfriend’s self esteem is damaged because he thinks it’s his fault. We lost our virginities to each other a couple of months ago. It hurt a lot the first two times. After it stopped hurting, it just felt like nothing. I didn’t have the heart to tell my boyfriend until recently that I don’t feel anything. Now he’s really upset because he feels like a pig and that he used me. He says I subconsciously don’t love him, and that’s why I don’t feel anything.

It seems like I’m the only one with the problem of not being able to feel anything during sex AND clitoral stimulation hurts.

My boyfriend was hesitant to try to please me in the first place because he’s inexperienced and gets frustrated. He gets upset he can’t reciprocate. I don’t expect him to just know what I like. I should be comfortable enough with my body to be able to show him what to do, but if nothing feels good, I have nothing to show him. It is extremely frustrating, because I do get turned on and wet, but end up disappointed, dissatisfied, and annoyed.

Is this more likely to be a psychological or physical issue? I am a little insecure. I also suspect a reason might have been because we had unprotected sex and I might have been nervous, or the fact that we might have gotten caught so I was distracted. Our relationship is in no way sex-centered, but I would be lying if I said it didn’t effect us. We love each other a lot, and my boyfriend would like to be able to give me the sensations that I am able to give him.

Heather Corinna replies:

I want to start with the idea that you are the only one who is having the troubles you’re having. You’re not.

We often hear from folks so sure they are 100 percent alone and unique in whatever is going on with them, though almost always, we’ve not only heard from someone before with the same or similar issues, but from plenty of someones. It’s so easy for people to think their sexual issues are unique because most have so little candid and truly diverse talk about sexuality in their lives, but those of us who work in sexuality know the truly unique sexual issue, which only one person has, is basically a unicorn. It can help to remember that there are billions of people in the world, and there’s probably not any human experience or state totally unique to any of us, including with sex. To give you an example, here are a few other folks’ questions posted recently at our website alone (some similarly convinced it’s only them):

evilekat asks:

I don’t get pleasure out of sex (oral or vaginal). It just doesn’t feel good at all, sometimes it’s just downright uncomfortable. Even when I am aroused, I get no pleasure whatsoever. Masturbating does nothing for me either. It sucks because I want to be able to have an orgasm and I want my boyfriend to feel like he is actually good at sex. It makes me feel like a freak, do I have faulty nerves or something? I don’t know anyone with my problem, some don’t like to have sex, some can’t orgasm, but no one has problems with all of the above and gets no pleasure at all out of sexual activity. Is there something wrong with me? Help!

nzchick asks:

My boyfriend and I had anal sex but neither of us felt anything once he penetrated or while he was in. I felt him go in but that was it. I’m a virgin and neither of us has had anal sex before we were both left really confused. This can’t be normal!

Nmik63 asks:

Me and my boyfriend decided to have sex for the first time. But anyway, while he was doing it, I didn’t feel anything, like anything at all. I was aroused and all that good stuff, but I didn’t feel any pleasure… please help!

SweetAddiction asks:

When I finger myself its real tight but I either feel nothing or pain? Does that mean I’m putting my finger in the wrong spot?

See? It’s so not just you.

Not feeling anything at all, or feeling very little, with any kind of genital sex where the most sensory parts of the genitals are being stimulated is typically an indication someone is just not very aroused or as aroused as they need to be. We don’t all need to be turned on to the same degree to have various kinds of sex feel pleasurable, but sometimes or for some people more than others, being as amped up as possible is key. And whenever we are highly aroused, every kind of sex, including touch with parts besides our genitals, is always going to feel more intense.

Our genitals are incredibly sensitive, but how sensitive they are has a lot to do with if we’re very sexually excited or not, which is why when we, say, wipe after toileting, wash ourselves in the bath, or have a pelvic exam, we’re not usually in wild throes of ecstasy. Most of arousal, pleasure, and sexual response are about our brains and central nervous systems. If there’s not a whole lot of the good stuff going on upstairs and throughout those systems, there’s not going to be a lot going on below. When we are aroused, our whole bodies, including our genitals, get way more sensitive and responsive than when we’re not, so when we’re not feeling anything at all with genital touch, it really is very unlikely we are earnestly and strongly aroused. Also, when we’re sexually excited and really feeling good emotionally—rather than anxious, fearful, insecure, or frustrated—because of how our brain affects our biochemistry, things that might normally hurt more hurt less, and we’re more likely to feel pleasure, when otherwise we may feel pain.

