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Navigating Sexuality with Vaginismus

Updated: Jun 29, 2021

A woman lying in bed in pain

How to deal with pain during sex

When I first started experiencing extreme pain and difficulty with any kind of penetration, I was very quick to blame myself. Why couldn't I just relax? Since it had been possible before, it was obviously something that I was doing, or thinking that was the issue. It wasn't until later, after I had found out that my condition had a name, and that many people with vaginas also experienced this exact same thing that it became clear that I hadn't created this issue in my head!

I had vaginismus.

Before we go any further - let's discuss the basics!

What is vaginismus?

Vaginismus is a medical condition where involuntary muscle spasms interfere with vaginal penetration, or PIV sex. It can range from a complete inability to penetrate the vagina, to experiencing pain when doing so. The overarching symptom is an inability to experience penetration without pain. It's your body's automatic reaction to the fear of some, or all types of vaginal penetration.

Types of vaginismus

Different people will experience different symptoms and situations where vaginismus occurs, this is because there are different subtypes of vaginismus and reasons why they occur.

Primary Vaginismus

People with this condition may have always experienced pain and discomfort when inserting something or touching the vagina. It may be noticed during the first time inserting a tampon or when you first have penetrative sex.

Secondary Vaginismus

People with secondary vaginismus will have developed pain at a certain point in their life and would have had no serious pain before. It may be caused by a specific event, medical condition, trauma, childbirth or other issues.

Global Vaginismus

This condition means that pain is always present and any activity, object or experience that is around or inside the vagina will trigger it.

Situational Vaginismus

Those with situational vaginismus may only experience pain during certain situations. Pain might arise during sex but not while putting in a tampon.

If you'd like to read more on these conditions, click here.

The triggers for vaginismus can come from both emotional and physical experiences and will be personal to your body, but there are no invalid or imaginary reasons. If you experience pain, it is valid, no matter what triggers it.

Why do we experience it?

There are many different recognised causes for vaginismus and painful sex, and many more potential causes beyond that. Reasons or causes range from previous sexual assault, previous painful intercourse, shame or fear surrounding penetrative activities (including those from a conservative or religious upbringing), and unpleasant medical examinations.

The triggers for vaginismus can come from both emotional and physical experiences and will be personal to your body, but there are no invalid or imaginary reasons. If you experience pain, it is valid, no matter what triggers it.

It is important to note that you can experience vaginismus even if you have previously had no problem with intercourse or penetration, and it doesn't mean that you can't get aroused or enjoy other types of sexual contact!

My personal experiences

For a long time, I was reluctant to talk about my condition. As someone who was happy to talk about sexuality, feminism, and frequented fetish clubs with my friends, people generally assumed that my sex life was a lot more adventurous than it was. I also work part time as a performance artist at parties that promote acceptance, open sexuality, and exploration - to explain that exploring my own sexuality, and accepting myself involved severely limiting my sexual activity, and being extremely picky about partners felt like I was somehow being untruthful with my audience, my friends, and my fans. Beyond that, I felt like potential partners would find my personal limitations a turn off, or a deal breaker.

Living in a very sexually liberated, and open city like Berlin, I felt like I had to either hide who I "really" was, or simply allow people to continue making assumptions about my relationship to sexuality - otherwise, how could I claim to be someone sex-positive, and emancipated? I am lucky enough to have an amazing gynaecologist. She was the first one to talk to me about my condition like it was completely normal, rather than an embarrassing secret that I needed to hide. I will admit that she was probably way more chill about it than me! She launched into a 15 minute talk about all of the things that I could try, from dilators, to special kinds of lube, and masturbation in the bathtub! All of these suggestions are good ones, and I'll go over some of them in more detail in a different section.

Let's take a look at some of the most pressing questions about day to day life with vaginismus!

How do I talk about pain during sex with my partner(s)?

This can be such a difficult topic to broach, made no easier by the fact that vaginismus is not a condition that is talked about often in mainstream sex education, or even sexual empowerment movements! The important thing to remember is that your partner cares about you (at least, they should!) and that even though a lot of people experience feelings of shame around this, it is actually nothing to be ashamed about.

Before you speak to your partner about it, sit down by yourself first, and figure out what points about it are important for you to convey, and for your partner to understand. If you know the root cause of your condition, is that something you would like to share with your partner to help them to understand where it comes from? Explain to them how this condition feels, and what it prevents you from doing. Let them know what your goals are in treating it (if you have any), and highlight activities that you do enjoy instead! Remember that sex and intimacy are so much more than just penetration, and there are a whole host of other fun, sexy activities that you can engage in that don't involve it. It may be that your partner experiences some feelings of concern or discomfort, usually due to worrying that they have been the cause of this condition in some way, so be ready to reassure them, and offer to answer any questions that they might have - as long as you feel comfortable answering them.

