Period sex: You either love and embrace it or you hate and avoid it, but it doesn't have to be that way. There's definitely a correlation between menstruation and libido — hormonal changes can intensify sexual appetite, and orgasms can actually assuage period cramps (thanks to a release of dopamine, oxytocin and other pain-killing endorphins). And because vagina-owners excrete so much fluid while shedding the uterus, that extra lubrication can make vaginal sex go a lot smoother too.
Getting intimate during menstruation is also becoming less taboo as it’s evermore embraced in the mass media that largely touts its allure. But if you’re not comfortable with it, you’re not alone — and that is totally acceptable and normal too. Many people face a whole host of intimacy challenges during menstruation that can certainly decrease desire.
If, however, you want to give period sex a try or are looking to get a bit more comfortable with it, here’s how to overcome three intimacy challenges that may arise.
1. Period sex can feel "unclean"
Many religious texts suggest menstruation is “unclean” or “impure,” and that text has leaked into our modern psychological perceptions of menstruation according to Jenni Skyler, a sex therapist, sexologist and licensed marriage and family therapist for Adam & Eve.
“Though physically and biologically, there is no need to abstain from contact, human behavior often stems from religious history,” Skyler explains. “Most of the world's major religions have perceived menstruation problematically: Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and even aspects of Buddhism. Some advocate for women to be fully removed during this entire menstrual window [or] qualify the experience as ‘unclean’; all include language that describes the menstruation experience as ‘impure.’”
To be clear, there is nothing unclean about your period or having sex during it. But if this is something you're concerned about, there are ways around it.
“A shower can offer sensual foreplay and the opportunity to clean up,” Skyler says. “The entire erotic experience can stay in the shower if that’s the comfort level of the couple… If you are worried about the mess, put a towel on the bed — you can even buy a whole towel set and use the hand-cloth on the side for additional wiping if needed.”
There is also a new product called Shark Week Sheets that's in development right now that you can stick on top of your sheets to keep them blood stain-free.
Dr. Kelly Culwell, aka "Dr. Lady Doctor," a board-certified and fellowship-trained OB-GYN who has worked with the World Health Organization in Geneva, Switzerland, and as a medical officer with Planned Parenthood, also recommends simple menstrual cups or discs that don’t dangle down into the vagina.
“Practice taking the cup in and out a few times before you have sex so you are comfortable with it,” she says. “Most cups can be left in for 12 hours depending on the amount of menstrual flow you have, but you’ll want to make sure you know how long you can leave a cup in without having any issues with leakage before you try it during sex for the first time.”
2. Period sex can feel awkward
Just before and during menstruation, many vagina-owners will experience bloating that results from changes in levels of sex hormones progesterone and estrogen. A lot of bloating is caused by water retention during this time. Some people may also experience acne breakouts both before and during their periods. And women and femmes have been conditioned to feel shame about their bodies and skin impurities for as long as time — so it’s no wonder many might experience a lack of self-confidence during their periods.
“Women are taught from an early age to feel shame about their bodies and bodily functions, so the messiness of period sex can also make women want to avoid sex during this time,” Culwell explains. “Some women also experience a change in vaginal odor during menstruation as blood increases the pH of the vagina, which can lead to increased likelihood of bacterial vaginosis just after menstruation.”
And, of course, with a lack of confidence can come feelings of awkwardness during intimacy. Culwell says to remember that everyone is different when it comes to sexual and reproductive health, and that’s OK.
“What we like, don’t like and feel comfortable with varies… That’s what makes sex so interesting and exciting,” she says. “Don’t ever feel pressured to do anything sexually that you don’t want to do.”
3. Period sex can feel painful
A lot of changes happen to the body during menstruation that can make sex feel physically different for some people as well.
For example, a local increase in the hormone prostaglandin causes bloating and swelling of the pelvic organs, including the uterus and cervix, which can change the position of the cervix in the vagina according to Culwell.
“Depending on a [person’s] individual anatomy, that change in position of the cervix could make sex more pleasurable and more likely to lead to orgasm or make sex actually painful,” she explains.
This increase in prostaglandin is also what makes some women have changes in their bowel patterns (such as diarrhea) during their periods, she adds, noting that gas pains can also be uncomfortable.
“Communication is key,” Culwell suggests. “Both partners need to be comfortable with the potential messiness and/or changes in sensation that might occur. If sex is painful because of anatomic or hormonal changes, you need to be empowered to speak up and stop. This is true about sex at any time — in order for both partners to feel safe, there has to be communication, trust and honesty.”
Skyler adds that if orgasm is the intention, it doesn’t necessarily require penetration that may be causing the discomfort either.
“An orgasm can be achieved through manual stimulation on the clitoris — with a tampon still inserted if needed. It can be accessed through oral sex, and it certainly can be achieved with a sex toy,” she adds. Yes, oral sex can be a fun option if you and your partner are into it.
There is absolutely no shame in enjoying period sex or in wanting to avoid it. It's also totally fine to be ambivalent about the whole thing if it's not a big deal to you one way or another. But for those who may find it tricky, we hope these tips will help you give it another try — if you want to.