A guide for partners, family and friends
If someone you loved told you they had vaginismus, would you know what they were referring to or how to respond?
Vaginismus is a condition that can affect women of all ages. It occurs when the vaginal muscles spasm to the point that sex (or any kind of penetration, including inserting tampons) becomes painful or impossible. There can be a wide range of contributing factors, both physical and psychological, but every case is different.
It’s probably clear why you don’t often hear of this condition – anything relating to female genitalia is still (regrettably) taboo in our society. It can also be a great source of shame for sufferers. Confiding something so personal can leave us feeling exposed and vulnerable. This culture of shame and keeping quiet often feeds feelings of isolation.
So, what can you do? How can you best support women to come forward? How can you show empathy and understanding and help shift the culture of shame and silence?
Don’t make it about you
When a partner makes it all about them, this makes us feel guilt and shame, as if we have let you down or not satisfactorily performed our sexual role.
Having vaginismus is not a personal attack, and it doesn’t somehow emasculate you. Sure, it’s not ideal, and learning penetrative sex is off the menu can kill the mood, but don’t be selfish and act like we’ve spoiled your evening or wasted your time.
If we tell you we have vaginismus, don’t invalidate us; exercise a little empathy and patience.
Don’t deny there is an issue
Don’t pretend everything is fine and just keeping going. This will only intensify the discomfort for us both. Denying there is an issue robs us of the opportunity to take ownership of our condition, explain it, and (hopefully) plant a seed to grow awareness.
You can feel disappointed
Yes, it’s disappointing when expectations aren’t met, but remember we are most likely feeling disappointed too. Share that experience. It’s disappointing that we couldn’t have penetrative sex. It’s not disappointing that you couldn’t use us as somewhere to park your penis. If you can’t appreciate the difference, maybe take some time to figure it out before getting intimately involved.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions
Mindful questions (as opposed to derivatives of, ‘What the fuck is wrong with you?’) are welcome! It gives us a chance to be authentic, to explain, maybe educate a little and increase awareness of this condition. For example:
- ‘What is it?’
- ‘How do you deal with it?’
- ‘Is there treatment available?’
- And, for people in committed relationships, ‘Is there anything I can do to help?’
There are plenty of other ways to be intimate and have fun (wink) that don’t include penetrative sex. Having a partner with vaginismus offers a great opportunity to broaden your (likely heteronormative and narrow) definition and concept of sex. Challenge those ideas and open your mind to new ways of thinking about what sex can be.
Don’t brag about how great your sex life is
It can be hard for people dealing with vaginismus to hear how their friends are getting it on and having mind-blowing penetrative sex. Of course, we will be happy for you, but these conversations can also leave us feeling insecure, ashamed and isolated, like there’s this whole other world we can’t access.
This doesn’t mean we never want to talk about sex with our friends (see below) but maybe just bring a little awareness to those conversations so we can feel included (e.g. don’t limit the conversation to tales of penetrative sex).
Don’t NOT talk to us about sex
Not talking about sex at all or excluding us from conversations about sex can make us feel even more isolated and alone. Many people with vaginismus still enjoy physical intimacy and want to feel included in those conversations. Perhaps just broaden your definition a little and extend conversations about sex to include different sexual activities, not just heteronormative, penetrative sex.
Don’t pity us
Please don’t assume because we have vaginismus we are doomed to live a life of sexual dissatisfaction. This simply isn’t true.
Don’t assume we don’t have sex (or don’t want to have sex)
People with vaginismus still have sex drives and can enjoy very active sex lives.
I remember shortly after my official diagnosis, having a conversation with a friend about the role of sex in romantic relationships. I told her I didn’t think I would be satisfied in a relationship with someone who was asexual. My friend exclaimed, ‘But Sarah, you don’t have sex!’ I instinctively replied with, ‘Yeah, but it’s not because I don’t want to.’ The conversation awkwardly transitioned to other topics, but her words really hurt, especially as she was one of the first people I told.
Telling people with vaginismus they ‘can’t’ or ‘don’t’ have sex is hurtful – even more so when you assume we don’t desire sex. We can and do have sex; it just may not look like society’s strictly heteronormative definition of ‘sex’.
Don’t make it uncomfortable
It’s a medical condition. Talking about sex with family is not the easiest or most comfortable situation, but if we are telling you, consider it a privilege; we are confiding something deeply personal and placing a great deal of trust in you.
Be supportive of our treatment
Seeking treatment for vaginismus can be tricky. Finding specialists in the area can be difficult, and if we do find them, they can be expensive. Moreover, research into this area is quite limited and treatments more so. Don’t be dismissive of new methods, or tell us to stop wasting our money on therapy. Instead, try to be curious and encouraging.
A little bit of sensitivity, patience and empathy can go a long way. Instead of being another source of discomfort and shame, with the right reaction, you can be a source of strength and support to those you love.