Editor’s Note: The name of the subject in this article has been modified to protect her identity.
When Chastity’s long-term boyfriend started kissing her one evening, she had a hundred thoughts condensed into a couple of seconds. She was not interested in being physically intimate at the moment, but she knew what went along with turning him down.
He would whine that she did not really love him and ask her why she never wanted to have sex anymore. She would feel ashamed of her sexuality and think she failed as a girlfriend.
In those few seconds, she decided it was easier to kiss him back and let it happen, rather than make a big deal out of saying no.
“I remember towards the end, I started to cry because I felt like he didn’t really see me and he didn’t care enough to see how I was,” Chastity said. “After he finished, he pulled out and went to sit up to clean up. And I sort of just held his body down against mine because I didn’t want him to see that I was crying. After I stifled my tears enough to be decent, I just got up and went to the bathroom and I finished crying. I didn’t tell him about that experience for over a year, not until about a month before we broke up.”
Being coerced or pressured into sexual intercourse or any degree of physical intimacy is not uncommon for Chastity, currently a junior in college. It is not uncommon for most women.
Men and women in America have been acculturated to prioritize male pleasure over female comfort because of a belief that men deserve sexual favors. Members of society are either comfortable knowing or are unaware that women are placed in sexual encounters where they are uncomfortable.
Many men do not realize that the women they believe they are having consensual sex with are uncomfortable. The idea that sex could be painful or an act that a person is coerced into is not a thought many men consider.
Female discomfort is common during sex, but men don’t know or don’t care
A University of Michigan professor conducted a study of more than 8,500 young-adults that revealed that when men are asked to describe “bad sex,” they describe it as sex that was not as physically satisfying; however, when posed with the same question, women describe “bad sex” as sex that left them feeling negative, either because of coercion, emotional discomfort or, even more commonly, physical pain.
This study shows that not only do men and women have entirely different rating scales of sex but also that in American culture, there is either a lack of interest or lack of awareness that women are leaving seemingly-consensual sexual encounters feeling negative and uncomfortable.
Dr. Betsy Crane, a professor at Widener University’s Center for Human Sexuality Studies and co-chair of the Widener LGBT Task Force, said men do not consider that sex could be uncomfortable or painful for women because culture conditions them to view sex as something they are entitled to and that women just have sex so the men can.
“I’m sadly not surprised [with the results of the study],” Crane said. “And I feel like it has to do with women and men’s overall socialization and position in society as well as the messages that we get around sex.”
Lauren Stohler, senior communication and gender and body studies double major at Cabrini University, said that the different messages men and women get about sex throughout their lives impact how they engage in sex later.
“In my own studies of the way society portrays women, both sexually and within gender roles, because of these physical and mental differences, this can create the disconnect— because the experiences of sex, and consequences of sex, are so different,” Stohler said.
As they are raised, starting when they are young children, males and females are taught about sex differently. Men are conditioned to view sex positively, while women are shown that their sexuality is bad.
Rebecca Hiles is a Philadelphia-based dating, relationships and sexual wellness coach. Working in sex retail since 2009, she has witnessed the position of privilege men are in because of how culture associates men and sex differently than women and sex. She explained that men are also taught that sex is for them, and so that is part of why they do not consider or care that women may feel uncomfortable.
“Men are often oblivious to the ways in which their social roles hold them in a place of privilege,” Hiles said. “The ways in which we interact in the outside world so often transfer into our sexual experiences. Because men so often expect the world to bend to their experiences, preferences and desires, and men experiencing pain is not a common experience, it makes sense that they don’t notice or consider the ways in which sex might be painful.”
“It’s— from the beginning— somehow a woman’s job to give them pleasure,” Crane said.
In addition to men being taught sex is solely for their pleasure, the fact that procreating is completed when a man ejaculates suggests that the sole goal of intercourse is to get him to that point.
Stohler said, “We live in a patriarchal society where a man’s pleasure is more important than a female’s pain. The ending of sex is typically with a male’s ejaculation because that’s the biological point of intercourse, to inject sperm into the female body so a baby can be conceived. A male’s orgasm is typically needed for this to occur or for the sex to ‘end,’ where a female’s orgasm is seen as just a plus, not a must.”
