Focus on me, not my male partner, when treating my vaginismus

Doctors treating vaginismus need to remember that not everyone is straight and monogamous — and to focus on the person who is actually living with the condition, writes Quinn Rhodes

“Does your partner want children?”

When I was asked that at a clinic appointment for my vaginismus, I didn’t respond by explaining why that doesn’t matter and that I have far more worth than my ability to reproduce. I didn’t gently-but-firmly educate the psychosexual therapist, telling her that I’m a queer and polyamorous slut so while I’m having semi-regular sex with four people, I’m not dating anyone – and even if I was, and we were to have a child, it wouldn’t necessarily be me carrying the pregnancy.

Instead, I shifted uncomfortably because talking about my vagina was causing it to tense up painfully. I shook my head, because all I wanted to do was get through this vaginismus assessment and get out of there so I could cry.

Vaginismus is defined as the involuntary contraction of muscles around the opening of the vagina. The tight muscle contraction makes sexual intercourse, or any sexual activity that involves penetration, painful or impossible. For me, it’s impossible: I’ve never been able to use tampons, and when I go for an STI test I have to ask a nurse to administer the vaginal swab while I bite my lip to stop myself from crying out.

I was confused about why my pain had to be related to my non-existent partner’s experiences.

I think I blushed while telling her that I’m queer and polyamorous; I certainly wasn’t brave enough to proudly say the words “ethical slut”

“Does your vaginismus affect your partner’s sex life?”

I so nervous before my appointment that I asked a cisgender guy who I was having casual-but-intimate sex with to stay over the night before and come to the clinic with me. However, because she saw him with me in the waiting room, my psychosexual therapist assumed that I was monogamous and straight. When she started asking me the standard vaginismus assessment questions, she kept talking about “my boyfriend”.

I was embarrassed. While usually I’m all too ready to explain why such heteronormative assumptions are harmful, I wasn’t feeling especially comfortable in this clinical appointment room, talking to a health professional who I was depending on to refer me for more therapy. I think I blushed while telling her that I’m queer and polyamorous; I certainly wasn’t brave enough to proudly say the words “ethical slut”.

Her questions made me uncomfortable. She asked me how I felt about my vagina and how I’d been taught about sex as a child, but also about how my partner felt about it. While there were probably more questions about my vaginismus than questions about how it affected my partner, I didn’t understand why that information was needed at all. It felt like she wanted me to explain how my ‘broken’ vagina affected my partner’s sex life, to justify me getting access to treatment.

I am used to being sexualised while also stripped of my sexual agency, but I didn’t expect to feel that way in the doctor’s office. I felt reduced to being a hole that exists to be penetrated

We live in a society where the pleasure of people with vaginas is placed secondary to our cis male partners. We live in a society where we are still fighting for the right to make decisions about our own bodies. I am used to being sexualised while also stripped of my sexual agency, but I didn’t expect to feel that way in the doctor’s office. I felt reduced to being a hole that exists to be penetrated.

“How does your partner feel about your vaginismus?”

I am sure that there are reasons why these questions need to be asked; perhaps they’re part of an assessment that aims to understand how vaginismus is affecting someone’s life. However, ‘sexually active’ is not the same as ‘in a relationship’ and there didn’t seem to be an alternative set of questions for someone who is the former. I felt like I was being subconsciously slut shamed; being told that I should be in a relationship if I wanted therapy that would help with vaginal penetration.

Whether or not my partner wants children should not affect my access to vaginismus treatment, and this certainly should not matter more than whether or not I want children. But in that moment, nervous and trying to find a way to fit my queer, polyamorous self into the questions I was being asked, I felt that it would matter a great deal.

Will women and people who are assigned female at birth who do want children have priority in receiving treatment? If their male partners want children, will they be given higher priority?

Will women and people who are assigned female at birth (afab) who do want children have priority in receiving treatment? If their male partners want children, will they be given higher priority?

I know that this particular psychosexual therapist was just asking the questions on the standard form that she needs to ask everyone. I know that the NHS is underfunded and understaffed. I know that blaming individuals for the fact the system is incredibly heteronormative doesn’t get us anywhere. I know all of that, but it didn’t make the appointment any easier. Everything I was asked felt like it stripped away my sexual agency and reinforced the patriarchal, heteronormative ideas that how I felt about my body didn’t matter.

How my body functions will always affect me more than any of my partners. Asking women and afab people about how their gynaecological issues affects their (presumed male) partners implies that we are nothing more than our ability to reproduce or a way for our partners to get off.

I am far more than my vagina, and my vaginismus affects me more than it ever will any of my (many) partners.

Featured image is an illustration of a person sitting on a chair in a waiting room, wearing a cosy jumper and loose jeans. There is a blank space where their face would be, to indicate that they are not being truly seen or heard

Page last updated November 2020

Quinn Rhodes

Quinn Rhodes (ze/hir/he/him) is a queer, trans, disabled sex blogger. Ze’s a sex nerd with vaginismus who writes about his vagina anxiety, mental illness, and adventures in advocating for the use of inclusive language when we talk about gynaecological health. Quinn can usually be found wearing stomp-on-the-patriarchy boots while falling in love every time he has sex.

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