Language note: This article is a personal story about one cisgender woman’s experience of vaginismus and her advice based on these experiences. It is written in the style of a personal address, aimed at people with vulvas who are also experiencing vaginismus. It is genital specific however it most certainly is NOT gender specific! We would like to acknowledge that not everyone with this general demonstration of physiology uses the word “vulva” or the word “vagina” and that not all vulvas or vaginas or bodies look the same or function in the same way. It is our intention to be mindful and inclusive of trans, non-binary, gender-expansive, gender non-conforming, and intersex experiences. We hope that you find this article informative, and if you have any feedback please feel free to email the editor at email@example.com
When your mind and body don’t connect during sex, it can be a frustrating and upsetting experience. I spent most of my twenties enduring painful or impossibly difficult penetrative sex and I could not understand it. No one was talking about painful sex, and it always looked so easy on TV. Everyone I spoke to seemed to be having pleasurable sex but I was just always in pain. I felt broken and embarrassed about it for years. I hid my difficulties for a long time as I felt ashamed of my body for not functioning the way I thought it was supposed to.
At age twenty-nine, I discovered I had Vaginismus, a condition whereby the vaginal muscles involuntarily tighten when any form of penetration is attempted. This can be during penetrative vaginal intercourse (with a penis, strap on, or fingers, etc.), inserting a tampon, or during a smear test and certain other medical exams, to name just a few examples. It is an automatic, physical reaction to penetration. It can be caused by fear, anxiety, bad or traumatic sexual experiences, tight muscles or a combination of all these things. Our brain is our most powerful sex organ so wherever your mind goes, your body will likely follow.
Sexual pleasure is a fundamental part of human existence. Prioritising your sexual health is a form of self-care and having vaginismus does not mean you are broken, it means your body perceives penetration as a threat and your muscles tighten to protect it. If anything, it means your body works.
Recommendations for People Experiencing Vaginismus
If you’re constantly experiencing pain whilst penetration is attempted, it is worth speaking about this with a doctor. If talking to your GP doesn’t feel like the right option for you, you can head to your local sexual health or family planning clinic. Here experienced teams of medical professionals can help you find treatment, whether that is working with dilators, psychosexual therapy, or a combination of options.
You don’t need to go through this alone. There are options for support and if it feels helpful you can connect with other people who have Vaginismus. It can really help to speak to someone else who is able to understand what you are going through. There are so many wonderful online communities, like the amazing The Vaginismus Network, that offer somewhere to start.
Learn About Your Body
Editor’s Note: The following advice to look at and learn about the anatomy of your body may not be appropriate for those who experience dysphoria. If this is your experience, this list of resources from The Terrence Higgins Trust has links to services offering support and advice that you may find helpful.
If you feel able to do this without creating discomfort or exacerbating any existing dysphoria, you could educate yourself on your anatomy. Being able to identify parts of your genitalia will likely help you understand more of your body’s function. Similarly, if this does not cause you harm or elicit too much distress, you could spend some time looking at your naked body in the mirror. This may help you normalise looking at your vulva, shifting your relationship with this part of your body in a more compassionate and understanding direction. Notice what thoughts come up when you look at your body, and try to create a positive mental narrative. Rather than focusing on what you don’t like, or what your body can’t do, focus on things you like about yourself and what capabilities for pleasure and joy you know you have.
Working With Dilators
Vaginal dilators are an instrument that looks like straight shaped dildos with a base and come in a set of various sizes (both width and length). Dilators can be used to help you get used to penetration at your own pace, if penetration is something important to you. Usually, you start with the smallest dilator. Once you are able to keep it inside for a minute or two, without experiencing any pain, it’s a sign your pelvic floor muscles are completely relaxed and you can go up to the next size, if you wish.
Before you use your dilators, I would suggest creating a calm environment, such as lighting candles and putting on soothing music. Prior to inserting the dilator, practise saying positive affirmations about penetration and your body, and add plenty of lube to the dilator. Keep a pleasure diary and write down what happened during each session. You can reflect and take note of what works for you and what doesn’t.
Love Yourself – Literally!
Solo play is a great way to explore your body and find out what you enjoy. Focus on your many erogenous zones, to find pleasure in parts of your body other than your genitals. Keep playing and having fun. If you feel you would like to try sex toys, you could talk to a sex toys retailer online or in person. They may be able to assist you in finding the right product, whether you are starting to work with dilators or looking for external pleasure pieces. The Ruby Glow is a great non-penetrative toy, with a unique hands-free design that can also be a supportive option for those who experience reduced mobility, weakness or pain. Check out this article on more non-gendered sex toys for some other recommended gadgets.
Language Note: The website linked above for The Ruby Glow, though endorsed as a product by the author, contains language around bodies and experiences that is limited in how it addresses gender beyond binary conceptions. We would like to inform our intersex, trans, non-binary, and gender-expansive readers in advance of visiting the site.
No Need To Be Sexual
Honour your self-care needs and participate in activities that relax you. Spend quality time with yourself; have a long bath, meditate or watch a feel-good film. Engage with your senses to expand your pleasure potential. Pleasure should not be restricted to sex.
If yoga is something you enjoy, you can bring some simple pelvic floor work to your practice. For instance, child’s pose, a yogi squat and a happy baby pose a few times a week could help relax your pelvic floor muscles.
Focus On The Journey
Try not to worry about the end goal, and focus on the journey of getting to know your body. You may even discover, or know already, that penetration is not the goal at all. There are so many other beautiful and exciting ways to enjoy sex and physical pleasure, from intimate sensual massages to playing with toys to tantric breathwork. You may also want to explore anal play, whether penetrative or external or both! Some people with vaginismus will find that their pelvic floor muscles also cause tightness in this area, whereas others find that they enjoy penetrative anal sex. It’s important to note that if you are not interested in any kind of penetration, that is completely wonderful. Your body is yours, and there are so many ways to have sex and experience pleasure and connection without the need for penetration.
Whatever journey you are on, always go at your own pace. Tell yourself every day that you are a sexual being and deserve all the pleasure – because you do!
Psychosexual therapy can be a helpful tool in coming to terms with or even working through Vaginismus. A good psychosexual therapist offers a space for you to investigate why you may be experiencing issues around sex, from painful sex to low libido, as well as how these experiences make you feel. In sessions, you can explore topics in an open and productive way, speaking without fear of judgement, ridicule or the fear of not being heard. With support from psychosexual therapy, I have finally developed a positive sense of my sexual self. For me, penetration is now pleasurable and no longer painful.
After suffering in silence for ten years and telling myself I’m not worthy of pleasure, it feels liberating to attend a KK party, something I thought I would never participate in as a long-term Vaginismus sufferer. My experiences have taught me that overcoming Vaginismus is possible for some of us, if that is something you want for yourself and your body! The most important thing is to explore and understand your body, your sex life and your sexuality with compassion and curiosity. And remember to not hold yourself to anyone else’s standards.