How to Tell a Partner You Have Vaginismus
Emerson Karsh was about to inform her partner she had vaginismus, something she'd done with about five or six other partners beforehand, so the speech was well-rehearsed. However, she didn't know how her current partner would respond—and whether it could change their relationship. Karsh felt nervous, yet somehow calm, too.
Vaginismus is an involuntary physical reaction in which the vagina clenches to stop or prevent penetration, and it can cause persistent pain. For Karsh, this pain feels like a combination of tightness, dull discomfort and pressure. The condition affects about 5 percent to 17 percent of people with a vagina, according to a 2017 study published in Sexual Medicine. Trauma, anxiety surrounding sex and inadequate sex education can result in vaginismus, according to a 2018 Dovepress study. Others struggle with the condition with no root cause.
"If I have a partner who does not seem receptive or understanding, I get bummed but never upset or annoyed. I just recognize that they are not the partner for me," Karsh said. "If a partner is accepting and understanding, then afterward I am ecstatic and excited to have sex with someone who is understanding and will prioritize my needs and comfort."
While a partner's reaction can't be controlled, there are some benchmarks that can make the conversation go as smoothly and positively as possible.
'I have vaginismus'
Figuring out how to tell your partner you have vaginismus can be tricky. According to Indigo Stray Conger, a certified sex therapist and licensed marriage and family therapist in Denver, the best way is to explain prior experiences and feelings. The conversation doesn't have to be entirely serious or soon, she explained, just when things get sexual.
"Offer a clear description of the pattern your sexual experiences have taken in relation to symptoms, both emotionally and physically. Talk about what is pleasurable in sexual play in addition to what causes symptoms to arise," Conger said. "Use the descriptor of vaginismus only after giving context for what you are explaining. The more relaxed and candid you can be about your symptoms, the easier it will be to find a way to explore with one another that doesn't make either of you feel uncomfortable."
With the help of communication, vaginismus doesn't have to limit your sex life or your partner's.
That's basically how Karsh does it, too. "My speech usually goes something along the lines of, 'Hey, just so you know, I have something called vaginismus, and for you it might be feeling really good and really tight, but for me, sometimes it can cause discomfort or even intense pain. So if we have sex, I may need to stop immediately or change positions,'" she said.
If Karsh experiences a flare-up or is in too much pain to continue, she lets her partner know. Then, she shares other ways they can have fun in the bedroom, such as oral sex, anal sex, mutual masturbation and dry humping.
Finding the right time to share
So that answers the how question—but what about when? Is the first date too soon? What if the other person is a one-time Tinder hookup with whom you don't want to get so personal?
Conger explained it's best to know personal pacing. "Talking about vaginismus is optimal once you have gotten to know your partner enough that frank and vulnerable discussion feels comfortable, and you have had some physical exploration, but without intensive vaginal play," she said. "Some partners may get to that level of interaction during one encounter, others may need considerably more time. It's important to know your own pacing in order to not force the conversation too quickly."
For Karsh, this looks like talking about it right before sex. "I usually tell them during that pause between 'making out on the couch' and 'are we going to the bedroom?,'" she said.
But sometimes, the situation moves too fast for that. "If I feel like things are advancing quickly and that pause will not be present, I stop them and make eye contact with them and set the tone so the mood will reflect that the conversation is more serious," Karsh said. "But I always tell partners before penetration and communicate I may stop penetrative sex abruptly."
Feeling nervous? Remember to try this
Even if you know when and what to say, feeling nervous is normal and understandable. Discussing the ins and outs of sex (and how it might not be possible any time soon) is a sensitive issue.
But regardless of a person's response, Karsh said to remember that having vaginismus doesn't make someone powerless, and that pleasure is important, too. "Make sure you're communicating and upholding your boundaries no matter your partner's reaction," she said. "If you have vaginismus, your pleasure is just as important as your partner's. Validating and recognizing limits in terms of penetrative sex can be very empowering, and you will find a partner who respects them, as well."
'If I have a partner who does not seem receptive or understanding, I get bummed but never upset or annoyed. I just recognize that they are not the partner for me.'
If PIV sex still feels like too much, exploring touch and intimacy by utilizing sensate focus practices after the vaginismus conversation is a great way to start. These practices include pleasurable, nonpenetrative ways to touch and be touched mindfully without any preconceived worries or ideas. Just dim the lights, pull out some candles and follow these steps:
- Nongenital touching: One person touches the other, switching up the pressure and speed. The receiver focuses on simply experiencing the sensations.
- Genital and breast touching: This is where the experience heats up. One person touches the other's genitals and/or breasts; however, the aim is for the receiver to notice the sensations, not turn them on. Since the focus of this practice is supposed to be sensual rather than sexual, slow down if the experience gets too hot and heavy. With both this step and the first one, partners can also change roles (and stop, of course, as necessary).
- Adding lotion or oil: Either at the beginning or after touching your partner, add in hypoallergenic lotion or baby oil. This can enhance the receiver's sensations and feel especially amazing.
- Mutual touching: Now, partners can touch each other's bodies simultaneously, either with their fingers or tongues.
- Sensual intercourse: This final step entails rubbing genitals together. Consider moving toward sexual intercourse, but start with partial penetration first. Explore different speeds and pressures to see what feels best, communicating constantly.
With the help of communication, vaginismus doesn't have to limit your sex life or your partner's. "Remember that the main concern your partner is likely to have is around causing you discomfort or you not enjoying sexual activity," Conger said. "The more information you can provide about what feels pleasurable and what kind of play you prefer, the less vaginismus has to dictate your experience."