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Answers to the question “What does sex feel like?” range from poetic and adjective laden to nondescript and boring.
All of them, however, leave the asker wanting more. And that’s exactly why we put together this comprehensive guide.
Raise your hand if you were taught that sex = penis-in-vagina penetration.
Given that research has shown that 97.4 percent of people define sex as penile-vaginal intercourse, odds are your hand is up.
Here’s the thing: This definition is wildly incomplete.
Yes, P-in-V can qualify as sex. But so can oral sex, hand sex, anal sex, solo sex, outercourse, and kissing!
“Sex is anything that feels like sex: an extremely intimate, vulnerable, powerful exchange of pleasure and bodily exploration,” says somatic sex expert Kiana Reeves, director of community education for Foria, a company that creates products intended to reduce pain and increase pleasure during sex.
Emotionally, physically, spiritually, and mentally, “sex feels really different depending on who you are, who your partner is, what their body is like, the acts you try, and so much more,” Reeves says.
Beyond just changing person to person, what sex feels like can change for one person day to day based on things like:
- current hydration level
- recent food and alcohol intake
- current stress level
- overall fitness level and recent activity level
- access to contraceptives and barrier methods
- current health status
Physically, “you might feel your nipples, clit, or penis swell and become larger and harder,” says certified sex therapist Casey Tanner, MA, LCPC, expert for LELO, a luxury pleasure product company.
“You may also experience increased sensitivity to touch on your erogenous zones, including your genitals, inner thigh, ear, armpits, lips, and feet,” Tanner says.
And, due to shifts in blood flow, you might feel yourself getting warm or flush. You may even get a bit red and splotchy on your chest, neck, or face.
“Larger muscles such as your butt, thighs, and hips might tense or spasm and you may notice an increased breath and heart rate,” Tanner adds.
Emotionally, you might feel vulnerable, underwhelmed, excited, good, soft, or open, just to name a few.
“There are an infinite amount of adjectives that might be used to describe how sex feels,” Tanner says.
If you remember one thing from this article, make it this: Unless pain is a sensation you and your partner(s) are actively seeking during sex, sex should N-O-T be painful.
“Sometimes sex feels painful because there isn’t enough lubrication, and fixing the pain is as simple as adding store-bought lubricant,” Reeves says.
Other times the pain is muscular and could be fixed by switching positions or adding in a positioning prop.
“But sometimes the painful sex is indicative of a condition that requires psychological or medical treatment,” Tanner says.
Here, an expert is in order.
“No partner should be asking you to push through pain in order to have sex, and you have the right to advocate for painless sex,” Tanner says.
And this holds true the first time you have sex and every time after that.
Solo sex can feel like so many different things, depending on sexual preference, anatomy, abilities, and more.
Samuel, 25, a gay cisgender man, says, “I stroke my penis up and down really fast with lube, lotion, or spit when I jack off… and it basically feels like a release of pent-up energy.”
After masturbating, he feels “a sense of calm,” “more focused,” and “slightly less agitated.”
Amanda*, 34, a self-identified “new to the wheelchair neurodivergent lesbian dyke,” says that, for her, solo sex is less about how it feels physically and more about the stress relief that comes from climax.
“Does it feel physically good during vibrator use? Sure does!” she says. “But for me it’s more about the sensation of stress leaving my body.”
And Kolby, 42, a non-op trans man who usually wears a butt plug and straps on a dildo and stokes it up and down during solo sex, says, “When I make solo sex a full evening of pleasure, it feels like I’m writing a love note to my body.”
As you might guess, kissing feels different from sensual massage, which feels different from grinding, which feels different from oral, which feels different from anal, and so forth.
Mary Margaret, 34, a pansexual woman, recently had a makeout session that she describes as sex.
“We stood outside the door of my apartment and made out for over 30 minutes,” she says. “It was HOT. We were desperate for each other. We kept looking into each other’s eyes and gyrating our hips. We kept all our clothes on and didn’t really use our hands. But it was FOR SURE SEX because of how intimate and spicy it was.”
Angelica, 43, a postop trans woman who recently had anal sex with her partner, describes it as “a warm and comfortable feeling of fullness followed by a wet gush.”
And Charlie, 21, a nonbinary vulva owner who recently scissored with their vulva-owning partner, says “it felt wet and friction-y and intimate.”
It could feel like so many different things!
In a Quora post, Jane, a cisgender woman and “experienced group sex haver,” wrote that group sex feels “excit[ing], exhausting, pleasur[able], satiat[ing], tiring, sweaty, and explainable.”
Zander*, 39, a bisexual cisgender man who “has had more threesomes than [he] can count,” says, “They feel like an immersion in desire. They feel naughty. They feel like giving into my most animalistic desires, and loving it.”
