What happens when your partner enjoys penetrative sex but it’s causing you physical pain?
We’re here to tell you that your sex life is not over when you have vaginismus. In fact, it’s just the beginning. Here is how to navigate both your relationships and sex life.
Penetrative intercourse. The so-called ‘ultimate’ part of sex. The main meal, the starring act. That’s not so great when you have vaginismus
Despite this idea of sex being absolute BS, the heteronormative standards of society have taught us to believe that this is what sex is.
So what happens when you can’t have this type of sex? Well, if you struggle to insert anything into your vagina, whether it be a tampon, dildo or penis, you may have something called vaginismus.
One of the biggest problems people face when they have this condition is that it makes it anywhere from difficult to impossible for vaginal intercourse.
This type of issue can be a tricky one, affecting your mental health, confidence and potentially, ability to be vulnerable with someone.
How do you navigate the world of dating with vaginismus? Or work with your partner to pleasure each other in different ways?
What is Vaginismus?
Vaginismus is a form of pelvic floor dysfunction that causes the muscles to involuntarily contract when vaginal penetration is attempted.
“It can feel as though there is a wall blocking the entrance, which can be very worrying and confusing as this is totally outside of your control” said sex hypnotherapist, Helen Birch.
“It’s a condition that causes vaginal muscle contraction and can happen to anyone with a vagina, at any point in their lifetime.”
7% of women are affected by Vaginismus but it is considered to be very under-reported because of the stigma surrounding it.
Things such as trauma, childbirth, surgery or menopause can cause it without any previous symptoms (secondary Vaginismus) but most people suffer from Vaginismus from puberty (primary vaginismus).
While the condition is treatable, it can take some people more time than others to fully recover. In the meantime, they can often lose confidence within both themselves and their relationships.
Vaginismus can happen to anyone
Vaginismus is often seen as an issue solely for straight women, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. People of all sexualities and along the gender spectrum can experience this condition.
For many trans or non-binary people, medical appointments often make vaginismus.
“They dread the examination not only because they fear the pain, but because of the emotional distress and any negative feelings around the vagina and vulva can be a factor,” said Helen Birch. “Many also feel a sense of disconnect between their vulva and the rest of their body that causes physical pain.”
Additionally, trans women who have undergone bottom surgery, dilation therapy is suggested to maintain the anatomy. This can cause vaginismus because of physical trauma or surgery or the painful insertion of dilators which might trigger a pain cycle.
How it affects relationships
“A lot of people with vaginismus are very afraid of being in a relationship and things progressing to a sexual point because they don’t know how to have the conversation,” said trauma professional and sex educator, Laura Zam. “They think that if somebody finds out they will be rejected.”
“This is not indicative of any kind of defect or person being broken in any way. This is just something that’s going on medically and you should educate a potential partner.”
Nora Broom, a photographer and vaginismus advocate, found it difficult to date. In fact, most of the time, she’d sabotage the relationship before even giving them a chance, because she didn’t want to address the problem.
“We tried to have intercourse because I thought I had to, otherwise the guy would walk away. I really thought that this is a must in a relationship.” she said. “I acted very strange after the third or fourth date so that the person said okay, ‘I don’t want to meet you anymore’, because I thought soon, it will be a discussion about sex. So I tried to avoid it before it even started.”
“I should have definitely talked to them about it on the first or second date. About us, about bodies, about pain, about everything. I’ve started to do that with guys and none of them are shocked. They just say,’ Wow, thanks for talking so openly. That’s cool.’”
Nora had been suffering from vaginismus since she was young, but doctors did not diagnose her until she turned 26. However, at the age of 33, she has now fully recovered.
“I never went swimming with my friends because when I had my period, I couldn’t insert a tampon,” Nora explained. “I didn’t talk to anybody, not even to my mother, so nobody knew about it, except the doctors.
“My self esteem was very low. I was just like, ‘Oh, you’re not even able to have sex. Not even able to insert a tampon. So who are you?’ My metal health was greatly affected.
“How could these guys have fun being with me? When you are together with someone who has no self esteem, who is just here to have pain, why would you want to spend time with me?”
Jaen Wilson, a relationship coach who developed secondary vaginismus in 2020, also found that her condition significantly knocked her confidence.
“It affected my entire identity and it made me re-evaluate a lot of things about myself and my connection to my relationship with my sex life, specifically.
“I was a pretty sexually confident woman and sex positive person; I still am. And then suddenly this one thing that I had, I just can’t do. I thought, ‘I can’t do that then who am I? And what can I even bring to a relationship if this is not possible?’
“I felt slightly broken in a way. It helped to my friends talking about sex and just thinking, I’m nothing like that anymore. I can’t even connect to what that is.”
Jaen had recurring (what she called) ‘cockshock’ multiple times, before officially learning that she had vaginismus.
Describing the feeling of intercourse as a ‘brick wall’, Jaen had to navigate her newly diagnosed condition with her long term partner of two years, and now fiance.
Working through Vaginismus with a partner
“We had to have a lot of conversations about both of our self-worth,” she said. “I reassured him that he’s not doing anything wrong and was not turned off by him, which is a difficult conversation.
“It really did open up both of our worlds, into all the other stuff that you can do. We actually needed to get creative. It broadened both of our minds and there’s always heaps that we can do.”
It also helped to express love in other ways and take sex down a peg.
“We’ve had a lot of talks,” she explained. “And it really helped our communication masses because we could no longer just use our bodies to express something. So, we really learned together.
“I think sex is given a lot of weight, maybe too much importance. Like, if you can’t do this then it is all over, but that’s just not true.”
People often perceive penetration as the expected or primary form of sexual activity that should happen every time one wants to engage in intimacy, but this belief should be challenged.
“We think about sex as an appetiser and a main dish,” said Laura. “The appetiser is, what we call, foreplay and the main dish is intercourse. The appetiser, in this case, is meant to get someone warmed up for somebody else’s main act, that might please only one person. How does that make sense?”
How to help Vaginismus
“Get to know your own body. What brings you pleasure uniquely? That’s a lifelong thing. It’s not like you’re going to figure it out a hundred percent, but at least you get more of an idea. Then maybe you’ll understand self pleasure.
“Try and keep a regular practice going solo to understand more and more because once a partner comes into the room, it’s very hard to pay attention to your own pleasure.”.
“I think a person could take control of the situation and say, ‘Here’s what I can do and this, here’s what I can’t, or here’s what I want to do,’” said Laura.
“That can be terrifying for some people, to be really participatory in crafting a love making session with full agency. Not having to apologise. But say, ‘Okay. Well, here’s the deal. I’m going through this thing, here’s what I like doing.’ Not just ‘what I can do for you’ but let’s see if we can put together these activities for mutual pleasure.”
Pelvic floor exercises, therapy, using dilators (vaginal trainers), and even relaxation techniques are all ways which can help you cure vaginismus.
This condition is often seen as a burden for the partner with a penis, rather than the person who is actually experiencing the condition.
“I think that that framework is flawed, and not really looking at the totality of a person’s sexual experience or the potential for somebody’s sexual development.” said Laura. “If somebody thinks, ‘let me get my vagina to work, so this guy doesn’t leave me. He’s got to put his penis somewhere.’ That’s wrong.
“We could do a much better job of helping people to rehabilitate those muscles and reclaim their own sexual pleasure.”
This is a treatable condition, so don’t despair if you’re experiencing vaginismus at the minute.
But the moral of the story here is to enjoy sex however you want to do it.
Whether it be on your own or with partners, the way that you receive pleasure should never be considered ‘just the appetiser’.
Edited by Yoan Shterev