When a man and a woman have sexual intercourse – where a man’s penis enters the woman’s vagina - it is called vaginal sex. Find out more about what it is, why people do it and how to do it safely.
Should I have vaginal sex?
Deciding whether to have sex is a very personal thing and there is no rule to say whether you ‘should’. The main things to consider are whether it feels right, and whether you and your partner are both sure. Our article ‘Am I ready for sex?’ will help you think about this.
Vaginal sex usually starts when a man and a woman are getting sexually excited from kissing, stroking, caressing, rubbing and touching each other. You’ll often know you’re getting aroused (which means your body is preparing itself for sexual intercourse) from certain physical signs:
- for women, the vagina (the sexual opening between the legs) begins to moisten
- men get an erection, which means their penis will get bigger and harden.
The importance of foreplay
Try not to rush things. The best approach is to enjoy each other’s bodies and make sure you’re relaxed with one another – this is called ‘foreplay’ and it’s an equally important part of sex as intercourse itself. It’s also perfectly ok not to go any further than this stage. Many couples enjoy having foreplay for a long time before they move on to having vaginal sex.
If you are both ready to have vaginal sex, it’s important that foreplay lasts for long enough. If the woman is not sexually excited enough, then her vagina will not become lubricated and it will be difficult for the man's penis to enter.1
We spent ages on foreplay, kissing, fingering and lots of oral as it was both of our first times. When we did decide to have sex, we used a condom and lots of lube and he was very gentle, kept asking me if he was hurting me and how I felt. It did hurt a bit, but not as much as I was expecting. - May
How does vaginal sex work?
When you are both aroused and ready to have sex it helps if one of you uses your hand to guide the penis into the vagina. Take your time, and don’t worry if it takes a few goes to guide it in properly – this is very normal, especially when you are both getting used to each other’s bodies.
Once the penis is inside, you can move your bodies so that the penis pushes into the vagina and then pulls partly out again. Do what comes naturally and feels good - being slow and gentle is a good idea to start with as you can both make sure one another is comfortable.
He was very slow and rather than just pushing into me hard and fast, he took his time making sure I got used to his penis being inside me. He repeatedly asked me if I was ok or wanted him to stop. I told him no and I only felt slightly uncomfortable at first but then when he had fully entered me it felt amazing. He was slow and sensual. - Ash
What about different positions?
One common position involves the woman lying down, with the man lying or sitting on top (also called the ‘missionary position’). Alternatively, the woman can be on top - or you can both lie on your sides. It is probably easiest to choose one of these positions if you are having sexual intercourse for the first time. As you get to know each other’s bodies better you can experiment with different positions that work for you both.
After a while you might find certain movements, positions and ways of touching that lead to one or both of you having an orgasm (also called ‘coming’ or ‘climaxing’). Don’t be too concerned if this doesn’t happen straight away or at all. It takes time to get to know what works for you sexually – and for your partner – and sex can be enjoyable whether you climax or not.
Will it hurt - and will the woman bleed?
It can take a bit of time to get used to the sensation of sex, and some women can find it a little uncomfortable or painful at first. Taking things slowly and using a good water-based lubrication can help.
If it's a woman’s first time having sex she may bleed a little. This is generally nothing to worry about – it's a sign that her hymen (a very thin piece of skin that partially covers the entrance to the vagina) has broken. Sometimes, a woman’s hymen will have been broken through activities such as horse riding or through using tampons, so not all virgins bleed the first time they have sex.2
If you continue to bleed every time you have sex then it’s a good idea to speak to a healthcare professional to check it’s nothing to worry about.
Being safe and sure
Knowing how sex works can help you to feel more relaxed and ready to have sex, but being clued up about contraception and protection is just as important. If you aren’t, you will put yourself (and your partner) at risk of unwanted pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and HIV.
There are many STIs that you can get through unprotected vaginal sex, such as chlamydia, herpes or HIV and it can happen as a result of just having sex once. The only way to be sure that you’re both properly protected is to always use condoms.
If you’ve had unprotected sex make sure you seek healthcare advice as soon as possible to access emergency contraception to prevent unwanted pregnancy, and perhaps post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) to prevent HIV infection. 3
Talking to your partner about protection before you start having sex will help things go more smoothly. This can be embarrassing, but it’s an important part of having sex – and if you find it too difficult to discuss then it could be a sign that you aren’t ready to start having sex just yet. That’s fine – remember that there are lots of ways to enjoy being together and to explore your sexual feelings until the time is right.
©iStock.com/KatarzynaBialasiewicz. Photos are used for illustrative purposes. They do not imply any health status or behaviour on the part of the people in the photo.
- 1. WebMD (2009) ‘Why Foreplay Matters (Especially for Women)’
- 2. NHS Choices (2013) ‘Does a woman always bleed when she has sex for the first time?’
- 3. WHO (2014) ‘Guidelines on post-exposure prophylaxis for HIV and the use of co-trimoxazole prophylaxis for HIV-related infections among adults, adolescents and children: recommendations for a public health approach: December 2014 supplement’