Ketubot 39

Painful intercourse.

We’ve been discussing the payment awarded when a woman loses her virginity, either through rape or seduction. The first mishnah on today’s daf outlines significant legal differences between these two, and the result is a discussion about many things, including the pain of intercourse, both consensual and forced. Here is a portion of that mishnah:

The seducer gives three payments, and the rapist four. The seducer gives for humiliation, degradation, and the fine. A rapist adds to his payments, as he also gives for pain.

Whether she was assaulted or wooed, the mishnah assumes that not only has her bridal value diminished (hence the fine), but that the man who did it also owes compensation for humiliation and degradation. This is presumed whether or not she was a consensual partner. In the case of assault, he also owes for pain.

This kicks off a conversation in the Gemara about painful sex. The mishnah seems to imply that consensual sex is not painful, only assault is. But the rabbis are not sure. In fact, Rabbi Shimon ben Yehuda says in the name of Rabbi Shimon:

A rapist does not pay for the pain due to the fact that she will ultimately suffer (the same pain) under her husband.

The problem with Rabbi Shimon’s position — apart from the fact that it is based on an inaccurate assumption that rape and first-time consensual intercourse are equally painful — is that it contradicts the mishnah, which states quite clearly that the rapist does pay for pain. However, on the theory that rape is not more painful than other sex, Shmuel’s father states:

It (the payment) is for the pain caused in slamming her to the ground.

In the view of Shmuel’s father, the payment for pain compensates for elements of the attack separate from the intercourse itself, which he too seems to believe is painful, whether forced or consensual.

Rabbi Zeira, addressing himself to Shmuel’s father, objects:

But if you (Shmuel’s father) say so, if he slammed her onto silk, is he exempt from payment for pain?

Rabbi Zeira argues that even if the only painful part of the attack was the intercourse, the rapist still owes payment for the pain of the sex itself. This suggests that the pain of forced sex is different from the pain of consensual sex.

At various points in this series, we’ve noted that the rabbis often speak for women without speaking to them. Today, however, they don’t do that. At this point in the Gemara, the rabbis turn to the women in their lives and ask what we might imagine was a difficult question: Did you find your first sexual encounter painful?

Abaye said: My mother told me it is like hot water on the head of a bald man.

Rava said: Rav Hisda’s daughter (my wife) told me that it is like the stab of a bloodletting knife.

Rav Pappa said: Abba Sura’s daughter (my wife) told me that it is like the feeling of hard bread on the gums.

These women have three different (but all quite vivid) descriptions of what the first sexual encounter felt like for them, and none of them are rhapsodizing about it.

In two of these three cases, the rabbis turn to their own wives for a report about what sex with them felt like. One might have expected these women to hold back so as to appease their husbands. Or one might have expected the rabbis themselves to hold back in their report of how much pain they caused their wives. At least in the first case, with the sex between Rava and his wife, it seems no one held back: He reports that she reported an incredibly painful encounter, like the stabbing of a knife. This, in turn, leaves us to wonder: Is Rav Pappa’s wife, who likened sex to chewing on hard bread — an uncomfortable, but not terribly painful experience —  just humoring him? Or was she lucky to have a good first experience?

Taken at face value, this list makes one thing clear: Different women have different experiences of pain during initial intercourse.

Read all of Ketubot 39 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on August 14th, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

Discover More

Ketubot 23

Working the system.

Ketubot 42

Seeking female empowerment in dark corners.

Ketubot 56

Next-level intimacy.