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Let’s get right to it: There can be side effects of sexual activity, says women’s health expert Sherry A. Ross, MD, author of “She-ology” and “She-ology, the She-quel.”
Or, at least not-so-favorable aftermath, like sexually transmitted infections (STIs) or unwanted pregnancy.
“But there don’t have to be any side effects of sex if you plan ahead and have all the lube, barrier methods, and birth control you could need to greatly (greatly!) reduce the risks,” she says.
Still, we want you to know exactly what to expect physically and emotionally during sexual activity, and right after.
So, we put together this guide with the help of Ross; Kiana Reeves, a somatic sex expert and sex and community educator with Foria Awaken, a company that creates products intended to increase pleasure during sex; and Felice Gersh, MD, author of “PCOS SOS: A Gynecologist’s Lifeline to Naturally Restore Your Rhythms, Hormones, and Happiness.”
Thanks to increased blood flow and heart rate — and the rush of hormones and endorphins — sexual activity affects the body from head to toe.
You could feel full
If you have a vagina and are being penetrated during the act, expect to feel a feeling of fullness, says Reeves. “This may even feel a little like pressure,” she says. Think: tampon, but bigger and (hopefully) better.
If your hymen hasn’t previously thinned, slight (!) discomfort
Things like horseback riding, biking, tampons, self-penetration, and manual sex can all break the hymen. (Something only people with vaginas have, FYI.)
But if you’re having penetrative sex and your hymen hasn’t already stretched or thinned, Gersh says you may experience a few seconds of discomfort and some slight bleeding.
But — this is important! — “sex shouldn’t be painful,” Ross says.
“There’s a widespread myth that sex, and especially penetrative sex, are painful for vulva owners,” Ross adds. “But pain during sexual intercourse isn’t normal.”
If you find penetrative sex painful, try:
- Using lube. Like, five times as much lube as you think you need.
- Going way slower. Don’t skimp on arousal!
If penetrative sex is still painful, talk to a doctor or other healthcare provider.
There are a few conditions that can make penetration painful, including:
Or, like you’re being engulfed
…in a hot way.
“If you have a penis, there’s a sensation of filling someone else, and the heat and pressure that comes along with that,” Reeves says.
And penetrative sex isn’t the only way to feel this sensation. Hand sex and oral sex can, too.
Your heart rate and breath speed up… and you may get tired
No doubt, sexual activity can be physically, ahem, demanding. That, plus the fact that you’re excited to be (or about to be) engaging in sexual activity can cause your ticker and breathing to speed up.
Oh, and don’t be surprised if halfway through or at the end you feel wiped! It’s normal for sexual activity to feel exhausting. Plus, orgasms release certain endorphins that can have a sedative effect.
You may blush… everywhere
When you’re getting it on, your circulation increases. That increased blood flow can cause:
- swollen, or engorged, vulva
- erect penis and clitoris
- flushed cheeks, chest, or other areas
Your muscles may tense up
Yup! Like we said, sexual activity = exercise.
Muscle tension may even lead to cramps in certain parts of your body, like your hands, feet, hip, and calves. Drinking enough water ahead of time can help reduce this risk.
There will likely be bodily fluids!
If you’re engaging in sexual activity, sweat, spit, urine, pre-ejaculate, ejaculate, and vaginal lubrication are all possible.
And if the anus is involved, fecal flecks and poop could happen!
So, don’t be surprised if there’s a giant wet spot in the middle of the bed. Or, you know, on the car seat.
Emotionally speaking, what sexual activity feels like depends on a host of factors, including:
- current stress, hydration, and hunger levels
- what your cultural and religious upbringing taught you about sexual activities and pleasure
- how emotionally attracted you are to your partner
- how physically attracted you are to your partner
- the type of intimacy you’re seeking through this interaction
- how safe you feel with your partner
You may feel super connected, relaxed, satisfied, or euphoric if you feel safe and respected by your partner or were raised in a sex-positive household.
But you could also experience feelings of shame, guilt, vulnerability, or embarrassment if you were raised in a sexually repressive household or don’t trust your partner.
Reeves adds: “During sexual activities, there’s a wave of oxytocin that’s released. And oxytocin is the same hormone released when a parent births their baby.” It’s the bonding hormone.
So, if you feel extra connected to your partner (even if you just met them!), that’s why, she says.
There are a few common things that might pop up postcoitus.
Immediately after, you might feel wet
If you had barrier-free, penetrative anal or vaginal sex with a penis owner, and they ejaculated inside you, expect to feel wet after.
“You’ll likely feel some of the ejaculate leaking out afterwards,” Gersh says.
You could notice a change in odor
After barrier-free penetrative vaginal sex with a penis owner, vulva owners may notice a change in their genital odor.
“The vagina is naturally super acidic, while ejaculate is more basic,” Gersh says. “Ejaculate can alter the pH of a vagina and alter the smell for a day or two afterwards.”
If the smell persists for longer than 3 days, she recommends talking to a gynecologist, as a change in odor can signal infection, like bacterial vaginosis or yeast infection.
Your muscles may be sore
Specifically, your glutes, hamstrings, quads, arms, and core muscles, according to Gersh.
