Sure, sometimes loss of sensation is a sign of an underlying condition. But other times, it’s just your body doing what it does best: change!
Here’s what you need to know.
“There’s no clinical measure of vaginal sensitivity that can be used to determine what’s normal,” says Uchenna Ossai, PhD, ASSECT certified sex educator, pelvic floor therapist, and founder of YouSeeLogic, an inclusive adult sex education platform.
But you do have your own personal normal.
“We each have our own personal baseline that’s worth paying attention to,” adds Ossai.
That baseline might be:
- when you were first sexually active
- before graduate school
- before you gave birth
- before you had genital reconstructive surgery
Time for the anatomy lesson you should have gotten in school. (*Side eye*). Ready?
People assigned female at birth (AFAB) have a vulva and a vagina.
The vagina = the muscular canal inside the body that dildos, tampons, fingers, and menstrual cups, just to name a few options, go into.
Why does this matter? Because it’s actually the vulva that’s the nerve-dense down-there region — not the vagina.
Estimates suggest that the clitoris has 8,000 nerve endings.
Experts aren’t sure exactly how many nerves are hanging out in the vaginal canal, but the hypothesis is that the number pales in comparison.
In fact, a 2017 study suggests that less than 19 percent of vagina owners can orgasm from penis-in-vagina sex alone.
In other words, it’s very possible that the “problem” isn’t that your vagina isn’t sensitive. Instead, you likely weren’t taught that your vulva — not your vagina — is the pleasure center.
In short, because you know your body!
Time to take stock of your past and present sexual experiences. For example: Were you once able to orgasm from penetrative sex in the doggy style position but find that you can’t anymore?
Think about what is or isn’t working, and go from there.
Generally, this includes your hormone levels and overall circulation.
But don’t be fooled into thinking this is only a two-item list. There are, like, a bajillion things that can affect each of these.
Read on for the most common.
“During menopause, your estrogen levels drop significantly,” says Ossai.
The problem? “Estrogen is what helps keep your vaginal tissues nice and supple, thick, and well-lubricated.”
When estrogen levels dip, the vaginal walls can become thin, dry, and less sensitive. Sigh.
The part of the body that controls your hormones — the endocrine system — is more interconnected than “The L Word” Chart. Meaning, if one hormone is out of whack, the rest will follow.
So, if the stress hormone (cortisol) is high, estrogen levels can plummet, creating a similar vaginal experience as menopause. Additionally, many people hold stress in their pelvic floor muscles.
“When your pelvic floor muscles are contracted and tight, it’s hard to bring blood flow to the vagina,” explains Ossai. “[Blood flow] is needed for increased sensation and sensitivity.”
Pelvic floor dysfunction
Speaking of pelvic floor muscle malfunction…
Vaginal scarring and heavy lifting can also put the pelvic floor muscles into a contracted position. The result? Less blood flow and, therefore, less sensation.
On the flip side: weak pelvic floor muscles. Common after vaginal childbirth, pelvic surgery, and in folks with chronic constipation or chronic coughs, a weak pelvic floor can reduce sensation, too.
Again, bodies change!
Things that felt really good to you 5 or 10 or 20 years ago might not feel good to you now. While things that didn’t feel good for you then might now feel like the stuff The Weeknd sings about.
Trauma can affect your sexual response in any number of ways — loss of sensation included.
“Sexual trauma can cause the mind to think ‘this is not an area for pleasure’ when the vagina is touched,” says Renelle Nelson, a licensed marriage and family therapist who specializes in intimacy and infidelity recovery.
Ossai adds that some people process trauma by physically internalizing it.
“Trauma can elevate someone’s cortisol levels, affect someone’s bowels, shift the flow of blood, and more,” explains Ossai, adding that all of this can inhibit sensation.
Shame, especially around sex and sexuality, “can alter the way someone experiences touch and stimulation in the bedroom,” says Nelson.
