How Your Sex Drive Is Affected by Vaginismus—and How to Get It Back
Nyxie was 20 when she began suffering vaginismus, which caused sex with her now-husband to become painful practically overnight. Now 29 and in active recovery, Nyxie believes her vaginismus developed as a culmination of body image and confidence issues, high stress levels, depression and anorexia nervosa—all of which have had a lasting impact on her sex drive.
"Vaginismus has impacted my libido big time," said Nyxie, who lives in Scotland and requested her full name not be used. "At first, it became extremely low, and now, even in active recovery, it's still very low, even nonexistent at times."
Vaginismus is a condition that involves the vaginal muscles tightening involuntarily during penetration. This makes sex and medical examinations extremely painful and uncomfortable. The condition can also be caused by intense neurological or psychological guarding, fear and anticipation of pain, and shortened or tight pelvic muscles that don't know how to relax, according to Kaeli Gockel, P.T., a physical therapist and pelvic health specialist in Seattle.
It's common for people with vaginismus to experience a low sex drive, whether with a new partner or, as in Nyxie's case, a long-term partner.
"It's common for many people with vaginismus to feel self-conscious when it comes to sex, as they may not find penetrative sex enjoyable or stimulating," said Laura Vowels, a lecturer at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, a researcher at Blueheart, a therapy app, and a therapist who is certified by the International Centre for Excellence in Emotionally Focused Therapy (ICEEFT). "Others can find sex extremely painful, which can deter them from sexual relationships altogether."
Being unable to have penetrative sex with someone you love—or even someone you don't love but simply want to have sex with—can be extremely frustrating. It can leave you feeling betrayed by your own body and distrustful of the way you feel.
"My lack of libido causes me great anxiety," Nyxie said. "Even though my husband is very understanding and we're working on that side of our relationship, I still worry that he's going to get sick of it and leave."
Anxiety with vaginismus is common
"People with vaginismus are likely to experience increased anxiety relating to sexual performance and pleasure," Vowels explained. "If abstinence from sex is involuntary due to vaginismus, this may negatively affect the mental health of those affected by this condition. Additionally, extreme pain or guilt may present barriers to connection with partners and, in some instances, a fear of intimacy, which can prevent romantic relationships from forming and developing."
While Nyxie maintained her husband has always been very understanding of her condition, her relationship has been impacted by her lack of libido.
"I'm not going to lie, it has been hard," she said. "My husband can get frustrated and has expressed feeling like I'm not attracted to him anymore and that he's the issue, so it has impacted his mental health in a way, too."
Importantly, though, hope is not lost
Nyxie and her husband continue to work on her low libido to see if they can get back into the swing of things.
"We're currently working on discovering my turn-ons and how we can go about using that to our advantage sexually," she said. "We actively watch porn together, try different positions and toys, and have considered pills. It's a learning curve that we're mostly navigating ourselves."
Rebuilding your libido, especially after dealing with trauma from vaginismus, can take work, but it's important to remember that it is completely possible and there are multiple steps you can take to work toward it:
Don't put pressure on yourself
Go easy on yourself. Don't do anything you're not comfortable with and don't force it.
"Take your time to enjoy each other," Vowels advised. "Not only will this take the pressure off yourself and your partner, but it's also a chance to relearn what you find sensual. Think of it as a blank slate and a chance to explore what you enjoy without the time pressure or end goal. Focus on what feels good and what induces desire."
Work on your self-esteem
Generally speaking, libido is directly tied to how we feel about ourselves. As Gockel said, "If we feel sexy, we want more sex, but if we feel ugly, inadequate or broken, we may have a lower sex drive."
One of the best ways to improve your sex drive is to work on how you talk to yourself and your body.
"Hype yourself up like you would a good friend with a pep talk in the morning and find things you do love about your body in the mirror," Gockel said.
Intimacy over intercourse
For someone suffering from vaginismus, libido can be directly tied to trust, which is why it's important to be intimate with your sexual partners outside of intercourse.
"Setting time aside to be intimate with a sexual partner, sexually and emotionally, can also improve your libido," Vowels advised. "Intercourse is also about finding intimacy and connection.
"Other nonsexual ways to connect with your partner can include stroking and cuddling each other, taking a bath or shower together, or giving each other a massage," she added.
Regular exercise is known to help with sexual function and sexual health, and increase sexual activity.
"Exercising can help us to feel strong and healthy, which can improve our confidence and make us feel more in the mood," Gockel said. "Perhaps even more importantly, it can help us manage stress at a physiological level, which can allow us to relax and get in the mood. It is well researched that higher stress levels will make our brains more likely to be uninterested in sex, likely out of a survival mechanism, so exercise is a great way to get around that."
Focus on other aspects aside from penetration
Remember: Penetration isn't everything.
"Moving away from making sex a goal-oriented experience can also help you to approach sex with an increased libido," Vowels said. "It's possible to establish intimacy, enjoy sex and achieve an orgasm without a focus on vaginal penetration. You could use this as an opportunity to experiment with other sexual activities, such as foreplay or oral sex, or other erotic activities, such as bondage or roleplay."