Penis-in-vagina (PIV) sex – not everyone loves it
In my personal and professional life I’m hearing an increasing number of people saying that PIV sex is ‘fine but not their main thing’, or that they don’t bother to seek it out, or that they actively dislike it. (This isn’t just about orgasms, but the whole experience of penetration.) For sure, many people absolutely love it – but many, it seems, do not. While you don’t have to be heterosexual to practise it, PIV is a mainstay of heterosexual culture.
In this article I’m exploring the cultural aspects of PIV sex, and offer a number of reasons why some people don’t enjoy it or wish to have it.
A note on terminology
Penis-in-vagina sex is often referred to as ‘penetrative sex’. This is confusing because there are actually a large number of ways one body can penetrate another that do not involve a penis or a vagina. (I will cover these in a future article.) However, where I use the word ‘penetration’ in this post, it refers solely to PIV.
Traditions and beliefs about PIV sex
Here are some ingrained ideas about PIV (and sex in general) that are foisted on us from an early age:
- It’s ‘the one true way’.
- PIV is ‘full sex’ – other kinds are merely ‘foreplay’.
- It’s about being a heterosexual man and woman together.
- PIV is the only way for two people to be fully intimate and anything else is not sufficient.
- It’s about couples and being in a couple is something to aspire to.
- It makes babies so it is special. (To be fair, before science intervened several decades ago, PIV was the primary way to conceive.)
- ‘Taking’ a woman’s virginity involves putting a penis inside her. No other form of sex counts as loss of virginity. (This is a powerful tradition, as if having a penis inside her creates the woman as an adult, and nothing else can do this.)
- There must and will be orgasms from penetration alone or something is wrong.
- Penetration must occur via the genitals or sex didn’t happen.
- In fact, if there isn’t a penis in the room, it isn’t possible for sex to happen.
Unfortunately, the increased awareness that we are all supposed to have gained via the internet does not seem to have affected the Sex and Relationships Education agenda very much. It still tends to be focused around fear rather than pleasure.
And people often confuse PIV sex not working well with sex as a whole not working well. This causes some people to sideline sex altogether. However, showing people the almost limitless amount of sexual choice available to them beyond PIV can be very challenging. It becomes easier to just hide in the ‘sex isn’t working’ bubble and do nothing about it, rather than really talk about what you want. (See also BISH UK on Why Penis in Vagina Sex can be Meh.)
I have heard BDSM practitioners refer to PIV as ‘just another kink among many’, and this seems far healthier. There can be huge personal cost to going along with what everyone else seems to be doing, in other words trying to be normal. There are as many different body types as there are sexual responses, and that includes inside the body as well as outside. The reality is that some people’s bodies work in some ways and some in others.
There are of course a large number of gendered aspects to this
As I said above, PIV is a cultural mainstay of heterosexual life. There is still pressure on a vagina-owner to ‘submit’ to being penetrated (showing that they like it but not too much and not having opinions about what the sex should be), and that they must be entered only after protracted negotiation (if they give it up too easily they are a slut). Actually, the majority of people with vaginas don’t orgasm through penetration, but this myth continues to be perpetrated everywhere and it damages everyone, as it encourages false expectations. This creates not only an entitlement culture but a blame culture about who has an orgasm and who doesn’t, and whose fault it was. For more on this, please see my post ‘Some Myths and Half Truths about Orgasm.’ See also this piece on vibrators, which outlines the issues very well.
There is still pressure on someone with a penis to be manly and thrusty and penetrate things because that is what they are obliged to do in order to fulfil some sort of masculinity contract, and this after all is what genitals were designed for. Effectively, penises must chase vaginas for sex, as many as possible, (and possibly impregnate the owner too where possible) and if they don’t, then the very concept of masculinity is in question.
Eight reasons some people don’t like or want penis-in-vagina sex
As you can see, this list ranges from the preferential to the situational to the medical. All have the potential to be pathologised in a culture that values PIV above all else. This list does not pretend to be exhaustive (particularly the health-related content) and I welcome additional suggestions.
(1) You just don’t like it very much.
Or you don’t orgasm from it and prefer sexual activities that are more reliable. Or you prefer other forms of sexual connection anyway.
(2) Sexual orientation
The cultural primacy of PIV sex sidelines and erases non-heterosexual identities. While queer sexuality embraces a multitude of ways of connecting sexually, those who do not do PIV because of their orientation or lifestyle are seen in heterosexual culture as ‘not doing it properly’ and may be quizzed in detail about what it is they actually do.
(3) Varying intimacy tolerance
Intimacy is often stated as something desirable above all else, and if you don’t have ‘enough’ of it, there is something wrong with you. For sure, having your body penetrated by another, (in whatever way), is a very intimate act, both for giver and receiver. But if someone doesn’t want this, it means therefore that they have a problem that needs fixing, medically or therapeutically.