A partner who cares about you might be a little confused about the topic, but have confidence in the fact that you, your comfort, and your pleasure are a priority for them! If they aren't, then that's a good sign that they aren't the right partner for you, vaginismus or not.

What options are available for me, if I want to overcome vaginismus, or improve it?

Luckily there are quite a few options that are available to help you if you decide that penetration is something you'd like to achieve! An important step (if you are able to do so) is to find a gynaecologist who knows about the condition, and is able to support you in your efforts, as well as ruling out the possibility that it is caused by something physical like an infection. As always, taking care of your health is #1!

Psychotherapy/Talk therapy

One really good option that can help, even in addition to several others, is therapy. Speaking with a counsellor, therapist, or psychologist can help work through the underlying issues that might be present regarding your feelings towards your body and sex. Cognitive behavioural therapy is a popular option, done in parallel with other treatment options. If the cause of your vaginismus is due to prior sexual assault, or other sexual situations, it's important to find a therapist who specialises in this, so they have the kind of expertise that is necessary to help you with this kind of trauma.

Pelvic floor exercises & therapy

Your pelvic floor muscles are the same ones that you use to stop the flow when you are peeing. Learning how to clench and relax these muscles can contribute to overall better control of your muscles, and can help with the ability to relax them when they clench involuntarily.

Pelvic floor training and exercises can be really beneficial, but it's important to work with a profession such as a gynaecologist or pelvic floor therapist as the exercises can be performed incorrectly, which can cause damage.

Strengthening them have all kinds of other benefits as well, stronger pelvic floor can also lead to higher sensitivity and stronger orgasms! Sounds like a win to me! These are great paired up with the next option - using mindfulness exercises to tune into your body.

Mindfulness/relaxation exercises

Using mindfulness, meditation, and relaxation techniques helps us learn to tune out the world around us, and focus entirely on our own bodies and minds. These things are particularly helpful when we are trying to focus on relaxing physically - anxiety and stress are often factors of vaginismus. Often we don't notice aspects of ourselves, due to them being instinctive, or innate. Sitting down and focusing entirely on how our body feels, what our mind is doing, and how the two are connected are key to learning about yourself, and how your condition manifests. There are some really good online guided mediation options - and if you're not the "spiritual" type - don't worry! There are plenty of great ones out there that don't include a spiritual facet.

Vaginal dilators

Sexy name, I know. Vaginal dilators are basically a set of dildos specifically designed to help with this issue. They come in a set, and start out very small. This way you can work on penetration in a way that suits your current ability, and move on as you feel more comfortable. Even though this is technically a "treatment option", there is no reason why it can't be sexy, or fun - ideally it should be both! Remember to use a lot of lubricant, especially if you're experiencing anxiety around these exercises, as the body sometimes cannot lubricate itself properly when you're feeling those things. You can also feel free to involve your partner in this, if you like! Whether they're just present, kissing you, or doing other things that you find sexy or relaxing, or if they're the one helping with the dilator itself!

Is there a "cure" for vaginismus?

I am reluctant to use the word "cure" here, because what that means depends on the person experiencing vaginismus. Having vaginismus does not mean you are broken, that there is something wrong with you, or that you can't enjoy intimacy or sex! What a cure looks like depends entirely on the goal you have in mind. Some people with vaginismus don't want to attempt penetration at all, and are perfectly happy with other intimate activities - which is great! Others would like to be able to use fingers, or toys, but aren't interested in being penetrated by a partner - also fine! Whatever your goal is, it is a valid one. The most important facet of having vaginismus, is de-stigmatizing the condition, enhancing awareness about it among others, and moving forward with a feeling of confidence - whatever that may look like for them!

Vaginismus Support and Resources

If you are struggling with vaginismus, you're not alone. A huge number of people experience vaginismus and there is a very high success rate of treatment. If you'd like to find more vaginismus support, resources and community, here are some great pages that can help you further.

Instagram - thevagnetwork

Instagram - vaginismuswho

If you would like to increase your pleasure and understand how to stimulate yourself mentally and physically, while acknowledging the potential reasons you may not be experiencing pleasure, check out our Vulva Pleasure Workshop here.

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