A Dating Guide for Vaginismus
Navigating the ups and downs of dating with a vagina that insists on cramping your style requires patience, vulnerability and a measure of bravery. Our society loves to position penetrative sex as the pinnacle of pleasure, and if you have a vagina that resists this standard, it can feel like you are failing to have a fulfilling sex life.
Vaginismus, a condition characterized by the involuntary tightening of the vaginal muscles, often makes penetration during sex and pelvic exams painful or uncomfortable. It affects between 5 percent and 17 percent of women, but because many don't open up to their doctor about it, experts aren't sure exactly how common the condition is.
Dating should be the most carefree part of meeting someone—however, with a vagina literally shutting down on your sex life, it can lead to some complications. But don't worry, they're navigable.
What causes vaginismus?
While vaginismus can occur for many different reasons, including an anxiety disorder or childbirth injury, the most widely known is the body's automatic reaction to the fear of some or all types of vaginal penetration. Sometimes this is triggered by trauma, but it can also be seemingly random.
"In many cases, there is an incident in the woman's life that has made her extremely apprehensive or fearful," explained Nitu Bajekal, M.D., a consultant obstetrician and gynecologist and women's health expert. "It is a vicious cycle resulting in vaginal spasms and the vagina tightening up as the woman cannot really help herself, even though she wants to be able to have sex or cooperate for a smear test."
When fear becomes associated with penetration, the clamping of the vaginal muscles may be uncontrollable, making everything from tampon insertion to penetrative sex a challenge. "Your body can start to anticipate the pain of penetration, meaning that you will start clenching before intercourse is even attempted," said Carly Smith, a relationship expert at Condoms.UK. "This might make you stop and not want to take things further."
Though research and media coverage commonly associate vaginismus with psychological causes, there are other triggers.
"This rarely may be because of a physical cause, such as vaginal dryness, cysts or swelling at the entrance of the vagina, and can be managed medically," Bajekal added. "Conditions such as vulvodynia—chronic vulval or vaginal pain—should be ruled out, and a specialist referral to a vulval clinic is advised."
Impact on confidence and emotional well-being
As the majority of sex portrayed in mainstream media is penetrative, not being able to partake can be disheartening. And because vaginismus often strips away your sexual confidence, it can make the idea of joining the dating pool seem insurmountable.
"I had trouble overcoming worthlessness and loneliness," said Seraphina Santiago-Block, an aesthetician based in the U.K., who first started experiencing symptoms seven years ago. "Vaginismus made me feel robbed of my value. I spent a lot of time feeling ashamed and broken. The pain and embarrassment created a huge wedge between me and my then-spouse. I was isolated and alone in the journey. After two years, we divorced and I sunk into a deep depression."
Developing vaginismus is a disconcerting experience, as patients often can't comprehend the changes to their body, and if they're reluctant to share these bodily changes with a doctor, the experience can be painfully isolating. Over time, this eats away at a patient's self-esteem because they are prevented from accessing sexuality in the ways their body used to be able to.
"If the woman feels like she has no control over her muscle spasms, then, of course, over time, it will affect her sexual confidence," Smith said. "But not only that. She might also suffer emotional and mental effects too."
When fear and pleasure get tangled up, it's a complex beast to unravel. Many people want romantic and sexual connection, but doing so before the vagina is ready will only inflict additional pain. If you take the time to seek treatment, explore your body's changes and experiment with solo pleasure before trying to connect with a new partner, dating will be less intimidating.
"Now, today, I am single and celibate, but that is a personal choice for my spiritual journey," said Santiago-Block, who has found physical therapy, the use of dilators and mindfulness breathing techniques to be the most effective management tools. "I no longer feel like vaginismus took away my choice or stole my sexual identity."
Communication is key
When you're ready to dive into the dating pool, communication is everything. Staying silent about vaginismus around new partners will leave you gritting your teeth during sexual encounters.
Remember that you only have to share what you are comfortable with: Sometimes it's best to wait until you are at ease with a new person, so there is a foundation of trust to build from.
"I won't bring it up right away because I learned I am more than my vagina and what it's capable or not capable of doing," said Santiago-Block, who is now able to use tampons and has successfully enjoyed penetrative sex, but who still uses dilators as a precaution. "If it were to get serious, I have shared what it is, and I stick to sharing what I feel comfortable doing, and most guys have been cool with that."
For those whose condition was triggered by a traumatic event, remember that you do not owe a backstory. Explaining the condition and its effects does not require sharing trauma with someone, especially if it's a new partner. The most important thing is helping them understand how to pleasure you without triggering painful responses.
"I tell them now that I need lots of foreplay, I need to feel relaxed, and unless I feel safe, penetration isn't going to happen," Santiago-Block said. "I don't focus on what I can't do—there are so many other things we can do to build up to that point, and that's what matters."
If you would prefer to not disclose the diagnosis to a casual partner, try decentering penetrative sex. You don't need to provide a detailed explanation, just say you prefer other kinds of sexual connection, like oral.
Breaking the gynecological stigma
The underdiagnosis of vaginismus has several causes, including underfunded research into gynecological healthcare, but one of the most significant is the associated stigma. We are living in an age of sex-positivity, yet many people with vaginas are still struggling to speak openly about how their genitals function or malfunction. Pelvic exams are a vulnerable experience for anyone and some people will avoid them, resulting in delayed diagnosis.
"Many women find sex painful. However, they rarely bring it up during a medical consultation, unless they are specifically asked," said Bajekal. "Women may be shy, think they are the only ones suffering and often put up with it, thinking they won't be taken seriously by their doctor or that it's not a real condition."
A crucial step to dating successfully with vaginismus is getting the diagnosis and treatment you need, like working with a physical therapist or pelvic floor specialist, investing in dilators, or getting to the root of the problem in talk therapy. If a patient cannot speak to a medical professional about this condition, they may end up enduring unnecessarily painful sex. No amount of embarrassment is worth that.
If the words are still getting stuck in your throat, try writing down a timeline of your symptoms and sharing that with your doctor instead.
Sometimes the strangest things happen to our bodies and we have little to no control over their appearance. Opening up and communicating—to both doctors and partners—will empower anyone with vaginismus to enhance their sex life and to take on the dating world with fierce confidence.
"Vaginismus is not the end of your sex and dating life," said Santiago-Block. "It's the beginning of a new one."