I reject this traditional framing of intimacy because it does not take into account individual experience. For example, one person’s attempt to remove the emotional boundaries between them and another person might be another’s profoundly destabilising intrusion. And in fact many childhood experiences create a bedrock of feeling where physical intimacy is profoundly unsafe, (and this does not need to have come from sexual abuse). People commence their emotional and sexual lives at different levels. It is not an equal playing field. Culturally, individual experience is persistently and ongoingly sacrificed to the benefit of an outdated agenda.
(4) Performance anxiety
PIV sex demands a certain level of performance from the bodies of both parties. Both sets of genitals have to do certain things to make it happen. Of course there are tools that can help the process – lube, pumps, pills, porn – but there can often be a psychological disconnect between how a person is feeling and what their genitals appear to be experiencing. This is heightened by Sex Olympics Confusion about who has the biggest penis and who is the longest lasting, or who has either the tightest pussy or can take the biggest size, whether of penis or object, or who can ejaculate the most prolifically. Lack of lubrication is also an issue, because everyone’s body and expression of desire is different, and this is not always due to a health/medical issue. ‘Long lasting’ penetrative sex can cause discomfort, but it’s still A Thing that some feel they must aspire to.
In our highly visual culture of competition, it is possible to feel very inadequate. In cases of ‘dysfunction’ (and the whole concept of dysfunction is problematic) the body may be speaking where the mind cannot.
(5) Partner incompatibility
Genital mismatch, sex drive mismatch, or intimacy tolerance mismatch. Sometimes people put up with these things for years in order to remain in a relationship. Such is the power of couple culture. Some suffer in silence and some end up avoiding sex altogether, simply because it is easier to do this than ask for what you want and negotiate.
Fear of getting a Sexually Transmitted Infection – HIV, syphilis, chlamydia, herpes, gonorrhoea, etc. Many fear herpes because, while not life threatening and asymptomatic for many, it seems to have more shame attached to it than some other more serious conditions. Also, the shame around having an STI can also make sex a less desirable activity.
Fear of pregnancy or getting someone pregnant. (Also, if you have recently given birth, you may want to be sexual without being penetrated.)
Fear of engulfment inside another person. (Sometimes expressed by the myth of the vagina dentata.)
‘Honeymoon cystitis’ – In the early days of a relationship, PIV sex can put the body into an illness cycle – vigorous penetration can cause cystitis, which is then treated with antibiotics, which then cause thrush, which is treated with messy insertables. This cycle can persist, and needs to be caught and treated to avoid the condition travelling to the kidneys.
Vaginismus – the vaginal muscles clench so that penetration becomes difficult and painful, or impossible. Given the pressures on us all to conform to specific appearances and body types, I am amazed that more people don’t experience this – plus the number of people who have their physical boundaries crossed when they are too young to protest and for whom penetration has deeper and more stressful significance. One of the advised ‘cures’ for vaginismus is dilation with increasingly sized ‘vaginal trainers’, as if the lack of desire for penetration must be fixed at all costs.
Muscle tension – there is often confusion about vaginal musculature. Often there is a rush to do kegels (PC squeezes) because ‘loose’ vaginal muscles are seen as the worst thing in the world. In fact, although the exercises can be helpful, the underlying problem can be excessive muscular contraction rather than ‘looseness’. Biofeedback (which is also used to help urinary incontinence) can help show what is going on in the vagina. Sexological bodywork or intimate massage can help. A person if they are lucky could be sent to a woman’s physio at a hospital. Pelvic tension is an issue for both sexes, but is rarely mentioned by doctors.
Phimosis – the foreskin won’t retract properly and makes sex painful. This is a source of shame and embarrassment and many people even in middle age don’t feel comfortable seeing a doctor about it and continue to put up with painful sex, or none. There is an opposite disorder (paraphimosis) where it becomes stuck in the retracted position.
Pain syndromes such as dyspareunia and vestibulodynia. Also Medically Unexplained Symptoms (MUS) relating to shame.
Internal conditions such as endometriosis, ovarian cysts, Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS), Pelvic Inflammatory Disease (PID). Tilted or retroverted uterus, which can make deeper penetration painful. Internal scarring/adhesions (either sex). Prostate issues.
External skin conditions which can make genital touch or friction painful – eczema/psoriasis, lichen planus/sclerosus, and thrush (in fact thrush has traditionally been used as a catch-all diagnosis where something else is the problem) – and/or whose appearance may cause the person to feel self conscious.
You might have read the list of health conditions above and thought to yourself, ‘Why not go to the doctor and get it sorted out?’ Unfortunately, many of these conditions are not so easily fixed. Sometimes a person has to learn to live with them and negotiate their sex life around them.
(8) None of the above – you just don’t like it.
Our culture currently privileges one way of being at a cost to the rest. We would save a lot of money public health if we improved sex education around this and people felt able to express their true sexual selves without feeling inadequate.
The more people speak out about this, and promote other ways of being sexual, the happier many people will be.