Thanks to media representations of sexuality, many people's definitions of sex revolve around the act of penetration. For people like me who find penetration painful or impossible, this can make dating with vaginismus (or other painful sex disorders) challenging. However, having a supportive partner can truly make all the difference.
In my adult life, I've encountered only one person who wasn't understanding of my condition. But, based on what I have heard from friends who also have it, that's a pretty rare case for folks with vaginismus. Guys, by and large, are not usually very aware of painful sex disorders and the possibility of sex outside of the realm of penis-in-vagina (PIV) sex. And this limited understanding can lead to bad relationships, stressful sex, and emotional turmoil for the vaginismus sufferer, who is made to feel self-conscious about their inability to "perform" or make their vagina work "the right way."
But vaginismus doesn't have to mean bed death if you can stay positive about it. With a little open-mindedness, amazing sex (which can mean a fun fling or a thriving relationship) is definitely possible to achieve with a person who can't have PIV sex. Here are some ways to be more supportive of your partner with vaginismus:
1. Don't Keep Asking When They'll Be Able To Have PIV Sex
Vaginismus treatment is an incredibly long and difficult process that is very personal for the person receiving it. But when you ask your partner (more than once) about when they'll be able to be penetrated, you shift the attention towards yourself. Every person's journey is different, and people who are trying to work up to penetration are (and should be) more concerned with their own sexual journey than your specific need in the moment.
I've been asked this before by a partner after he told me how great he was at penetration and how gentle he would be if I let him try. But what he and many others fail to realize is that my condition and the pace at which I recover from my condition has nothing to do with my partner, regardless of whether or not they have some kind of magic penis. My vaginismus forces me to confront big issues from the course of my life, including an anxiety disorder, sexual assault, and a trans identity that prevents me from fully connecting with my vagina — and no amount of good sex can speed up my process. Being asked when I'll be able to have PIV sex is frustrating, because it makes me feel rushed in my recovery, and like the sex that we're already having is mediocre. Basically: don't kill the vibe with your misplaced ambitions.
2. Don't Blame Them
Especially when it comes to long-term relationships, vaginismus can be challenging. I've known folks who want so desperately to have PIV sex with their partner, but their inability to do often causes them to cry in frustration at the end of a bang session (I've definitely experienced this myself a few times). I also know folks who have been having PIV sex with their partner for years, only to have that interrupted by vaginismus thanks to a stressful or traumatic event. It's totally OK to feel frustrated, but it's completely wrong to blame your partner.
Sure, your partner might have skipped some dilating sessions or may not seem interested in seeking help from a physical therapist. But either way, it's their choice and their body — making them feel guilty for their body and the choices they make for it is as counterproductive as it is cruel. Rather than blaming your partner, embrace their disability and make a point to learn more about causes of and treatments for vaginismus. But if PIV sex or instant gratification is more important to you than anything else, then feel free to skip the guilt trip and leave.
3. Don't Take It Personally
If you were dating a person who was hard of hearing or needed to using a walking assistant, you wouldn't blame yourself for their disabilities, right? It's something they were born with or acquired separately from you, and they manage it however they see fit. This is the same for vaginismus. When folks who are used to having penetrative sex with their partners encounter a partner who can't be penetrated, it often leads to confusion and maybe even self-blame. However, a person's inability to be penetrated is no indicator of their feelings for you. It's simply an uncontrollable body response that you and your partner can easily work around.
4. Open Your Mind To All The Possibilities
One thing I've taught my lovers (and learned myself from my most exceptional partner) is that there are truly never-ending possibilities for mind-blowing sex without vaginal penetration. From oral and anal to bondage and role-playing and everything in between, there are tons of sexual acts that can be just as pleasurable, if not more so, than vaginal penetration.
In my own sex life with my partner, taking vaginal penetration out of the equation causes us to get pretty creative and kinky in the bedroom in ways we may have never considered if not for our unique situation. I hope more folks who have partners with vaginismus can see the condition as a challenge to get extra creative in the bedroom, rather than feel limited by it.
5. Try Not To Get Discouraged
Having a painful sex disorder can lead to lots of frustration and, sometimes, a dip in sex drive. Sometimes, this frustration comes from the perception that the person with vaginismus can't have sex, or have sex "right," by not being able to be penetrated. But keeping in mind that sex means a lot of things, and that you don't need vaginal penetration to have a great time, it's best not to lament over your partner's inability to be penetrated too much. Don't kill your sex life over menial hang-ups and societal expectations that simply don't vibe with every person or body, and enjoy yourself!
6. Go At Their Pace
If your partner is working towards penetration and wants your fingers or penis to be apart of that journey, that's great! Just remember to go at your partner's pace, being gentle and understanding the whole way through. And if your partner can't overcome a certain obstacle or wants to take a break from trying penetration, leave room for that without resentment. If you choose to be a part of their journey towards recovery, support their pace and bodily autonomy.
7. Realize That You Are Not Entitled to Penetrate Them, Nor Is Penetration A Goal For Everyone
Penetration doesn't have to be everyone's goal, though. Before my current partner, achieving penetration had never been my goal. This was partly because I used to maintain mostly casual and/or brief sexual relationships, which caused me to want to indulge in pleasure rather than work on an obstacle that would require lots of trust and time. If your partner doesn't want you to penetrate them ever, that's OK. Just because society often portrays sex as PIV action doesn't mean you're entitled to penetrate your partner. Different strokes for different folks.
8. Honor Your Partner's Body As It Is — Not As You Want It To Be
In the same way that it's kind, reasonable and body positive to embrace your body at your current weight rather than a goal weight, it's best to avoid a more aspirational approach that places restrictions and start dates on your journey to self love. Let your partner know you love their body exactly as it is, and find ways to have great sex and be helpful with recovery together.
9. Don't Try To Force It
To one of my past partners and to whoever else needs the message: you cannot force penetration to work. Sure, you and your partner may hear that the band-aid approach (aka just stick it in) is a great way of overcoming vaginal tenseness. But this is definitely not the case. Vaginismus is a complicated disorder, and it cannot be cured by force. I know vaginismus sufferers who have vaginal sex, even if it's incredibly painful, in order to please their partner or reach a certain sexual expectation. Using this forceful approach can cause more vaginal tenseness or, depending on your persistence and your partner's comfort level, can constitute sexual assault. Never try to force it — trust that your partner has a condition that prevents them from doing so and move on.
Having compassion and an open mind can make all the difference when it comes to dating with vaginismus. With your patience and support, you can still have amazing sex with your partner with a painful sex disorder while also helping them on their journey towards recovery (if they choose that sort of path). After all, penetration isn't everything.
Images: Andrew Zaeh/Bustle