However, your vagina and anus shouldn’t be sore.
“Soreness after penetrative intercourse is common, but not normal and usually preventable,” Ross says. “Typically, it means there wasn’t enough lube, enough time for arousal ahead of time, or penetration wasn’t slow enough.”
Or that the sesh was super-duper vigorous.
You could get a urinary tract infection
“Vulva owners are more prone to urinary tract infections (UTIs) than penis owners because the urethral tube is shorter,” Ross explains.
And with any activity that brings bacteria in and around the urethra — think: wiping back to front, sexual activity, and so on — a UTI is a possibility.
To reduce the risk of a UTI after penetrative sex, Ross recommends peeing: “Urinating helps flush the tube of bacteria.” Easy enough.
If you experience any UTIs symptoms, talk to a healthcare provider. Symptoms include:
- increased urge to pee
- burning, stinging, or pain while peeing
- blood in urine
- kidney pain
Pregnancy may be possible
“Pregnancy is a risk anytime someone with a vagina has intercourse with someone with a penis and doesn’t use birth control, or doesn’t use it correctly,” Gersh says.
If you’re taking an oral contraceptive, that means never skipping a pill!
And if you’re using a barrier method, that means:
- The barrier is the right size, and not expired or damaged.
- The barrier is put in place before any genital contact occurs.
- There’s a little room between the tip of the penis and condom for ejaculation.
- The wearer pulls out as soon as they ejaculate or start to lose erection.
If you didn’t use contraception and pregnancy is a risk, you may take an emergency contraceptive up to 72 hours after penetrative sex.
Otherwise, look out for early signs of pregnancy, such as:
- slight cramping
- nausea (with or without vomiting)
- mood swings
“The only way to know if you’re pregnant for sure is to take a pregnancy test,” Gersh notes.
An STI could have been transmitted
STIs don’t just happen out of nowhere.
But, if the person you boned does have an STI, that infection could have been transmitted to your genitals, mouth, or anus, depending on the types of sexual activity you engaged in.
“Most don’t know when they have an STI, because the majority of folks experience no symptoms of all,” Gersh says. “So it’s possible for an STI to transmit even if you couldn’t visually tell they were infected, or they didn’t know.”
Using a barrier — and using it perfectly! — during oral, anal, and vaginal sex greatly reduces the risk of transmission.
“But some STIs are spread through skin-to-skin contact,” Gersh adds. “A barrier will only cover skin-to-skin infection where skin isn’t touching.”
The only way to know if you have an STI is to get tested. So, if your partner is STI-positive or you or they don’t know their current STI status, get tested 2 weeks after possible exposure.
Many of the feelings you might feel during sexual activity are similar to the feelings you could feel after the fact, such as:
- embarrassed or ashamed
If you have postcoital dysphoria, you might even feel sad or anxious after consensual sexual activities.
Again, Reeves says, “Don’t underestimate how connected you might feel to the person (even if you just met).”
This might surprise you: There are more downsides to not having sex than upsides.
Are there any benefits of not engaging?
No doubt, opting out of partnered play eliminates the potential risks of said partnered play. Mainly, STIs or unwanted pregnancy.
But remember: There are ways to greatly lower those risks. This includes:
- birth control
- only having sex with partners you feel safe with
Are there downsides of not having solo or partnered play?
For starters, you miss out on the opportunity to reap the pleasure and health benefits of orgasm, like:
- reduced stress
- improved sleep quality
- reduced risk of prostate cancer
- feelings of confidence and joy
Sexual activities are also good for the pelvic floor. (P.S. people of all sexes have a pelvic floor).
“Orgasming causes the pelvic floor to contract, which can help it stay strong as you age,” Ross explains. “Sex also brings blood flow to the genitals, which helps nourish the genital tissues.”
Plus, the more you engage in consensual sexual activities, the more the body craves it (shoutout hormones). So not engaging in sexual activity could lead to a dip in libido.
If you’re experiencing any of the below physical changes, consult a healthcare provider:
- changes in genital or anal look or odor
- spotting when you aren’t menstruating, or other unusual bleeding
- soreness, pain, or discomfort that lasts longer than 3 days
- you suspect you may be pregnant
- your sex partner has a known STI, or you don’t know their STI status
And, if you’re experiencing any of the below emotions, you might seek out a sex-positive therapist or sex therapist:
Whether it’s having sex, driving a car, or roller-skating, almost everything we do has potential risks and potential positives.
With sexual activities — so long as you’re planning ahead, making a risk-aware decision, and doing it with someone you feel safe with — the intimacy and pleasure benefits can far outweigh the potential side effects.
Gabrielle Kassel (she/her) is a queer sex educator and wellness journalist who is committed to helping people feel the best they can in their bodies. In addition to Healthline, her work has appeared in publications such as Shape, Cosmopolitan, Well+Good, Health, Self, Women’s Health, Greatist, and more! In her free time, Gabrielle can be found coaching CrossFit, reviewing pleasure products, hiking with her border collie, or recording episodes of the podcast she co-hosts called Bad In Bed. Follow her on Instagram @Gabriellekassel.