Male pleasure is studied extensively more than female pain
The social prioritization of male pleasure over female pain is demonstrated in the research done on male pleasure compared to research done regarding female pain.
On PubMed, the National Center for Biotechnology currently has about 400 clinical trials studying dyspareunia, vaginismus and vulvodynia, varying conditions that cause sex to be painful for women. On the contrary, there are nearly 2,000 clinical trails for erectile dysfunction. There are almost five times as many clinical trials on male sexual pleasure as there are on female sexual pain.
Hiles said female discomfort is not studied simply because how women feel during sex is not supposed to matter. Sex is intended to be enjoyable for men, and women are meant to just help men enjoy it.
“Women aren’t supposed to want sex,” Hiles said. “Sex is, culturally, something that men enjoy and women tolerate. Sex for women has, historically, been something that they endure, and so it’s expected that it’s going to be uncomfortable, painful, intolerable at points, but that they’re supposed to still engage with it with little concern from their partners.”
In addition to the lack of studies, women frequently fail to advocate for themselves when they experience sexual pain.
Crane said women do not seek medical assistant in response to pain because, “It’s not seen as a priority. If it ‘hurts down there,’ ‘Is that a medical problem? Is there anything anybody can do for that?'”
Why is sex painful for women?
The lack of research on female pain is not because there is no need for such research. Sexual pain is extremely common among women. According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, three out of four women have experienced pain during intercourse at some point in their lives.
Sex can be painful for women in particular because of penetration. The penis is a tough, external organ. With so many men circumcised, the glands are even less sensitive. Comparatively, vaginas are more delicate. This is why women often experience painful sex and men do not.
“The penis is an external object. It’s roughed around in pants and underwear and toughens up,” Crane said. “Women’s bodies and men’s bodies are different. Women are more vulnerable in a sexual situation.”
Penetration makes sex a vulnerable experience for women.
“From a female’s perspective, our bodies are penetrated, and intercourse can be very invasive both mentally and physically,” Stohler said.
A lack of education about lubrication, among other topics, puts women in a position of engaging in painful intercourse.
“The reasons that we have dyspareunia and vulvodynia, the tissues of our vulva and our vagina can be irritated, especially if there’s not enough lubrication,” Crane said. “And all too often, people don’t know— especially teens but also adults— there should be no penetration unless the woman is sufficiently lubricated or there’s lube added. That’s a factor in female pain.”
Crane said painful sex would be significantly less common if there was more education regarding the topic.
Sexual education teaches people sexual coercion is not okay
“I’ve been in situations my entire life where I felt coerced into being intimate, but I never really thought anything of it,” Chastity said. “When my first boyfriend grabbed my chest for the first time or when he would move my hand over his crotch, I never really felt like it was something that he was pressuring me into. But when I look back and I acknowledge that I’m not really able to have a healthy physical relationship anymore, it makes me realize how bad that stuff messed me up.”
Hiles said the problem with this type of sexual assault is that both men and women do not consider it assault. It is considered normal.
“There are a lot of women who don’t identify this as assault,” Hiles said. “It is problematic in its own right to label individuals as victims, when that is not part of their experience. At the end of the day, asking how you can support these women, and working with them to best support them is best.”
While situations similar to Chastity’s are extremely common, they are not justifiable.
“If I had a guy friend who told me they interacted with a partner this way, my immediate response would be to tell him that he had assaulted someone and try to offer him some perspective,” Hiles said. “I’d also give him some suggestions that maybe he get in touch with some of this exes and let them know that if he’s ever made them uncomfortable, he’s sorry and he’d like to make amends, however that may be.”
To resolve this issue, men can reflect inward and attempt to rectify past actions, as Hiles would recommend to a man who confides about this type of situation. Women can also speak up to their partners. Both parties need to be able to have an open and honest discussion.
Crane said the most important step to prevent sexual assault through coercion is educating youth.
“How do we teach girls or women that they don’t need to have sex that doesn’t feel good? I think that we raise girls to have a voice. Girls need to get the message that it’s okay to speak up and to have a voice,” Crane said. “If they get called a bitch or they get called names for speaking up, then I think as parents and teachers and counsellors, we need to tell them, ‘It’s alright. You deserve to have a voice.'”