In terms of your genitals specifically, a bunch of different things happen, beyond just self-lubrication (which can also happen as part of your fertility cycle): The cervix and uterus pull backwards, the back of the vagina tents and becomes more spacious, the walls of the vagina fill with blood, and the vulva looks different, with a puffier mons and outer and inner labia and a deeper color. And like the penis, the clitoris becomes erect, and not just the glans and hood you can see on the outside, but the internal portions as well, which make the front of the vagina feel more compact, full, and a lot more sensitive inside (inside the first third, anyway—the back portion only gets so sensitive). And those are just the parts about your genitals; there’s a whole lot of other stuff that often happens with your whole body and in your mind when you’re really turned on, like a faster heart rate and breathing, skin flushing, and pupil dilation. Also our intellectual and emotional sexual feelings can be headier, floatier, more spinny, loud and free-flowing, and sometimes even scary, depending on how comfortable we are with those feelings and who we’re having them with.

Being fully aroused takes a bit of an odd combo of being both keyed up but also relaxed, in our bodies and our minds, of being very in the moment and focused on the experience we’re having, but not too focused on any one part or on a given goal or outcome. If you’ve ever made Hollandaise sauce, it’s a lot like that; it seems like only a few simple ingredients that should be so easy to mix and make delicious, but it’s a very delicate balance that can turn on you so easily, leaving you with a weird half-coagulated mess instead of a delicious thick sauce if just one little thing goes amiss.

One tricky thing that often comes up with younger people, and more commonly with women, is a clear difficulty in correctly identifying what it really is to be and feel fully aroused. (And here’s a hint: the level to which we can become aroused is often lower in our teens and 20s, particularly for women, than it will be later for physiological, chemical, intellectual, interpersonal, and identity-based reasons.) It’s not just about loving someone, for instance. Sometimes that has absolutely nothing to do with love at all. There are a lot of messages in the world that say if women just love someone enough, the sex will be good and the chemistry will be there, even though things don’t play out that way much of the time. It’s not just about thinking a partner looks hot, or about a partner, period. How we feel about ourselves has as much to do with how aroused we are as how we feel about our partners. It’s also not just about someone doing the “right” things in how they touch us. How we feel before we’re even touched at all is usually a huge deal. What’s going on emotionally between us also plays a big part, so a skillful set of fingers can easily be of no use when they’re attached to someone with a crummy attitude.

There’s a lot to feeling fully, over-the-top aroused, from our own lifelong and present sense of self, body, and sexuality to being really excited by and comfortable with our sexual partners, to how we feel and what state our bodies are in at any given time. (Did we sleep well? Are we stressed out about school? Are we hungry? Having relationship problems? Do we have a bunch of zits making us feel not at all sexy?) I don’t mean to second-guess you when you say you are really turned on, but some of what you’re reporting here not only suggests you’re probably not, but that it’d be awfully hard to be.

You identify some things I suspect have inhibited you from getting as turned on as you probably can: discomfort with masturbation (which often is about discomfort with your own body or sexual shame), a partner who becomes easily frustrated, not protecting yourself from big risks, fear of being caught having sex, some insecurity of your own, and coming to any of this likely expecting to be frustrated, dissatisfied, and annoyed and also expecting your partner to be, since that’s what keeps happening. There are also some common threads in your question and some of the other similar questions, like having sexual motives about making an insecure partner feel validated, being new to partnered sex, and putting a lot on genital sex (rather than other whole-body or other-body-part sexual activities). Just one of those things could be a big inhibitor of arousal and sexual response, but all of them are a serious whammy. I’d be so surprised if you were feeling pleasure and were earnestly very turned on that I’d probably call the press.

But what we or our partners are doing in terms of touch does also matter. Not everyone likes the same sexual things, experiences pleasure (or pain) from the same things, or likes a given thing done a given way. Like anything else, sex is something we learn over time and get better at with practice—way more than a few weeks or months of it. We’re always learning anew with every new partner, and throughout our whole lives, we continue learning about our own sexuality and sexual response, not only because there’s a lot to learn, but because it doesn’t tend to stay exactly the same from day to day, year to year, or decade to decade. When you or any partners are new to sex, you’ve all got to be able to feel pretty OK with being a beginner and embrace that, rather than get pissed off about it. Everyone involved needs to be pretty creative and open to experimentation, as well as open and comfortable with the fact that some things will be easier than others, and some things will involve way more experimentation than others. If you have a partner who is profoundly uncomfortable with being new to sex and experimenting, and who also is clearly very product-oriented or goal-oriented, reticent to experiment because they want certain results or have a desperate need to be validated, rather than just wanting to engage in the process no matter what comes out of it, that’s going to be a huge barrier to having enjoyable sex with that partner.

