by The Kink Educator

The first time I had penetrative sex, I was in pain for days. I thought this was normal; I had always been told the first time was supposed to be uncomfortable for vagina owners. I wasn't concerned until peeing, putting on pants, and even walking became a nightmare for a week afterwards. I called my gynecologist and was simply told, “That’s normal and the pain will go away soon." Since it was my first experience, I believed her. How could I not? 

When I entered college and started engaging in casual penetrative sex, I soon grew frustrated. My casual sex felt like threesomes –– featuring me, my partners, and the pain, which still lingered for days. At age 20, I had my first internal gynecological exam. The insertion of the speculum was difficult but when my doctor checked the health of my vagina with her fingers, it brought me to tears. She quickly diagnosed me with a tight pelvic floor and recommended laparoscopic surgery to potentially diagnose endometriosis. I left that appointment feeling emotional. I skipped all my classes for the day and didn’t leave my bed. 

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Something told me to get a second opinion. The second my new doctor used a speculum on me, she could tell my body was having a pain response. We had a conversation about my history of painful sex and I was promptly diagnosed with vaginismus with a recommendation to see a pelvic floor physical therapist. The pieces of the puzzle did not feel missing anymore. The physical therapist seconded my vaginismus diagnosis and created a care plan for me.

Vaginismus is a medical condition involving spasms and tightness in the pelvic floor muscles. It varies from person to person but it can make penetration of any kind painful, difficult, or even impossible. My care plan involved physical therapy and vaginal dilators. And after my diagnosis, my perception of sex and how I wanted to have sex, drastically changed.

"The societal narrative that the only way to have a fulfilling sex life is with penetration caused me to ignore my own pain and discomfort for years."

Until that point, I had primarily had sex with penis owners, so I’d always thought sex had to involve penetration. That's what I'd been taught in sex ed. And sex in movies, television, and the Cosmo magazines I read as a teenager, was also focused solely on penetration. The societal narrative that the only way to have a fulfilling sex life is with penetration caused me to ignore my own pain and discomfort for years. I decided I did not want to continue having penetrative sex until I was comfortable and had minimal pain. And as a college student who enjoys casual sex, this meant that I had to discover new ways to have and define sex. Now, for me, sex is an act of shared or solo pleasure. 

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I am upfront about my diagnosis with potential partners in advance of any sexual activity. If they are not receptive to the fact that penetrative sex is not the end goal for me, I don’t have sex with them. No one is worth ignoring my pleasure. I want a partner –– casual or not –– whose goal is an experience of shared pleasure. Being diagnosed with vaginismus has enabled me to express and prioritize my sexual needs, which is something I struggled with before. 

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I no longer see sex as purely penetration but instead a vehicle for pleasure, intimacy, and exploration. That definition includes a variety of sex acts. I love mutual masturbation as it gives me full control over how I receive pleasure and I can easily determine whether I can manage penetration that day. I am also able to watch my partner control their pleasure, which can be quite arousing. It doesn't feel very different from penetrative sex; we are both experiencing pleasure at the same time. 

My second favorite way to have sex is dry humping (or outercourse with some degree of clothing on). The movements in outercourse are very reminiscent of penetrative sex, which I love. I am able to be in positions like missionary or cowgirl while feeling comfortable, pain-free, and sexy. Of course, oral sex is also great for my vaginismus. It is especially amazing on days when I really want the sex I'm having to feel intimate. Oral can be a vulnerable act that brings a unique level of closeness. And on days where my vaginismus is not flaring up and penetration is possible, fingering can be extra enjoyable. Unlike with penile penetration, I personally do not experience discomfort or pain from fingering.

My vaginismus diagnosis was life-changing. It reconstructed my ideas of what sex should look and feel like. It allowed me to view and define sex in a completely new way while opening up a world of pleasure I didn’t know was there. The diagnosis allowed me to deconstruct my sexual habits and gave me a voice to prioritize my own pleasure experiences that didn’t involve pain and discomfort.

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Emerson (The Kink Educator) is a senior at the University of Kansas studying psychology and human sexuality. She is a sex columnist for her campus magazine and loves to write about all things sex and sexuality! Her main dream is to become a certified sex educator with a focus on kink to help those experience healthier, safer, and more pleasurable sex lives. Emerson founded and runs the kink educational Instagram account, @thekinkeducator