The lights are low. Al Green plays softly in the background. Things are getting steamy—until *record scratch* something feels a little uncomfortable. Do you… bring it up? Over the sound of Al Green crooning??
Ever kept quiet during sex when something felt a little off because you didn’t want to ruin the moment? Us too.
The science tells us that it’s hard to express the things we want—and it’s even harder to express when something’s going awry during sex. A 2019 study asked cis-women, whose last sexual encounter was painful, whether they told their partner or not (Carter et al., 2019).
Half of them spoke up, and half of them didn’t.
Why People Don’t Tell Their Partners When Sex is Uncomfortable
Well, for one, it’s not all bad. Even when sex is uncomfortable or painful, that doesn’t mean the whole experience is uncomfortable or unwanted. That same Carter et al. study found that the majority of participants really wanted to have sex (62.4%) and that it was very pleasurable (59.8%). Unfortunately, about 20% of the participants said their last sexual encounter was not very pleasurable (if at all), and these women were 3 times more likely not to tell their partner about their pain.
Let’s break it down further! The study also asked participants to write out the main reasons why they wouldn’t tell their partner about their discomfort and then grouped those responses into 4 main themes:
1. “It's not that bad”
24% of women in the study said if the pain wasn’t too bad, it wasn’t worth it to speak up.
2. "Pain is expected and 'normal'"
30% reported that it was normal to feel that way, or the discomfort is something they always experience.
3. “It’s about my partner”
14% prioritized their partner, figuring sex would be over quickly anyway or, less commonly, that their partner would not have cared if they were in pain.
4. “Don’t make it awkward”
15% didn’t speak up to protect their partners feeling or because they didn’t want to “ruin the mood.”
In the spirit of curiosity, we decided to ask some questions of our own. We sent out a survey last week, and had 291 total respondents (ya’ll are the best!). This was an informal study within our audience—which means these responses only tell us about people in the Ohnut Community who responded to the survey.
The Ohnut Results
So, what about our study? Well, we found some similarities.
1. "Don’t make it awkward"
55% of people who explained why they didn’t speak up (whether they spoke up some of the time or not at all) said they were afraid to ruin the moment or hurt their partner’s feelings.
2. "It’s about my partner"
31% didn’t tell their partner because they prioritized their partner’s pleasure or their partner was close to orgasm.
3. "Shame on you, shame on your family, shame on your cow"
29% said they felt the strain of cultural expectations—some reporting feelings of shame or embarrassment, and others reporting that growing up in a sex-negative culture still affects how they talk about sex.
There’s a lot to unpack in here, so let’s dig a little further. Several people mentioned not speaking up as a way to preserve a romantic relationship
“I don’t want my endometriosis to “decide” and make my partner think my illness will be in the way for a fulfilling love life.”
There were also some folks who talked about being unsure what something is supposed to feel like, whether it’s a normal thing to push through, or how to make it more comfortable.
“Sometimes I just don't know what it's supposed to feel like, or given that I have an IUD I just don't know if it's something I just need to push through, like a necessary evil. My partner is SUPER supportive but my pain during sex triggered some past traumas so sometimes talking about it makes ME feel guilty even when I shouldn't. And sometimes I'm just too tired or over it to mention it YET AGAIN.”
The last big one is shame and frustration that’s totally understandable to feel when sex isn’t as easy breezy as everyone expects it to be.
“It's embarrassing, it's hard to explain why a biological function that should be pleasurable is actually painful and I didn't used to be very educated on my own anatomy to explain where/why it hurt, sometimes I feel an internalized sexism that it's my job as a woman to give sex to my male partner, and lastly but mostly because there's so much shame in feeling my body/womanhood/sexuality is broken/deficient/dysfunctional/a failure, and no one will want to be in a romantic relationship with me if I'm not ‘sexually available.’”
4. "It’s not that bad"
15% said, for them, it generally isn’t worth speaking up if the pain isn’t too bad, will pass, or sex will be over soon anyway.
What about the less common themes? No less important, these reasons for not speaking up deserve their own categories.
6% reported that they didn’t say anything because the pleasure outweighed the pain—there were more good feelings than bad. 4.5% said they didn’t voice their discomfort because they just wanted to get it over with, or they knew that if they tried a different position it would just keep hurting and take their partner longer to finish. 4% reported they shut down or froze up, sometimes because of past trauma. Then another 4% said that they preferred to talk before or after sex, not in the moment.
Our Biggest Takeaways
Again, this was an informal study, so our results don’t reflect everyone. They only tell us about people in the Ohnut Community who responded to the survey. But we’re proud to say that results showed these people are more likely to be open to having dialogue about discomfort during sex than the general population.
Our biggest takeaways:
75.9% of people don’t always tell their partner something is uncomfortable while having sex. 55.9% don’t think it’s easy to talk about.
And that makes sense. It is hard to bring up.
But when people do tell their partner, why do they do it and how? Tune in next week for the results.
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Carter, A., Ford, J. V., Luetke, M., Fu, T. C., Townes, A., Hensel, D. J., Dodge, B., Herbenick, D. (2019). "Fulfilling His Needs, Not Mine": Reasons for Not Talking About Painful Sex and Associations with Lack of Pleasure in a Nationally Representative Sample of Women in the United States. The Journal of Sexual Medicine, 16(12), 1953-1965.
Are we missing anything? If you have questions or ideas about something you’d like to hear more about, or even a story you’d like to share — let us know!