The pain you’re having, and which it seems you have had in the past with masturbation before this, is something I would be sure to see a sexual health-care provider about. Sure, it could be psychological, in whole or in part. Since you mostly seem to be talking about clitoral pain, it could be about the way you’re touching yourself or the way someone else is touching you—that touch may be too rough, intense, or fast. There are more sensory nerve endings packed into that relatively small clitoral glans than any part of any gender‘s body, so a lot of folks find that less is more with that body part. You may need to experiment more on your own and with partners, trying things like more indirect stimulation (like rubbing through the outer labia or mons, or only rubbing lightly over the hood), and/or making sure that when you experiment, it’s because you have strong sexual desires, rather than doing it to appease a partner or to try and make something happen for you just because you think it’s supposed to. Alternately, you may want to check in about those feelings of awkwardness and lack of focus you’re having and see if maybe you’re just not feeling that sexual right now in your life, and if not, just let it go for now. No one has to masturbate or have sex. There can be times in our lives and sexual development when we don’t because it just doesn’t feel right.

However, that pain could also be about, or made more severe by, a health issue, and if it is, all of this stuff about arousal may not be very relevant. Conditions like vulvar vestibulitis, lichen sclerosis, an accumulation of sebum under the clitoral hood (clitoral adhesions), a compressed nerve or a Bartholin’s gland cyst can cause pain like you’re experiencing. Issues like those will require treatment for pain to stop or decrease. Even things that seem like they could be minor or which you may not even think to look into, like a borderline urinary tract infection (UTI) or yeast infection or a sensitivity to certain detergents, a partner’s toothpaste, or menstrual products can be culprits or contributors. So, I’d suggest you make an appointment with a gynecologist to see if anything is up before you have any kind of genital sex again. In the future, if you’re having pain anywhere in your body that clearly isn’t temporary, you always want to ask a health-care provider about it when you can rather than suffering without looking into why.

I’m hearing some clear statements that sound like it is simply not at all the right time for you and your boyfriend to be sexual together. You voice that both of you are having issues with insecurity. You voice that he seems to have an inability to separate love from sex, and is not understanding that how much someone loves someone else is not necessarily going to have anything to do with their sexual response. You could not love someone at all and still have the time of your sexual life with them, after all—this isn’t likely about love. Unless the two of you are trying to create a pregnancy, you are voicing that one or both of you isn’t ready to consistently reduce risks with the sex you’re having, or that you don’t have the assertiveness, support, or the comfort in your relationship needed to protect yourself from outcomes you don’t want and which I suspect he isn’t even remotely ready to handle well.

I’m a bothered by his saying to you that he he feels like a “pig” who “used you” in this context, because it kind of suggests that it’s your fault, and that if your body would just react the way he wants it to, he’d feel differently. That really isn’t cool. You only have so much control over your body, and a statement like that implies, to me, that he has his own sexual issues to work out that no kind of sex with you will magically fix.

Now, maybe he needs to work on his social and communication skills some to figure out how to voice things like that in a way that isn’t so crappy and accusatory. For instance, he could have said, “I’m worried that if I’m feeling pleasure and you’re not, I’m taking advantage or not being a good partner to you. Do you think that?” At the same time, a statement like he made seems to go with things like refusing to believe that you love him because you’re not digging the sex yet, that he knows your own heart and mind better than you do in that respect, and suggesting you’re making him feel like a pig because he’s feeling pleasure and you’re not yet. And all of that combined sets off my radar.

Self-esteem, to be clear, is about our value of our whole selves—not just who we are in a relationship, who we are as a romantic or sexual partner to anyone, or who we are in bed. I sincerely doubt that you not feeling something physically or not responding to sex like it was the best sex ever damaged your boyfriend’s self-esteem. If he feels it took a major hit because you aren’t feeling a given thing physically, that suggests his esteem was either incredibly low to begin with and that he is putting too much of it put into sex or romance, or that he’s, well, being a drama queen. Something a lot of people don’t account for with sex is how it really can dredge up some challenging, tricky emotional stuff we either may not have seen in ourselves before, or may not have felt as acutely. We’re not always ready for that or up to dealing with it at given times in our lives or relationships. Something a lot of people don’t consider in choosing who to be sexual with is where that person’s emotional maturity really is. Someone as insecure as he sounds like probably needs to do some growing before he can handle being a sexual partner.

It’s going to be awfully hard to get very sexually excited and stay very excited with some of the dynamics going on here. When we aren’t feeling what we’d like to in our bodies, or they aren’t reacting the way we think they should, that’s both frustrating and kind of scary. Good partners are able to comfort us at those times, rather than making it about them. I’m concerned about the dynamics you’re describing not just because it seems unlikely either of you are going to have enjoyable sexual experiences with them afoot, but because I suspect they’re going to leave one or both of you feeling bad or crappy, and emotionally and interpersonally precarious. If these kinds of dynamics are happening outside sex, I’m concerned this relationship may not even be all that healthy, but that’s not something I can assess without more information about the whole relationship. It’s certainly something you can look into, though, and you may find this link and this one helpful for doing that.

