This column is published in partnership with Scarleteen.
How long after a girl’s first time
should they bleed for and how heavy should they bleed?
Heather Corinna replies:
There aren’t any "shoulds"
here. Not all women bleed with first-time intercourse or other kinds of vaginal
entry: in fact, most don’t. Why some women do — and for how long they do —
and some don’t also varies.
As to how many women do and don’t
bleed after first intercourse, very little scientific study has been done on
that. That’s unsurprising since bleeding from one specific act of intercourse
(rather than it happening with frequency) often doesn’t have any real medical
relevance, and healthcare providers and sex educators — if we’ve done our
homework — also pretty much have the answers we need already. One study which
was done, cited by my friend Hanne Blank in her book, Virgin: The Untouched
History, was an informal one in 1998 published in the British Medical
Journal by Dr. Sara Patterson-Brown. She found that at least 63 percent of the
women she asked about bleeding and first intercourse reported that they did not
experience bleeding. We say at least because in her study, some of the women
she asked about it couldn’t remember. (And if that surprises you, please
understand that the idea no one will ever forget every detail of their first
time simply doesn’t hold up to reality: some people, especially over time, wind
up remembering little to nothing about it at all.)
We know that some women have
bleeding and that others have none. For those who do, how much is something
else that varies, largely because what causes the bleeding varies. Some women
who have bleeding will only lightly spot for a few hours, others will have
near-period level bleeding for a day or two, some more or for even longer.
For the most part, just like
bleeding from any other part of your body, bleeding that comes with or follows intercourse
or any other kind of sex is due to an injury. How can injury happen during sex?
In a few different ways:
1.) If a female-bodied person isn’t aroused (sexually excited) enough, or at all,
before and during entry, often the vaginal opening and vagina will have not
loosened and/or self-lubricated enough for entry or intercourse to be
pleasurable for her or truly workable. In other words, it may be possible,
in that their partner can manage to force their penis (or whatever else) into
the vagina, but it often won’t feel good to that receptive partner, and often
results in tearing of or abrasions to the tissues of the vulva, vagina or
cervix. Suffice it to say, if a woman isn’t consenting to sex at all, but is
sexually assaulted, bleeding is very common for this reason.
2.) When a partner is too rough. If a partner is too rough or
forceful with their penis, fingers or a sex toy, whether a woman is aroused or
not, that can cause injury and bleeding.
3.) Because of an infection or other medical condition. For
instance, the sexually transmitted infection Chlamydia can sometimes cause
bleeding with intercourse. The STIs Gonhorrhea or Trichomoniasis can also cause
bleeding. So can endometriosis, fibroid tumors, vaginitis, yeast infections,
uterine or cervical polyps, cervical dysplasia and other kinds of cervicitis,
and more rarely, cervical cancer. Because of cervical tenderness during
pregnancy, some pregnant women experience bleeding from intercourse, too.
Another possibility for women much older than you are is that menopause is
playing a part: with menopause decreasing levels of estrogen thin the vaginal
walls, making them less flexible and resilient.
4.) If the corona or hymen is still in the process of
wearing away or has worn away very little, and that intercourse or entry tears
(in which case this is bleeding usually actually due to #2), stretches or
erodes it. This is the reason people tend to most commonly think is why vaginal
bleeding with intercourse happens: some people even think it’s the only reason.
Age can be a big factor when this is the cause. Because this tissue wears away
over time, the younger a woman or girl is when she has intercourse the more
likely it is that there’s more of the corona to wear away, and the more likely
is it there will be some bleeding. Consider that in our modern day, for as much
as you hear adults talking about how young people having sex in their teens and
twenties are, many women in history, and in some places still, had first
intercourse (and marriage) at even younger ages than now. So, when it comes to
specifically hymenal bleeding, it’s something we likely see less of now than we
did, 500 or more years ago. As well, arousal and lubrication is an issue with
this one, too. The corona is usually very stretchy and flexible, so even
someone who has one that’s not yet eroded enough to be totally out of the way
can have pleasurable sex without bleeding from that tissue when they are
aroused and lubricated enough, be that lubrication form their own bodies or
from a bottle. In that case, the corona often just slides to the side of the
vaginal opening a lot like the inner labia stay to the side during intercourse.
Based on what we know from medicine,
and what sex educators know from talking to people about this, the first three
situations are the most common causes of vaginal bleeding, not the last.
A lot of people do mistakenly think
that bleeding is a "must" or always happens, and that when it does
it’s always about the hymen/corona and one big reason for that has to do with
outdated cultural ideas more than anything else. The same people also often
think first-time intercourse usually or always will be — or even should be —
painful. And that’s not true, either. The most common reasons for intercourse
being painful are also often 1 – 3 above, not 4.
