Sex’s portrayal in pop culture is limited: it’s either a pleasurable activity that is equated to ecstasy or one where the woman is nervous and feels pain, but eventually enjoys it and then of course, there’s the trope of the man turning away in shame after he can’t “perform” and a woman feebly comforts him. But sex is a lot more complicated than those four-minute scenes in movies.
In reality, sex can be one of the most painful experiences for a person — man or woman. While women experiencing painful sex is discussed more frequently on and off-screen, men experiencing pain during sex is less heard of. However, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen — it just needs to be talked about more.
According to a study published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine last year, 30% of American women reported experiencing pain during intercourse, whereas only 5% of men reported the same. The study also noted that a majority of Americans don’t talk to their partners about the pain they undergo. Existing patriarchal structures teach men to be stoic and closed off about personal topics such as sex, sexuality and emotions, for fear of being seen as less manly. This stigma still exists in pop culture, which hinges a man’s worth on how stereotypically masculine he can be.
So, why do men feel pain during intercourse and how can they address the problem? Re:Set spoke to Dr. Rajendra Sathe, a sexologist based in Pune, India, to find out how to penetrate this sensitive subject.
Why does pain occur?
According to Sathe, there can be many reasons for this. The most common include not maintaining genital hygiene which involves thoroughly cleaning the penis’ foreskin on a regular basis, and having tight foreskin.
“If a man doesn’t clean the smegma, the white discharge under the foreskin, it can lead to the penis becoming very sensitive to touch and painful sex. In some cases, if it isn’t cleaned, it can lead to permanent pain,” Sathe said, adding that these steps to maintain hygiene can also help sustain an individual’s sexual relationship.
“I saw one patient’s marriage end in divorce over this very issue. The patient just couldn’t follow the medical advice and it led to very painful sex,” he recalled.
“Most men are extremely afraid of talking about any sexual issues, even with a male doctor.”
Having tight foreskin, or phimosis, can cause excruciating pain for the man during sex. It can typically be corrected with a minor surgery, Sathe explained. Sexually transmitted diseases such as herpes and gonorrhea, certain psychological reasons, allergies and rare skin disorders can also lead to painful sex, he added.
Why is it important to address these problems?
Sathe underlines the need for all men to get checked for these issues, irrespective of how they may feel. “It can negatively affect a relationship. This must be necessary, especially for Indian men who are about to get married. Because there is already a lack of communication around sex, it can quickly devolve into a blame game with concerns around impotency or performance,” Sathe told Re:Set.
He adds that, many times, not involving the partner in the conversation can lead to more distress and misunderstandings. “I generally ask all my male patients to bring their partners along with them for consultations, so I can walk them through the problems together. It’s very important that the partner understands what is going on with the man so as to avoid mud-slinging in the future,” Sathe said.
How to best address painful sex?
Sathe recommends men approach the topic as another medical issue without focusing too much on the cultural stigma attached to it, and trust that science will help them.
“Most men are extremely afraid of talking about any sexual issues, even with a male doctor such as myself. I’ve had men contact me after years of having my contact information, just because of how scared they were to say it out loud,” he told Re:Set.
Sathe explains that living in a repressed society, which doesn’t encourage talking about sex or sexuality, can be very difficult, especially as it leads to an ‘anti-sex’ attitude. It also depends on how sex is addressed in our formative years by parents and teachers.
While a widening access to the internet and its wealth of information has improved the situation a little, Sathe says it’s best to try and adopt a scientific approach to the problem and attempt clear communication with the help of medical professionals to get over any embarrassment or discomfort.