The best advice I have based on what you told me is to step back from sex in this relationship for now—not just intercourse, but all genital sex. Just put it on the back burner for at least a little while. Just because we have sex once, or twice, or however many times, we don’t have to keep on having it, and it isn’t always wise to. We’re always evaluating whether or not it’s the right thing for us at a given time and in a given context, not just for first times, but every time, because it won’t always be the right thing and we won’t always have all of what we want and need for it to be right for us.

I’d say some things that are going on here give clear cues that sex between you two right now isn’t a great idea. I think both of you have some things to do on your own first before you can potentially get to a place where it might be a lot more sound and feel better, physically and emotionally, for both of you. Personally, I have a strong feeling that a sexual relationship just isn’t what either of you are really ready for with each other, and maybe with other partners too. But that’s ultimately something you’ll need to figure out for yourself to reach your own conclusions.

I think you should start with that sexual health exam, to either rule out that they’re about a physical issue or find out that they are, and get some treatment so you stop hurting so much with genital contact, alone and with partners. You can spend some more time with your own masturbation, and some more time exploring what feels good and doesn’t, and what feels like something at all and what doesn’t, and what really turns you on in your head and heart, not just your body. I think you should also assess this relationship on the whole. Someone you love who refuses to believe you love them, who is deeply insecure and impatient, who is passive-aggressive in his communication just might not be a good person to be close to, period—not just sexually.

I think he should educate himself more about sex, your anatomy and what reciprocity is really about (and I’ll leave some links on that at the bottom of this page, which I think can benefit you too). He can assess the reality of where his esteem is, as well as if he’s earnestly confident and secure enough in himself to be sexual and intimate with you or any other partner at this point in his life. He can check in with himself very honestly about why he so badly needs your body to do certain things, and if he feels like he can’t do any of that, he can at least acknowledge his own big barriers to a working sexual partnership right now and give himself more time, by himself, to grow as a person first. He can read up on and work toward better communication, especially in situations like sex where the emotional stakes are high.

I also think it would be a great idea for both of you to do a sexual inventory worksheet like this, answering very honestly, then sharing each of your answers together. Same goes with our sexual readiness checklist. Then you two can circle back to each other and start by communicating what you’ve figured out about yourselves and where you’re really at, or stay in communication while you do that, hopefully communicating in ways that are patient and productive.

Maybe one or both of you will just realize you moved faster into sex than was sound. That’s OK. All you’ve got to do is step it back and go a lot slower. If you both find that instead, after spending some time with those things above alone and talking about them together, you do feel ready, able, and wanting to be in sexual relationship to each other, and want to work on being a better sexual fit, I think it’d be helpful to start at the beginning again. Stick with things like kissing, cuddling, making out, just being naked together, shared massage (petting) and talking more deeply about your sexual wants, needs, and feelings, putting genital sex aside for a good while or limiting it to mutual masturbation where you’re being sexual together, but only touching your own genitals. If and when you both get to a place where all of those things feel better, physically and emotionally, alone and together, then you can probably move forward and have this all go very differently than it has.

If it turns out one or both of you comes to the conclusion that you are really not ready for this yet, I want you to be able to accept and honor that without feeling crummy about it, or thinking that it means something that it doesn’t, about either of you or your relationship. You are still very young. I know some people in their 30s, 40s, 50s, and 60s who feel like they’re just finally starting to come into their own sexually, and it’s quite common for young women to have troubles with reaching orgasm, especially with partners, having satisfying sex lives with partners, and really feeling in touch with their own sexuality. We don’t all have the same pace, the same opportunities, the same kinds of interpersonal relationships, or the same relationships with ourselves and our sexuality. There is no one right age or right pace, just what is right for each of us as individuals, which won’t be in sync all the time with every other person we can be involved with sexually or otherwise. We’re just not all sexually compatible and in the same space, at the same pace, at the same time for sex to be sound. I know very well how much of a bummer that can be when it happens, but it happens and it’s going to happen in life at one time or another, probably to everyone.

I’m going to leave you with a batch of links to look at and to share. I think the pieces on communication and reciprocity could be of particular benefit when you talk together. Whatever your outcome with this, I hope you’re both feeling a whole lot better soon, better able to identify what you each need, together and for yourselves, and can feel more comfortable in accepting, exploring, and honoring whatever that is.