Dating when penetration isn’t an option is complicated — but not impossible.

How we see the world shapes who we choose to be — and sharing compelling experiences can frame the way we treat each other, for the better. This is a powerful perspective.

“Just let me breathe for a second,” I whisper as my partner’s mouth is a few centimeters from mine.

We both begin to breathe together, one large inhale, one exhale. I close my eyes and try to relax. The tension in my muscles is so intense it’s painful. I will them to loosen up.

But once again, my body acts as a barricade during sex. My vaginal muscles are strong and determined to prevent anything from entering my body.

Having anything try to go inside me during sex was like hitting a wall, physically and often emotionally.

That’s how it felt for me for the eight years I struggled with vaginismus.

With my challenges with vaginismus seemingly over, I can now see it shaped my entire sexual identity.

By experimenting with my partners in ways I might not have if intercourse wasn’t painful — new positions, foreplay, penetration, oral sex — I gained confidence in the bedroom.

Some women experience an involuntary contraction of the vaginal muscles called vaginismus. The pelvic floor muscles tighten so much that an object has difficulty entering.

Symptoms of vaginismus include:

  • burning, stinging, and deep pain when penetration is attempted
  • inability to insert a tampon, finger, or phallic object
  • if penetration is possible, tearing or deep pain afterward

Eventually, during sex, my body began to anticipate the pain of penetration. My anticipation made the experience even worse, my body clenching before intercourse was even attempted.

Women who have vaginismus often experience stress, anxiety, panic, and depression, since sex — and not having penetrative sex — can become consuming worries.

Vaginismus appears two ways in women:

  • Primary vaginismus is when vaginal penetration has never been achieved.
  • Secondary vaginismus is when a trauma, surgery, or stressor occurred that makes intercourse impossible when it was once achievable.

While emotional factors, trauma, and childbirth have been linked to vaginismus, there’s not always a reason for it. I believe I had primary vaginismus from a young age, as I’ve never been able to insert a tampon, but I’m still not sure what caused it.

Treatments can include:

  • physical therapy for your pelvic floor muscles
  • visiting a psychologist if trauma or abuse occurred
  • utilizing dilators, which help retrain the pelvic muscles
  • yoga, pelvic exercises, and meditation

Vaginismus is treatable. If having penetrative sex is painful or feels impossible for you, make an appointment with your doctor.

Vaginismus primarily affects your sex life and relationships, as vaginal intercourse becomes nearly impossible.

As a young sexual person in my late teens, I felt defeated. When I first began writing about vaginismus three years ago, I was still angry at my body, at this undiagnosed disorder, at this disability that shaved years off of my sexual youth. I felt robbed, isolated, and alienated.

Presently, I look at vaginismus as shaping my entire identity. That isolation and alienation contributed to my obsessive research with all things sexual. It opened up doors for me in my sexuality.

One of the biggest concerns people with vaginismus have — understandably — is dating. Many people wonder how they can sustain a relationship or explain the disorder to a new partner.

From my experience, it’s complicated. But not impossible.

My first relationship with severe vaginismus — which means nothing was going in whatsoever — is still my longest relationship to this day. We only had penetrative sex three times over four years.

We improvised, experimented with spontaneity, and became incredibly skilled with foreplay and oral sex — as one often resorts to when dealing with a crippling sexual disorder.

In the moment, it often didn’t matter that penetration wasn’t an option. My orgasms from oral sex and clitoral stimulation still had me seeing stars. And because of this experimentation, I learned what my body wants and how it wants it.

In a way, looking back some years later, I can say that vaginismus positively affected my sexuality and how I view myself as a sexual person.

Like with any sexual partner, communication is key. But when sex is impossible or painful, communication comes first.

It’s important to communicate to your partner whether or not you’re in pain.

Don’t worry about killing the mood if your body is crying out for help. It’s also important to have a partner that checks in with you verbally and visually.

Sometimes, a sensation I thought I could bear in order to have intercourse quickly turned unbearable. And at first, I wasn’t always comfortable expressing that.

When I was younger and learning how to deal with this condition, I’d be completely frozen in pain. I’d often resort to staying mute, unable to express how excruciating penetration was. It felt like my body was being ripped apart on the inside and the burning sensation left me shocked.

The pain would eventually force me to stop my partner, either through tears or sheer panic.

Since any slight movement could change my comfort levels, my partner needed to be conversational throughout each romp to prevent any further pain, asking questions like “Does this feel OK?” or “What if I do this?”

Since penetration was too painful for me, we’d improvise. After some time, I realized that “sex” doesn’t have to mean penetrative sex, or sex that involves a phallic object. Sex is fluid, as was my developing sexuality.

I was highly sensitive to pain and pleasure, and I honed in on which areas of my body enjoyed being kissed and how they liked being kissed. I realized kissing for half an hour or nipple stimulation could be intimate and highly erotic.

Getting to know my body and what felt good to me built my confidence and sense of self, even through the challenges of vaginismus. While it may not have been my ideal path of discovering what I liked in the bedroom, it’s a journey I have to accept.

This isn’t to say every relationship I had was successful in terms of communicating about vaginismus, especially since I largely committed myself to heterosexual cis men.

When my body was tense, muscles contracted, many partners thought forcing themselves would cure this condition. More force meant more success on their end. But force created more issues, more pain, and more distance and lack of trust in our relationship.

With a few partners who I trusted, my physical sensitivity allowed me to describe what I enjoyed and what I didn’t.

My pain gave me a voice I used to explain what felt good for my body.

As all bodies are different, communication has continued to serve me well — even during my pain-free sex life. But using my voice was essential when I was dealing with vaginismus, when my body felt like the most different of all.

“More of that” or “No, like this, let me show you,” I’d say to partners who would check in with me. In some way, my vaginismus gifted me more control in my sexual desires.

It’s essential to have an understanding partner when you experience pain during sex. Without a patient and empathetic partner, vaginismus can be an unbearable aspect of a relationship.

Communicating outside of the bedroom is important, too. I’d suggest providing literature to your partner that explains the ins and outs of vaginismus and having open conversations about it.

Slower sex is another method I still incorporate today in my pain-free sex life.

Sex in a hurry isn’t enjoyable for me, but fast and furious seems to be a method many people resort to.

Having slower sex allows me to be in control of my body, to adjust when something didn’t feel right.

Taking my time also allows me to focus on all the factors that worked and continue to work to benefit my body: lubrication, attraction, penis size, and how much I trusted the person (i.e., situational vaginismus).

Nevertheless, vaginismus is hard. It’s debilitating, contributed to my loss of libido, made me incredibly manic, and left me confused about my body.

Sex is a natural function. It’s euphoric and creates a connection to your partner. Not having it can severely affect an individual’s livelihood. But this doesn’t mean I wasn’t sexual.

My current partner has never experienced me in pain. He doesn’t know the frustration I dealt with for years.

He met me after I worked hard to treat myself with dilators, therapy, and determination. And for that, I’m grateful. With him, I’m the culmination of all of those years I struggled and grew while I redefined my sexuality.

I feel more connected to my body now that I know it’s fragility, but also its strength.

Through years of work, tenderness, and distress, I’m more in tune with my sexuality and who I am as a sexual person than I ever was beforehand. And I owe it to those nights of failure and bleakness.

I felt foreign in my body for so long. Its mechanisms were out of my control, but now I’ve taken back that power. This body is mine.

S. Nicole Lane is a sex and women’s health journalist based in Chicago. Her writing has appeared in Playboy, Rewire News, HelloFlo, Broadly, Metro UK, and other corners of the internet. She’s also a practicing visual artist who works with new media, assemblage, and latex. Follow her on Twitter.