I‘ll never forget the guilt I felt when I told my partners I wasn’t interested in anything penetrative and when I asked them to stop. The words would come out like an apology, sorry and quiet and reluctant. Phrases like, “They won’t want to date you” and “You disappointed them” would flood my mind. For a moment, I would debate saying, “Never mind, it’s fine, you can go inside me again” to quiet those anxiety-inducing thoughts. But the sharp pain would be too much.
I have vaginismus, a condition where the vagina involuntarily contracts, making penetration painful and seemingly impossible. Even tampons freak me out, though I wish I could wear them instead of pads.
When I’ve said “no” to my partners, I know, logically, I’d be “allowed” to even if I didn’t have vaginismus. But emotionally? That’s much more complicated. I’m a sexual assault survivor. I’ve felt like my boundaries don’t matter or won’t be respected anyway, and the societal idea that women “owe” people sex certainly doesn’t help.
Thankfully, my current girlfriend is understanding of my condition, and we enjoy sex in other ways (more on that later). But if I ever date someone else, I worry they won’t be so cool about vaginismus. I wonder about this most often with men, because I feel like penetrative sex is more important to them. And when I dated men in the past, they were quick to go inside me over something else, like playing with my clit. Was that because they couldn’t find my clit? Or was it because they wanted to penetrate me? I guess I‘ll never know.
The thought of saying “no” to a future partner brings one particular fear to mind: them looking away, annoyed, groaning and ready to give up on me. As someone who’s intensely afraid of not being liked or of being abandoned, this would be too much for me to handle. I‘ve repeatedly brought up this topic in therapy, trying to figure out what’s “wrong” with me and how I can “fix” myself. I can’t live this way forever, and I‘m scared the reaction I picture is the one I‘ll always get.
If my girlfriend and I break up, will I ever be loved again?
With all these looming fears, I have to correct my thoughts and work on changing my perspective consistently. I remind myself that I don’t owe anyone any type of sex. Sometimes I struggle to believe this, but I know it’s true. It’s what I‘d tell a friend, so why can’t I say it to myself? Plus, any partner who isn’t understanding of my situation or who tries to guilt me into doing more isn’t my person. Point-blank, period.
I remind myself I‘m not alone, and I don’t necessarily have to suffer forever. “Vaginismus is something many folks with vaginas have [or] have had, and still go on to enjoy pleasurable sex,”Elle Chase, CSE, ACS, a certified sexuality educator told me. “Vaginismus is highly treatable — according to one study, about 90 percent of vaginismus cases are resolved.”
This condition isn’t my fault, either. “You haven’t done anything wrong. You are not broken, you simply have a body, and bodies can be challenging for most people in some way or another,” Chase added.
On the physical side, just because penetrative activities are painful doesn’t mean sex is off the table for me. I‘m a huge fan of clitoral stimulation. I‘m almost always down for being touched there or using my girlfriend’s rainbow vibrator, which is something both she and I can take pleasure in. Despite what our culture tells us, penetrative sex isn’t the be-all-end-all of sex by any means.
I recently learned about sensate focus practices, too, which have been a great way to increase intimacy in my relationship. Sensate focus entails five steps: one-at-a-time non-genital touching, one-at-a-time genital and breast touching, adding lotion, mutual touching and genital rubbing (or partial penetration, if you’re up for it). When I tried it with my girlfriend, we both enjoyed it more than we expected. We loved how close it made us feel, both emotionally and physically. It was a way of showing each other love, care and appreciation that honestly felt like an emotional orgasm. The night ended in a more intense physical orgasm, too, because of all that foreplay. Just saying.
More long-term, a sex therapist can help with the psychological side of vaginismus. I haven’t tried it yet — not in this economy! — but I think it’s a great option for people who are financially able and interested. “Barring a physical reason, I definitely recommend seeing a sex therapist to look at [any] underlying psychological basis for the vaginismus,” Chase recommended. “A therapist may ask you to try using dilators very slowly to let your vagina and your mind get used to penetration.” She said a pelvic floor therapist can help with the dilation or other physical exercises.
But you don’t have to try to “fix” your vaginismus if you don’t want to. I’m not hyped about doing it, personally. “In the meantime, having other kinds of sex that don’t include penetration, like hand or oral sex, masturbation (mutual or solo) and sex with a toy, like a vibrator on the clit and around the vulva, is a wonderful way to experience pleasure,” Chase said.
So if the day comes when I find myself dating someone else, these are the truths I intend to hold close: My worth doesn’t come from my vagina or sex. The question isn’t whether I should try to change myself or how to make penetration work for me, but why we see that as the golden standard in the first place. I‘m trying to stay confident about finding a partner who feels the same way, if it comes down to it. And if I don’t? I’ll embrace the single life (and a vibrator).