The idea of having penetrative sex is something that most of us grow up understanding to be a major component of sexual experience (if not the major component of the sex we have). We can often feel that we should be having penetrative sex, and if we experience pain or discomfort around this we can be anxious to find a solution to fix this in some way.
Although there is lots that can be done to help people reduce pain in anal or vaginal penetrative sex, it is important to acknowledge that having penetrative sex is not for everyone. In fact many people chose not to include penetration in their sexual life, preferring instead to privilege other forms of sexual and intimate experiences.
We get lots of messages about what is a ‘normal’ in sex, and what sex should look like, depending on who we are having sex with and the types of relationships we are in. Commonly this includes our peers, TV, film, social media or porn. This can also include the messages we get from peers and on dating apps. We know that many of the ideas we are exposed to are greatly distorted, and do not reflect the way in which the vast majority of people have sex, but we can internalise these messages and come to believe that this is what represents ‘normality’ in sex.
One pretty common theme that we are bombarded with is that penetration often comes towards the end of a sexual experience, often following a period of oral sex, masturbation or other forms of sexual touching. Penetration is often privileged as the end point of sex, or the thing that all other sexual activity should lead up to. Of course, many people deeply value and enjoy the experience of penetrative sex, and it can bring a huge amount of stimulation and pleasure.
However, this formula for sexual activity does not work for everybody.
We know that a relatively low percentage of people with vulvas (between 15-20%) report that they can orgasm from penetrative sex alone. For the vast majority, clitoral stimulation (often during other forms of sex) brings the most intense pleasure during sex, and non-penetrative sex is frequently rated far higher than penetrative sex when thinking about preferences in the bedroom. This does not mean that women don’t want or enjoy penetration, its just that this is not everything in sex, or even the thing that they want sex to lead up to (or indeed end with).
Although there is less data on anal sex, we know from studies of men who have sex with men (MSM) that they are far less likely than any other group to engage in a wide range of sexual activity that does not include penetration. Again, this does not mean that anal sex is not something many enjoy, but that when asked about preferences, sexual pleasure and arousal are often achieved through other, non-penetrative forms of sex.
Many people chose not to privilege penetration in this way. Some chose to focus on having other forms of sex and physical intimacy, whilst others chose to change the ways in which penetration comes about in sex, making it less of a focus or having less penetration overall. Not enjoying penetration (or it being uncomfortable) does not mean that there is necessarily anything wrong, but for some it is just a signal that this is not the type of sex that they prefer. It is important for you to consider how important penetration is for your sex life, and where it would fit into your preferred image of a great sex life for you (we will come back to this later on!). Trying to have penetrative sex when we don’t want it, or when we feel we should be having it, often causes us to feel pressured and uncomfortable and makes having the sex life we want far more difficult.