Shame-induced sensation loss is especially common in:
- folks who grew up in a sex-negative or religious upbringing
- folks in the LGBTQIA+ community who grew up in homophobic or biphobic household
Myth: Vibrators cause loss of sensitivity.
Fact: The nerves inside your vagina can get used to certain sensations and become less effective.
“Going to town is totally fine, and it’s great that you have a go-to movement,” says Ossai. “But sometimes we need to try another technique. It’d be like only doing squats to get a bigger booty. At a certain point, they may start being slightly less effective, at least for the time being.”
Luckily, just as there are many other movements that can plump your peach, there are many other moves/methods/modes that can get you off.
If your go-to technique seems less effective than usual, try a different vibration pattern on the same toy. Or use this as an excuse to add a new pleasure product to your collection.
Two main times:
- The change in sensitivity is causing you distress.
- The loss is connected with unresolved trauma.
“There are solutions that can usually bring folks about 70 to 80 percent improvement,” says Ossai.
Obviously, treatment is going to be customized based on your personal root cause. But your plan could involve any or all of the following.
See a doctor
For vulva owners who have gone through menopause, the solution may be a topical estrogen cream, which Ossai says can do wonders to improve sensation.
It’s also a good idea to chat with your doc or other healthcare provider if you recently started a new medication.
Ask them: “Is loss of sensitivity or sexual dysfunction a typical side effect?”
If the answer is yes and the sensation change upsets you, you might ask for an alternative.
Visit a pelvic floor therapist
You want a pelvic floor therapist on tap if the underlying cause is:
- overactive pelvic floor muscles (aka hypertonic pelvic floor)
- underactive pelvic floor muscles (aka hypotonic pelvic floor)
There isn’t a standardized way to train pelvic floor therapists, so Ossai recommends interviewing a potential therapist before you book them.
- Do you have a statement about inclusivity?
- Have you ever had inclusivity or trauma training?
- Do you practice inclusive care?
- Have you ever worked with [insert your identity marker(s) here] before?
Work with a trauma-informed sex therapist
Nelson says this step is a must for folks whose loss of sensation is connected to trauma of any kind.
For folks with tight pelvic floors, dilators can be used to stretch and relax the pelvic floor muscles.
For folks with weak pelvic floors, they’re often used to increase vaginal awareness and strength.
Give yourself permission to experience sensation differently
“It sounds like a cop out, but it’s actually quite helpful,” says Ossai. “Many patients get so hung up on feeling exactly what they felt a few weeks or months or years ago that they don’t enjoy what they’re experiencing now.”
- Enjoy the sensations you’re currently experiencing, even if they’re less intense than they used to be.
- Explore other erogenous zones that used to be insensitive but could now be super sensitive.
Try pleasure mapping
“Pleasure mapping — which is when you take the time to explore your pleasure spots without judgment — is a great way to gather information about your body,” says Ossai.
She suggests these tips:
- Take your genitals out of the equation.
- Pretend you’ve never had solo or partnered sex before.
- Don’t be stingy with time.
Write love letters to yourself
“It isn’t until we become aware of our own stories about pleasure, the body, and intimacy that we can overcome them,” says Nelson. “Writing your pleasure ‘memoir’ is a great way to connect back to yourself.”
Some prompts to journal on:
- What stories about pleasure have you been told or sold?
- Write a list of positive affirmations you could tell your body.
- Think about the last time you had amazing solo sex. Write about it.
Sometimes a change in vaginal sensitivity is just an opportunity to explore other previously ignored hot-spots on your body.
But if you experience an unexpected change alongside other unusual symptoms or feel distressed by this change, reach out to a physician or pelvic floor therapist.
They can help identify the underlying cause and advise you on next steps.
Gabrielle Kassel is a New York-based sex and wellness writer and CrossFit Level 1 Trainer. She’s become a morning person, tested over 200 vibrators, and eaten, drunk, and brushed with charcoal — all in the name of journalism. In her free time, she can be found reading self-help books and romance novels, bench-pressing, or pole dancing. Follow her on Instagram.