To understand why people think the
way they do about this, it’s helpful to consider history. We get asked what
you’re asking a lot, and have a lot of women writing in worried that they
didn’t bleed, and also hear from male partners who don’t trust the sexual
history of female partners who didn’t bleed. So, I’m going to dig in here.
For a very long time, before there
was the better understanding of women’s bodies and sexuality we have in this
century and some of the last, it was near-universally thought that women who
had not had intercourse or any other kind of vaginal entry had a seal on the
front of their vaginas (the hymen) which was only "broken" by their
first sexual partner. The idea was that when that was broken — people still
talk about "popping the cherry" and this is where that comes from —
a woman would bleed, and if a woman did not bleed during first
intercourse, that’s because someone else "broke her seal" already.
Some of this was based in ignorance,
and some in seriously hardcore sexism and viewing women, and our bodies, as
property. The idea that women needed to prove a male partner or spouse got what
they paid for (through most of history, marriage involved financial exchanges
and benefits) when they married a virgin was the norm for most of history in
many cultures, most certainly including Western culture. The idea that bleeding
proved a man had truly "broken in" a woman via intercourse was, and
sometimes still is, popular. The idea that "breaking in" or
"deflowering" a woman was about male power and prowess, same deal.
Historically, there have also been some issues of cultural expectations for men
and women alike afoot around this, like the notion that a marriage wasn’t
really bonafide unless it had been consummated, so blood on the sheets proved a
married couple had had sex.
Some ideas around virginity, first
intercourse and bleeding as proof of virginity also involved paternity. We can
always know at a birth who someone’s mother is, since we can see an infant come
out of her body. What we can’t know just by looking — the paternity tests we
have now weren’t invented until the 1980’s — is who someone’s father is. So,
some of the idea was that so long as you had sex with a virgin, proven by
bleeding or pain with intercourse, you, as a male, could be absolutely certain
that any children that were born were yours.
Lastly, historically, women’s desire
for intercourse or any other kind of sex was largely ignored, sometimes even
considered an impossibility. We always need to understand that for many women
through time, their first sex was actually either their first rape or something
women just did not because they felt a sexual desire to, but because they
understood it was something they had to do for men. If you’re wondering why
women would have sex like that when they didn’t want to, remember that for
many, marriage, or doing what men wanted, was a matter of life or death: for
many women historically (and for some women still in parts of the world),
marriage was the difference between having a place to live and not having one,
between having food to eat or starving.
For most of history, sex was
considered something that men wanted, that was 100% about men, that women
didn’t have any interest in but were obligated to do for men and had little choice
or voice in, especially once they were married. Because of that, and because
historically, first sex for women was not with someone they were in love with
or attracted to, we can also know that for some women who had bleeding at first
intercourse through history, that was because they were not aroused, were
scared, and often sex was everything from only out of obligation to barely
consensual to completely nonconsensual and by force.
Because of all of those kinds of
ideas and cultural precedents, bleeding was usually seen as something that
better well happen, and because sometimes "proof" needed to be shown
that a woman was, in fact, a virgin as she said she was.
Check out this passage from Deuteronomy
22 in the Old Testament, to get an idea of the weight of virginity
in history, as well as what the consequences for a woman could be if she hadn’t
bled with intercourse:
If any man take a wife, and go in
unto her, and hate her, and give occasions of speech against her, and bring up
an evil name upon her, and say, I took this woman, and when I came to her, I
found her not a maid: Then shall the father of the damsel, and her mother, take
and bring forth the tokens of the damsel’s virginity unto the elders of the
city in the gate. And the damsel’s father shall say unto the elders, I gave my
daughter unto this man to wife, and he hateth her; and, lo, he hath given
occasions of speech against her, saying, I found not thy daughter a maid; and
yet these are the tokens of my daughter’s virginity. And they shall spread the
cloth before the elders of the city. And the elders of that city shall take
that man and chastise him; and they shall amerce him in an hundred shekels of
silver, and give them unto the father of the damsel, because he hath brought up
an evil name upon a virgin of Israel: and she shall be his wife; he may not put
her away all his days.
But if this thing be true, and the
tokens of virginity be not found for the damsel: then they shall bring out the
damsel to the door of her father’s house, and the men of her city shall
stone her with stones that she die: because she hath wrought folly in
Israel, to play the whore in her father’s house: so shalt thou put evil away
from among you.
The "tokens" they’re
talking about are something like a sheet or wedding garment with a bloodstain,
to "prove" she was, indeed, a virgin. In other words, for many women
in history, proving to be a virgin through blood could literally save their
lives. In some cultures, new brides had to prove they were virgins on their
wedding night by doing things like hanging their sheets outside the next
morning for the whole community to be convinced — by the bloody spot on the
sheet — that they were, indeed, virgins. And to think how much you all worry
about someone seeing a menstrual stain on your pants! At least no one hangs
them out for the neighbors to gawk at.
