How’s That For You? This Is What Sex Actually Feels Like

Photographed by Karen Sofia Colon.
The first time I had sex, I was so fixated on the fact that I was finally, actually having sex that all I could think of to say was, “oh my god, we’re having sex.” It was a little painful, especially at first, but there were moments that felt amazing. But most of all, it just felt… weird. So this is what sex feels like, I just kept thinking.
Describing sex to someone who’s never experienced it is like trying to describe snow to someone who’s lived their whole life in a desert. No matter how hard you try, words often just can’t quite convey the feeling — even the most descriptive erotica can only take it so far. But that won’t stop us from trying.
First, let’s talk about what we mean by “sex.” Society often limits “sex” to penis-in-vagina intercourse, but that leaves out a whole lot of people who never have this kind of sex. It’s also a limiting definition even for those who love P-in-V sex. There are so many other ways to experience sexual pleasure: oral, anal, fingering, genital rubbing, mutual masturbation… and that’s just getting started.
In one recent study from the UK, researchers asked 5807 adults what they “counted” as sex. Just over 40% considered oral stimulation as “having sex,” and around a third said hand jobs and fingering “counted,” as well. Interestingly, the rates of viewing oral sex as sex were higher among both homosexual men and women, and lesbian and bisexual women were more likely to see fingering as sex in its own right. In a Journal of Sex Research study of 594 heterosexual college students, 70-74% counted anal intercourse as “definitely sex” (the rates were higher if an orgasm occurred), but only 33% saw doing a 69 position definitively as sex. And for penis-in-vagina intercourse, 98.7% counted it as sex if both partners orgasm, as opposed to 88.9% if no one orgasms.
Clearly, there’s a whole range of opinions here. We say that if it feels like sex to you, go ahead and call it that.

Does sex hurt?

If you’re having sex that involves some kind of penetration (P-in-V sex, anal sex, vaginal, or any kind of fingering), there’s a chance there might be some pain. To minimize that risk, make sure to spend a lot of time on foreplay so that you’re really turned on before penetration begins, and add lube. If you start having sex and it does hurt, you can stop, return to foreplay, change positions, or add more lube — or you might decide to focus on non-penetrative activities instead.
Typically, oral sex should not hurt, unless the giver is using their teeth (but hey, some people enjoy that feeling). For any kind of manual sex, such as handjobs, friction can lead to some minor irritation — but again, adding lube can help.
Some health conditions, including endometriosis and vaginismus, can lead to painful penetration. Listen to your body, and your doctor. And if you’ve experienced sexual trauma in the past, sex might feel emotionally or even physically distressing. Discussing your boundaries with your partner before beginning, and then going slowly, may help. Therapy, of course, helps too.
In reality, there’s a lot of variation about what your first time having sex feels like. “Get rid of any expectations; the first time we have sex is typically not our best. Plus, many things you hear about the first time are not absolutes,” SKYN Condoms’ Sex & Intimacy Expert and host of the podcast Sex With Emily, Dr. Emily Morse, previously told Refinery29. “Not everyone bleeds the first time, has pain, or even enjoys it — and if you fall in those categories, know that there is nothing wrong with you.”

Does sex feel good?

Sex can feel good — in fact, it can feel great. When we’re turned on, our bodies release a flood of “feel-good hormones,” including dopamine and oxytocin, which make us feel happy and relaxed. There’s a reason that many people say they wish they could have sex every day.
However, sometimes sex doesn’t feel great — even if you and your partner want to make each other feel good. You might be feeling super nervous, you might be dealing with some physical discomfort, or you might be trying out a new sex act that, it turns out, just isn’t your thing. And if you’re on the asexual spectrum, you might just not enjoy sex.
Sometimes, a new sex act takes a little practice before it's really enjoyable. Personally, it took me about three or four tries to get from P-in-V sex feeling a little painful, to a little good, to finally feeling amazing. Oral sex, however, I loved from the start.
All this said, if sex feels painful or bad, you absolutely do not (and should not) have to grin and bear it. You can pause at any moment and add lube, change positions, or switch from penetrative to non-penetrative sex. And if you want to stop the encounter entirely, you can do that, too.
Photographed by Karen Sofia Colon.

What does sex actually feel like?

To get some more perspective on what sex feels like for other people with vulvas, I checked out a few Reddit threads for some creative and poetic descriptions.
“[P-in-V sex is] amazing. It's a feeling of fullness & pressure. We got it lucky, cause there's even the afterwards feeling of strolling around feeling like you've been f*cked... which is another good feeling, and I'm not talking about the post-orgasm fairyland stuff. You feel empty in a good way. Whoa, I just found out that it's very hard to describe the feeling of being screwed.”
“[The first time I received oral sex] I was 19. I had masturbated a lot before. But it was NOTHING like, or compared to, a warm, wet, soft tongue on my vulva. I crave oral almost more than any other sexual act. I just can't say enough how f*cking awesome oral is.”
“What sex felt like, not just when I climaxed but during the entire thing, was as if I was floating. My head was light and every caress was electrifying. I had that chill running up my spine when one gets goosebumps. I felt as if cool air was flowing through my entire body. It was amazing. And the cuddles and pillow talk afterwards made it damn near perfect. Just thinking about it now is getting me riled up.”
“Hmm, well, it really depends what kind of sex you're having, but really it feels all sorts of the following: warm, tingling, sharp, shivery, hot, waves of temperature, slowly building from toes to head orgasm or slap you in the face surprise orgasm, soft, wet, hard, sweaty, full, twisting, grinding, sensual…”
All in all, what sex feels like is really individual. It depends on you, your partner, the type of sex, and the situation. “First and foremost, when having sex for the first time, make sure that you are with someone you trust, that you’re actually ready to have sex, and that you’re not feeling pressured at all to just ‘check it off the list,’’ Dr. Morse said. “Remember to go slow, pay attention to how you’re feeling, and to stay present.”

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