Estimates vary (and studies and polls usually center cis women), but somewhere around 20% of people with vaginas will experience pain from wanted penetration at some point. There are numerous causes, but the one I have is vaginismus. It’s an involuntary contraction of muscles that prevents anything (including tampons) from entering my vagina.
From high school sex education to steamy scenes in the latest Netflix original series, sex is often defined or represented by a penis going into a vagina. It can be hard to navigate pleasure and intimacy when you can’t follow that narrative. It can be hard not to feel like something is missing.
But nothing is missing. Penetration is just one sexual possibility out of a million.
Over the years, I’ve come to realize a few important things about having a satisfying sex life that doesn’t match the romance novel model…
Embrace your body as it is.
It can be difficult to forgive your body for not complying with expectations. But those expectations were unfair to begin with. Penetration can be a pleasurable, intimate act; but any form of sex can be. We as a society put too much value on penetration.
Even if you’re seeking healing (vaginismus, for example, can be cured/coped with), you will be living with your body as it currently is for some time. Embracing it regardless is part of the process.
Consider how you define intimacy, and how you can continue to experience it with your partner(s). Spend some one on one time with your sexual self. Get creative. Your capacity for pleasure is endless.
Recognize that this is not a dead end, it’s another route.
Coming out as queer in an era before you could google anything (before “google” was even a verb) meant my sex life was very DIY. In some ways that was a gift, because it allowed my partners and I to explore sex based on our instincts and desires, rather than trying to follow a script.
Not having penetrative sex doesn’t mean not having sex at all. It means you get to DIY your sex life. You get to throw out expectations and expand how you think about pleasure. You get to explore without a script.
If you’re not sure where to start, seek out sex positive educators like Joan Price, Dirty Lola, Robin Wilson-Beattie, Luna Matatas, Sunny Megatron, and more. Their blogs, books, podcasts, social media feeds, and even tv shows have been helping us redefine sex for decades!
Accept that this is not a partner’s loss.
There is nothing wrong with you. You are not a substandard lover. You aren’t lacking, and you’re not “taking away” from a partner’s pleasure. If a partner says that having sex without penetration is less pleasurable or somehow a sacrifice, they’re unimaginative and selfish. I don’t like to give “dump him!!” style relationship advice, but: dump him.
There are so many ways to give and receive pleasure. If a partner isn’t eager to have sex with you as you are, on your terms, they don’t deserve access to you.
Prioritize other sex acts.
This probably sounds like obvious advice. But it takes effort to take penetration off the pedestal that substandard sex ed, heteronormative media, and even our own conversations, put it on. Worrying about “missing out” on penetration can become your focus instead, and that robs you of enjoying your sex life as it is.
Oral sex, grinding, sex toys, hand sex, mutual masturbation – these aren’t consolation prizes. They’re legitimate, satisfying, imaginative forms of sex that hundreds of millions of people enjoy. You can be just as creative, just as passionate, with external stimulation.
Indulge in pussy play beyond penetration.
If you’ve experienced painful penetration, you might be skittish about interacting with your vagina. But avoiding it not only delays healing (in the case of vaginismus), it denies you a great deal of pleasure. When you’re ready, spend some time exploring it.
The vaginal entrance is incredibly sensitive. You can trace over it with fingertips, pinpoint vibrators, and tongues (real or silicone.) You can grind it against someone’s hand, thigh, face, or straddlable vibrator. You can drizzle it with lube and rub against sex toys, penises, and vulvas. You can still enjoy your vagina – and let partner(s) enjoy it too.
Remember that you are not alone.
In such a sex negative society, it comes as no surprise that people struggling with some aspect of their sexuality (whether it’s related to feelings of attraction, or physical function, or seeking pleasure) usually suffer in silence. But there are communities where you can find more information, share your feelings, and learn from peers.
Whether you have vaginismus, general dyspareunia, or any of the countless named and unnamed disorders that can limit or prevent penetration, there are other people talking about it. Organizations, Reddit forums, books, blogs, hashtags, support groups, etc. Don’t endure in isolation. Seek out resources, seek out community, seek out a listening ear. Your struggles are shared by so many others; you can help them, too.
-Betty Butch (they/she) is a queer sex and relationships writer. By blogging about their experiences as a fat, trans, autistic person, they hope to help change the narrative of who has sex and what sex "should" be. Follow them on Twitter and Instagram.