Trouble is — well, there’s quite a
lot of trouble with that, obviously, but let’s just address the bloody matter
at hand — that idea was, and still is, massively flawed.
The corona (hymen) isn’t actually a
"seal" at all for most women. Rather, it’s thin folds of membrane
that wear away over time (due to hormones, vaginal discharges, menstrual
periods, masturbation and/or general physical activity, as well as partnered
sex), even for those who don’t ever have intercourse at all. Some women are
even born without hymens or with hymens whose appearance is such that you can’t
tell there’s one there at all.
For most women, in childhood, very
small openings to that mambrane start to form and get larger over time, which
is why 12-year-old girls can have menstrual flow, even if they never had any
kind of sex. If those openings didn’t happen, that flow and other vaginal discharges
would get trapped inside. That can happen: some women have resilient hymens,
but that’s rare, and also is a medical problem that requires a minor surgery
(called a hymenectomy), not a normality.
So, plenty of women through history
wound up not bleeding at all, absolutely including women who truly had not had
any kind of sexual partnership before that time. Because not bleeding could
result in things like divorce, a public gynecological examination, being
disowned by family or community or even a stoning or other kind of public
execution, what many women did was fake bleeding. Many older women actually
knew full well, from experience, that this idea that bleeding always happens
with intercourse was a farce, so new brides would often be prepared by other women
on how to fake bleeding in case they didn’t. For instance, brides were often
told how to keep a sponge full of animal blood handy so they could insert it
into their vaginas to create the appearance of vaginal blood, or to sneakily
squeeze it on a sheet in case they didn’t bleed. Other women cut themselves on
purpose to create blood.
Even in relationships or communities
today where bleeding or not isn’t such a dire matter, some women are still
dishonest with friends, family or partners about bleeding because — mostly
because of all this history — they worry something is or was wrong with them
if they didn’t, feel ashamed they didn’t bleed, worry someone will question
that it really was their first time, or feel they need to tell partners they
bled in order to satisfy them.
And of course, because there are
other and more common reasons for vaginal bleeding with intercourse, some women
had bleeding, but it either wasn’t just because of erosion of the corona
during sex, or wasn’t for that reason at all, but was because of things like a
partner being rough, a woman being scared and/or unaroused, or a woman having a
health condition that caused that bleeding. The same is true today.
These are the kinds of historical
sources that the idea bleeding should or must happen come from. These were (and
for those who still have them, still are) really
lousy, creepy and inaccurate ideas and precedents that are hardly respectful of
women, and most certainly didn’t treat women as whole people. They have never
been based in the reality of women’s anatomy or sexual experiences. When it all
comes down to it, they’ve never really been about women at all, but about the
way men and the world at large decided women are or are not valuable based not
only in sexism, but in ignorance about our bodies.
So, what SHOULD happen with first
intercourse? Ideally, it should start by being
something you (or any other woman, as well as her partner) very much want and
feel ready for and comfortable with as a whole. It should be something that you
only choose to do when a given relationship feels ready for it, including you
and a partner having engaged in other kinds of sex or masturbation together
before so that you both have a good idea of when you are and are not aroused,
what gets you there, and have developed some skills and comfort openly and
honestly communicating about sex together, which certainly includes speaking up
if something hurts or doesn’t feel good, not just quietly suffering in silence
or pretending sex feels good when it doesn’t. As with any other kind of sex, if
it’s something that is in any way painful or uncomfortable, it should be something
you can feel very free to stop or make adjustments with — like adding more
lube, or going back to other sexual activities that get you more turned on —
as needed. Ideally, it’s also an experience that everyone involved enjoys and
feels good about, and where no one is coming to it with the kinds of ideas many
have through history.
Maybe you will (or did) have
bleeding, and maybe you won’t (or didn’t). In either case, that doesn’t tell
us, all by itself, anything about you, your value as a person, the state of
your virginity or your sexual experience.
In the case you do or did have
bleeding, and it was more than spotting, and carried on for more than a couple
of days, or if it happens with intercourse often, checking in with a healthcare
provider is a good idea. As you know now, that bleeding may possibly be due to
a medical condition you need looked into and treated, or an injury from sex you
need treatment for, or just an awareness of why it’s happening so you can find
out how to keep it from happening again.
There’s nothing to be ashamed of
when it comes to bleeding, just like there’s nothing for a guy to be ashamed of
when it comes to his body fluids, but you do always want to do what you can to
avoid injury with sex, just like we want to avoid injury with anything else. If
it does happen, you just clean it up, and then use a menstrual pad if you need
to. If you do (or did) have bleeding, you’ll also want to chill with
intercourse for a few days so that whatever that injury was has a chance to heal.
It probably goes without saying that
the one "should" I’d put in this is that if you do have any of the
inaccurate or value-based ideas about bleeding with first intercourse I talked
about here, I do think you should consider ditching them.