And Sarah*, 27, a bisexual woman who’s a regular sex party attendee and has had many orgies, says, “Group play doesn’t feel like one thing. It varies based on who else is there. I’ve had group sex that’s kinky and wild, and group play that’s tantric and deeply connected.”
Whether you’re having solo, partnered, or multipartnered sex, and whether you’ve had sex zero, 100, or 100 thousand times, these tips will come (wink) through for you.
Forget any myths you may have learned
“So often the barriers to pleasurable sex aren’t lack of skills, toys, or attractiveness,” Tanner says. “More than likely, it’s that we’re buying into myths about what we’re allowed to want and need during sex.”
This is especially true for cisgender women and other folks assigned female at birth. Here, Tanner says, having more pleasurable sex means “getting more comfortable with taking up space, asking for what you want, and saying no to what you don’t want.”
To get more comfortable asking for those things in the bedroom, they recommend starting *out* of the bedroom.
Want your partner(s) to put their phone away at the dinner table? Ask. Need your boo to help out with the laundry more? Tell ’em. Wish your lover gave you more words of affirmation? Request it!
“Many of us are taught that when we have partnered and multipartnered sex, that our pleasure is our partners’ responsibility,” Reeves says. It’s not!
“I encourage people to build a pleasure practice with themselves to learn what they like without the presence or performance pressure that can come from having another partner in the bedroom,” she says.
“Then, they can take that knowledge to create more pleasurable sexual experiences for themselves,” Reeves says.
Her recommendation: Spend at least an hour a week learning the land of your body.
PSA: You aren’t going to look like a porn performer while you get it on.
Porn performers, after all, are actors. Expecting your sex life to look like a porn performance would be like expecting an IRL surgery to look the way it does on “The ER.”
“When [we] perform in the bedroom, we end up in our heads thinking about how we’re performing, rather than in our bodies actually experiencing pleasure,” Tanner says.
“Thus, to have a more pleasurable sex life, we must challenge the myths of how we’re supposed to look in the bedroom.”
Use your words
“Ask for exactly what you want,” says erotic educator Taylor Sparks, founder of Organic Loven, one of the largest BIPOC-owned online intimacy shops.
“Most partners want to please their beloved and want to know if something isn’t working so they can bring you more pleasure,” Sparks explains.
Some ways to express what you want in the moment:
- “That feels so good!”
- “Can you do the thing with your tongue you were doing a minute ago? That felt so good.”
- “A little to the left.”
- “Can you add in a finger?”
- “A little slower…”
Communicate nonverbally, too
In addition to using your words, use your hands, hips, and legs to tell your partner what feels good!
For example, if you like the rhythm of their hips, wrap your legs around them. If you need more pressure, thread your fingers through their hair and pull them closer.
And if you don’t like what they’re doing, tilt your hips away.
Nonverbal communication can be easily misread, so it in and of itself usually isn’t enough — but when combined with verbal cues, it’s 100 percent effective.
No matter what you’re sexperimenting with, it can be helpful to think — or in the case of partnered play, talk — through e-x-a-c-t-l-y what you’re going to do.
This can help you figure out what props, tools, and barrier methods you need to put the plan into action. Plus, it’ll help manage expectations for all involved.
Finally, have at it! Communicate verbally and nonverbally, adapt or stop as needed, and have fun along the way.
Be it with yourself or someone(s) else, every time you have sex you’re learning more information about yourself, your desires, and your body.
And that’s true whether you like what you just tried or not!
If you tried something and didn’t like it, ask yourself:
- What about that did I not enjoy?
- Were there any moments during that that I did enjoy?
- What would have to change in order for me to enjoy it?
- Is this something I think could feel more pleasurable with practice? Am I interested in practicing it?
Again, “pain is your body’s way of telling you that something isn’t right,” Tanner says.
If what you’re experiencing is rawness, chafing, or friction, try adding lube.
But “if you’re experiencing something more chronic, it’s best to work with a skilled practitioner,” Reeves says.
- a hands-on sexological bodyworker
- somatic practitioner
- pelvic floor therapist
From podcasts and YouTube vids to books and articles, there are ways to boost your sex IQ no matter your preferred medium.
On your marks, get set, learn!
Books available for purchase:
- Girl Sex 101 written by Allison Moon and illustrated by kd diamond
- Come As You Are: The Surprising New Science That Will Transform Your Sex Life by Emily Nagoski, PhD
- Urban Tantra: Sacred Sex for the Twenty-First Century by Barbara Carrellas
Related Healthline articles:
- LGBTQIA Safer Sex Guide by Mere Abrams, LCSW, and Gabrielle Kassel
- How to Use a Vibrator Solo or with a Partner by Gabrielle Kassel
- Solo Sex Is for Everyone — Here’s How to Get Started by Gabrielle Kassel
- How to Be a Better Lover — In and Out of the Bedroom by Gabrielle Kassel
*Some names have been changed at the request of the interviewee.
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.