You probably remember hearing the rumor sometime during puberty, maybe even before you were fully sure about what "sex" was: If you've got a vagina, the first time you have sex is going to be unpleasant and probably painful. Obviously this rumor is an incredible bummer, and it's one that's not fair. On top of all the other things our young middle school brains were already terrified of—like periods, armpit hair, and bras—introducing the concept of sex being painful seemed so cruel. Where did the rumor even come from? And, more importantly, was there ever any truth to it?
To put an end to this particular component of the tween rumor mill, Alyssa Dweck, MD, a gynecologist in New York and author of The Complete A to Z for Your V, addressed the origins of the "sex is gonna hurt the first time" myth, and cleared up what someone can actually expect the first time they decide to get down.
What's the hymen got to do with it
Let's just get this out of the way right off the bat: While unexpected pain during sex is something that most women encounter over the course of their sexual lifetimes, safe, consensual sex should always be pleasurable and never painful. Dweck said this also applies to first time sex.
That said, the myth that sex is going to hurt the first time likely stems from a little piece of the female anatomy called the hymen. The hymen is a piece of tissue with a hole in it near the opening of the vagina, and like everything else about the human body, no two hymens are the same. According to Dweck, one person might have a very thin hymen that becomes stretched open (often called "breaking") without bleeding during a casual childhood activity, like riding a bike, while another person might have a very thick hymen that needs to be stretched open by a physician (though this is rare).
If you ever heard the phrase "pop a cherry," that refers to the tendency of the hymen to be stretched open and bleed the first time someone has sex. Because bleeding is often associated with pain, therein lies the basis for the "sex is gonna hurt" myth. But here's something really important: Not everyone has an intact hymen anymore when they have sex for the first time, and even people who do may never experience any bleeding. Dweck said a majority of people never notice their hymen being "broken," and it's typically not painful. "It may feel like a ripping or a tearing," Dweck said, if it feels like anything at all. That pain should resolve quickly. If it's persistent or comes with heavy bleeding, call your doctor.
What could potentially be causing pain
Aside from the possible minor pain associated with the hymen being stretched, a few things might be the culprit behind uncomfy first-time sex.
A common issue is, as always, a lack of lubrication. The best thing you can do for your sex life at any time is bring in the lube. Vaginal dryness—which can strike at literally anytime, for anyone—can cause sex to be painful and cause irritation, and a great way to combat that is (say this with me): MORE LUBE.
Dweck also said that anxiety or nerves apply to first-time sex. "Some women are so frightened about having sex for the first time because they're worried about pregnancy, worried it's going to hurt, or just scared because it's a new experience, so they may have a situation where their brain tells their pelvic muscles to tighten up a bit," Dweck said. The name for this is vaginismus, and it's an involuntary tightening of the pelvic muscles that makes it impossible for some people to put anything in their vagina. It's a condition that is typically linked with anxiety; whether as a result of a strict religious or cultural upbringing, after a trauma or assault, or just out of fear because someone's been telling you your whole life that sex is going to be painful for you. It sucks, but it's something that's treatable with a doctor's help.
A third option is irritants in a product you (or your partner) might be using, but that applies to any and all sexual encounters—not just your first one. Dweck said condoms that contain spermicides are an irritant for a majority of people. It may also be possible that you're sensitive to latex or certain materials used in condoms or dental dams, and switching to a different product should resolve the issue.
How to avoid a painful first-time sex encounter
Here's some advice you've heard a million times and still not enough: Lube is your friend when it comes to avoiding painful sex that can potentially cause irritation or bleeding. It's not weird or awkward to suggest lube the first time you have sex or anytime after that, and a parter who makes you feel otherwise isn't worth your time.
Not to sound like a mom, but Dweck also mentioned the importance of making sure you're comfortable and feel safe with your potential first partner, and are independently ready to start a sexual relationship with them. Sex can mean however much or little as you please. But just like you shouldn't get up and do karaoke in front of a crowd of people just because your friends are telling you to do it, you shouldn't have sex with anyone (ever) just because you feel like you should.
It's perfectly normal to feel a bit nervous before having sex for the first time. Trying something new can be wild! But if you're feeling an overwhelming sense of dread or anxiety, maybe take a step back and think things through. Dweck said feeling anxious or scared going into a sexual encounter can make it difficult for the vagina to self-lubricate, and a lack of lubrication can make sex painful.
The biggest takeaway is that sex—whether it's your first or five-hundredth time—never has to hurt.
Follow Hannah on Twitter.