0

While experiencing pain during the first sexual encounter is a common concern among women, I have read that a woman's first sexual encounter is actually not painful at all, if she is experiencing intense sexual pleasure during love-making, because the hymen will just stretch to accommodate a penis. So, my understanding is that the painful deflowering in romance novels is actually an inaccurate depiction of sex, serving as titillation for the reader.

Why do romance novelists insist on realizing this myth of sex? If actual sex is meant to be pleasurable without any pain, then why can't sex be depicted accurately in fiction? Or is the typical reader's own sexual excitement based on seeing the realization of these sex myths?

New contributor
Double U is a new contributor to this site. Take care in asking for clarification, commenting, and answering. Check out our Code of Conduct.
  • 1
    Which time period and which language are you referring to? I'm not sure romance novels in all languages present this this way. – Christophe Strobbe Jan 13 at 22:42
  • @ChristopheStrobbe The 3 novels I read are all written in the 21st century. They are all written in English. American English, to be exact. I think I may be overgeneralizing. – Double U Jan 13 at 23:02
  • 2
    You're reading a very small subset of romance novels if you think this is something "insisted on", for one thing. (I could go on further, but honestly, I am tired of trying to explain that romance novels are not all this sort of thing the way people assume it is.) – Ash Jan 14 at 1:05
3

From a biological perspective, it isn't uncommon for those with vaginas to feel pain at first penetration, whether or not the hymen is responsible. All bodies are unique, and at minimum, a level of mild discomfort to actual pain is often difficult to avoid. Sometimes it's purely biological, and sometimes they maybe haven't learned how to avoid it yet - even if the mitigations are straightforward. Learning how your body works is difficult. Sex is a skill. And that's all that needs to be said about this, because the real answer to this question is cultural.

"The romance novel" exists, generally speaking, by the hand of cis, straight women, and for the consumption of other cis, straight women, often but not always white. They're often ghost-written, but when they are, they're often ghost-written by this group. That's not to say non-women shouldn't pick up a romance novel, but rather that the experiences portrayed in those novels are typically geared towards a specific set of women. This can be a difficult statement to understand, because of how they often distill the experiences of relationships down to a few tropes and kernels. This extends to female sexuality, portrayed in a kind of idealized and practical way, which, yes, can be a little reductionist sometimes. On the whole, though, they perform a valuable educational and discourse function, which makes them far closer to how sex is in practice.

(When you see this trope outside of romance, however, it adopts different meaning. In a novel more laced with metaphor, pain is likely to reflect either a general fetishization of women's pain, or a specific symbol within the context of the novel, or both. Disregard for women's pain, or viewing it as a blunt tool, isn't limited to men, and isn't all done by men, but it is often men who do it.)

So, there's a very basic answer to this question. Romance novels portray first penetration as sometimes painful, because it often is. Not because it has to be, but because the experience is common, and romance novels make an effort to be as inclusive as they can... within reason. A romance novel that talked about how you're "just not doing it right" would be shaming over pain that can be very opaque and is not often avoidable. At best, the last thing an author wants is for your reader to feel disconnected from a novel by omitting a pain they felt.

If you wanted to get a better sense of the depth of the full answer here, I would recommend reading Dangerous Books for Girls, which talks extensively about this exact point.

  • 2
    To be fair, romance novels written in English and published in the US are likely written by and targeted towards white women, because most women in the US are white. Romance novels written in other languages (i.e. Chinese) are likely going to be written by native Chinese speakers for native Chinese speakers. – Double U Jan 13 at 15:37
  • 1
    Also, there are far more non-native English speakers than native English speakers, mainly because English is a global language, and English courses are literally taught everywhere. Standard Chinese, on the other hand, have far more native speakers than non-natives. In China, ethnic minorities make up less than 10% of the total pop. Abroad, Chinese as a second language is becoming popular, but is not as popular as English. So, most native Chinese speakers are also ethnic Chinese. – Double U Jan 13 at 18:43
  • 2
    Love love love the recommendation of "Dangerous Books for Girls". You said a lot of what I wanted to say, but much more diplomatically than I think I could have. – Ash Jan 14 at 1:05
2

The hymen is a thin membrane which covers the entrance to the vagina.

It can be broken during the first time a woman has penetrative intercourse, but that is not the only way. The hymen is not physically shaped the same way in every female body — it can be larger, smaller, or have several holes instead of one. It can be broken by vigorous physical activity, a doctor's normal examination, masturbation, a sexual toy, a tampon, or fingers.

While the hymen doesn't have nerve endings in it, it's connected to the vaginal wall, which does. Pressure on the membrane may tug at the walls of the vagina, causing pain, and tearing the membrane (which is tissue) can cause it to bleed. Also, forceful penetrative intercourse (no matter the condition of the hymen) can be painful. Also also, even gentle penetrative intercourse without sufficient lubrication (no matter the condition of the hymen) can be painful. Either can cause bleeding completely apart from the condition of the hymen.

It's physically possible that a woman may be so aroused that she doesn't feel slight pains during intercourse, so if her hymen has a large opening or has already been torn, the pain simply wouldn't register. It's also possible that the first time she has intercourse, she is nervous, overwhelmed, unprepared, uneducated, etc. etc. so that she's not greatly aroused, and therefore doesn't have a high level of endorphins blocking out small pains. She could have a hymen which almost entirely covers the vaginal opening, and a partner who doesn't care to be gentle, so the tearing is going to be more painful. She could have a hymen which has already been broken, and a careful partner, so she feels no pain at all.

The medical and interpersonal reality is that the first time a woman has penetrative intercourse, it can be anything from amazing to terrible, and additionally anything from painless to very painful, in any combination.

Pain during the first instance of penetrative intercourse is not a myth. It's a reality for some percentage of women.

Here's the important part:

A novel is telling a story. The writer wants to evoke certain reactions in the reader. So the amount of pain or pleasure the female character is experiencing is going to be related to the plot and the characters, and their relationships. It's honestly not much about biology. You don't read romance novels for medical accuracy; you read them for emotional satisfaction.

If the female protagonist is experiencing a "painful deflowering," it has nothing to do with the actual composition of her hymen. It's about the male character not being a gentle, caring partner. It's setting up the male character in a bad light. Whether he is redeemed later or the heroine ends up with someone else is up to the particular narrative.

If the female protagonist has a great first experience, it still has nothing to do with the actual composition of her hymen. It's about the emotional connection between the two characters, and is generally meant to show that the male character is a kind and loving partner, so that they end up together at the end of the story.

Read more romance novels. Read some NC-17 fanfic (het, slash, femslash). You will find a wider range of scenarios than in the three you have read, and you may come to a better understanding of why romance writers choose painful or non-painful first times.

  • The two novels I read still have the virgins ending up married with their sexual partners at the end. – Double U Jan 13 at 15:18

Your Answer

Double U is a new contributor. Be nice, and check out our Code of Conduct.

By clicking "Post Your Answer", you acknowledge that you have read our updated terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy, and that your continued use of the website is subject to these policies.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.