Do you remember what age you were when you stopped settling for unfulfilling sexual experiences?
Kelly* remembers the exact moment – she was 17 and trying to have sex for the second time.
‘I had been sexually active since I was 14 but never in a relationship, so it was never particularly enjoyable,’ she recalls, ‘and I’d never felt that comfortable stopping early or saying if something wasn’t working.
‘On this occasion, the guy was quite big, and it wasn’t going in, so he was trying to do very rushed foreplay so that it would.
‘I don’t quite know what he was doing, but he was trying to go between vagina and clit, but he was doing it so rough and quickly that it was so painful.’
Kelly tried switching positions and instigating other things, but he wasn’t picking up the signals she was putting down, so she excused herself to go to the loo.
‘When I went to the bathroom, that whole area was swollen and irritated, and it burnt to pee.
‘I ended up giving myself a pep talk in the mirror, like – “why do you keep doing this? If you can’t say you’re not enjoying it or tell them what to do there’s no point having sex. You need to have some self-respect”.
‘When I went back in, I just said I was too tired and ended it there. I didn’t have sex again or even try to for almost two years and then ever since, I’ve been much better at being open about what I want or saying something if it isn’t working.
‘I’m much more focused on my pleasure and having sex for that reason as opposed to just doing it for the sake of doing it like I did when I was younger.’
According to research by over-the-counter contraceptive pill manufacturer Hana, Kelly hit this turning point four years earlier than most.
Their survey – which used a sample size of 2003 women/those who identify as women between the ages of 18 and 45 – indicates that the age when most women (28%) say they have learned to not put up with bad sex is 21.
What’s more, the following year, women are most sexually assertive with 39% of 22-year-olds saying they enjoy sex more due to being more confident in themselves.
So, what is it about hitting 21 that could be making it a sexual turning point for so many women?
Kate Moyle, LELO UK’s sex expert, explains: ’21 is around the age that a lot of people are moving from one stage of life into another – especially as many are leaving university to move into the working world.
‘With a shift in life stage potentially also comes a shift in terms of expectations and growing into our sense of what is acceptable for us or not.’
It could also be in part down to shifting attitudes to sex and pleasure over time.
Kate adds: ‘We have seen this paired with a time when sex positivity and sexual wellness are becoming a part of mainstream conversation, and where anyone can get access to information that wasn’t readily available or discussed before.
‘Especially with sex tech products and apps specifically designed at helping people to improve their sex lives and experience pleasure, it means that people can feel empowered to take more control over their sex lives and have the sex that they want.’
For anyone looking to leave bad sex in the past, Match’s dating expert, Hayley Quinn, tells us the ability to communicate ‘openly and honestly’, regardless of whether you’ve just started dating or been married 50 years, is ‘absolutely key to building and maintaining intimacy.’
She adds: ‘Good physical intimacy is something that’s co-created. Rather than women “putting up with” bad sex, it’s good for all of us to think about how we can be the initiators of good sex. Especially if you’re looking for a committed relationship, you will have to develop the ability to communicate what your preferences are.
‘None of us come with a user manual and in all areas of the relationship, you’ll need to communicate what works for you. This could be how much time you like to spend together when you feel ready to take that next step, if you’re looking for commitment, or not.
‘So often intimacy declines in a relationship because people stop talking to one another. We get distracted by the pressures of everyday life – but it’s so important that you dedicate time to converse with your partner for a healthy relationship in general, not just to avoid disappointment in the bedroom.’
*Name has been changed