How I Enjoy Intimacy With My Partner, Despite Having Vaginismus
Sensate focus practices allow me to enjoy pleasure and love without penetrative sex.
One night, my partner and I were having fun in bed when she asked to put her fingers inside me. As someone who experiences pain with penetration, I immediately felt nervous. However, I said yes. I felt hopeful that maybe I could handle the sensation this time. But with each thrust of her finger, I grimaced. The emotional and physical pain overwhelmed me. While I didn’t want to disappoint her, I knew I needed to be honest.
I asked my partner to stop, and she quickly obliged, making sure I was okay. We went back to clitoral play, then finished the night cuddling. But as we lay there, I felt upset at my body’s reactions, my past traumatic experiences, and myself. I ached to be what I inaccurately envisioned as “normal,” which meant being someone who loved penetrative sex.
I grew up thinking sex was solely about penetration (it’s not), a belief I imagine came from learning about sex through an abstinence-only, heteronormative lens. PIV sex (penis-in-vagina) was also central to relationships in the TV shows and movies I watched.
But I don’t love penetration. I hardly like it. Penetration hurts me—even from a tampon. After experiencing sexual assault, I developed vaginismus, which is when a vagina clenches up involuntarily. It can cause penetration to feel painful and even make it impossible. Additionally, the assault gave me several unhealthy beliefs about sex, such as me “owing others sex” and “my ‘no’ not mattering.” This complicated my relationship with sex and intimacy.
It wasn’t until I learned about sensate focus that I realized sex could look different for me. The sex therapy technique, developed by Dr. William Masters and Virginia Johnson, includes five practices that help increase intimacy and communication among partners.
Sensate focus entails five steps: non-genital touching, genital and breast touching, the use of lotion or body oil, mutual touching (at the same time), and sensual (not sexual) intercourse. The goal is to reduce sexual anxiety, judgment, and sex-specific agendas.
As someone who sometimes desires intimacy without sex, this works perfectly for my partner and me. Here is a breakdown of the five steps, plus some tips from personal experience.
How To Practice Sensate Focus With Your Partner
Step One: Begin by touching your partner’s legs, back, or another non-erogenous zone. Continue to change up the speed, pressure, and how much of your hand (or finger) you press on your partner’s body.
Meanwhile, your partner is to focus on the sensations without judgment. If they want to communicate a preference, they can use their hand to guide yours in speed, pressure, or location. However, partners are encouraged not to do this more often than necessary and to simply observe the sensations.
Then, switch roles. The entire step should take 30 to 40 minutes, but you and your partner can decide what feels best. You can also play music to reduce awkward tension and signal a natural time to switch between “toucher” and “receiver.”
Step Two: Taking turns with your partner, touch one another’s genitals and breasts. The receiver doesn’t have to do anything but enjoy the sensations. The goal here is to encourage sensuality, not arousal. If either of you feels too turned on, stop, take a break, or switch places.
Step Three: Add lotion or oil to enhance the sensations. Still take turns with your partner, continuing to touch (not massage) one another.
Step Four: In this step, you and your partner can touch each other simultaneously while keeping the above guidelines about arousal in mind. Remember that the goal with sensate focus is about sensuality and non-judgmental observation as opposed to sexual arousal. While partners are encouraged to refrain from kissing, you can use your tongue to explore your partner’s body (excluding genitals) and vice versa.
Step Five: The fifth and final step is sensual intercourse. Partners can grind or even slowly and gently experiment with fingering. Try to listen to your body and find what feels most pleasurable, adding in more genital touching. Bodily contact is encouraged first and foremost. It’s okay to become increasingly aroused in this step. You may even orgasm, or you may simply experience a new level of intimacy with your partner.
Penetrative sex isn’t necessary to enjoy intimacy. You can enjoy sensuality and feel safe with your partner without having intercourse or penetration. When my partner and I engage in these sensate practices, I’m overwhelmed with one feeling: love. I loved her a lot before, and I know she’s always loved me the same—but sensate focus has deepened our intimacy.
Sensate focus has also helped me realize my partner appreciates me, cares about my well-being, and loves both my body and me. My partner wants me to feel good, too. I’ve always known this, logically—but if you have a history of trauma, you may understand my lingering concerns. And even if I didn’t struggle with vaginismus, I’d see myself engaging in this technique often anyway.
It’s been an effective way to have sensual fun with more comfort, more compassion, and less penetrative pressure—what intimacy is all about.
If you’ve experienced sexual assault, you’re not alone and help is available. Please reach out to the RAINN hotline (800-656-HOPE) or chatline (online.rainn.org) for support.