Erotica–literature or art intended to ignite sexual desire and arousal–can be a fantastic tool to add to your vaginismus healing kit. Erotica tends to be softer, more subtle, and geared towards people with responsive desire (more on that later). It often centers sensuality and takes its time building up to more sexually explicit content. It can range from sexy stories to ethical porn and exists alongside dilation, physical therapy, breathwork and cognitive behavioral therapy to round out your holistic care routine. We can’t undermine the power of physical therapy to alleviate vaginismus symptoms, but we also can’t overlook the important relationship between our mental landscape and physical pain.
In her book Better Sex Through Mindfulness, Lori Brotto writes, “Even anticipating the pain before any form of touch may be enough to elicit some of the brain changes associated with actually experiencing the pain itself. Put another way, expecting pain may trigger feelings of actual pain, even if the vulva has not come into contact with anything.”
This is not to invalidate your past encounters with pain or ignore the very real pain that can surface in the body. However, it is a reminder of the way pain imprints on our memory to protect us, and the ways we can influence that imprint to reduce activation that comes from anticipation and expectation.
The mind-body connection in people with vaginismus
Studies have shown that the “fear of painful intercourse can play an important role in the onset and continuation of vaginismus.” This proves that working with the emotional side of vaginal pain (fear or anxiety, for example) is a crucial piece in the healing journey. Again, it’s important to reiterate that any emotion associated with vaginismus is completely normal and understandable. It’s the body’s way of protecting us and trying to mitigate future pain. Understanding these emotional ties, as well as working through them, can be an important part of the healing journey.
In a study done by the journal Pain Medicine in 2022, 12 randomized controlled trials were conducted with 1,153 patients with chronic lower back pain. They found that “in 10 trials, meditation-based therapies significantly reduced the CLBP pain intensity compared with non-meditation therapies.” This shows significant support for the power of meditation in treating chronic bodily pain.
Researchers concluded in a study done on the psychology of chronic pelvic pain that “comorbid psychological conditions are highly prevalent among patients with chronic pelvic pain and are associated with increased pain severity.” Psychological conditions can include stress, anxiety, expecting pain, or catastrophizing. In fact, catastrophizing seems to be a specific predictor for the “transition from an acute pain condition to a chronic one.”
How erotica can help with vaginismus
This is where erotica comes in. If we look at the role that meditation and mindfulness play in pain management, we can see the potential correlation between erotica and easing pain symptoms. Engaging with erotica can be considered a form of mindfulness; a way to focus the mind on something other than the fear of current or potential pain. By giving the mind an anchor to situate itself on (sexy stories, audio porn, etc.) it can move away from hyperfocusing on, or catastrophizing, pain. Let’s be clear here: this is not an appeal to ignore real, pertinent pain. Rather, it’s an invitation to use external resources, such as erotica, to help differentiate real pain from perceived pain.
Erotica acts as the mental lubrication needed to ease stress and let off the brakes so that we can switch over to prioritizing intimacy, connection, and pleasure. People with responsive desire might especially favor erotica due to its slow, intentional nature. Responsive desire is desire that emerges in response to pleasure (versus in anticipation of it), and though everyone can experience it, it may be more common in people with vaginas. People with responsive desire most often need to build up to their arousal through emotional connection, sensual touch, or exposure to sexual content like erotica. They can’t just dive into sex right away. A slower approach is needed so that there is time to open up and feel safe enough to engage in sexual activity.
Researchers have highlighted the importance of gradual exposure and practices that emphasize slowness and connection. Certain studies have confirmed that anxiety is more common in vaginismus patients, and so, managing anxiety and fear is an important aspect of treating vaginismus.
Researchers have also made strides to cover how our attitudes and beliefs around sex might contribute to pain or aversion. These can include attitudes we intentionally adopted for ourselves or attitudes we absorbed growing up, from a religious community, lack of sex education, or the messages we received through the media. In this sense, erotica can help expand our ideas of what sex and pleasure look like, introducing us to new ways of approaching our pleasure. This can further help broaden narrow definitions of pleasure that could be contributing to stress and pain.
Erotica can offer a safer space to explore our relationship to sex and pleasure. While partnered, penetrative sex may still feel vulnerable and fear-inducing, engaging in a solo practice that involves erotica could potentially offer the privacy and time needed to reacquaint ourselves with a version of pleasure that feels supportive and empowering.
Dr. Kaleigh Mulpeter, a pelvic physical therapist, tells HelloGina: “In my clinical experience, treating vaginismus must include addressing the underlying neurological mechanisms and fear response that result in involuntary muscle contractions with attempted penetration. If my patient’s goal is to engage in penetrative intimacy, part of their healing process could be exploring their relationship to intimacy, and what is conjured for them emotionally with thoughts of penetration. Engaging with erotica could be a way for someone to explore that relationship in a safe and controlled way, and potentially alter the fear response behind their vaginismus.”
Though erotica can help stoke desire and heighten arousal, particularly for folks with a responsive desire type, it may not be enough to decrease physical pain on its own. Using erotica in tandem with other vaginismus self-treatment options could be the fruitful combination that helps ease the severity of vaginismus symptoms. Addressing both the mental and physical components can provide a holistic approach to working with, and alleviating, vaginal pain.
Choosing the right erotica for you
In terms of choosing the right erotica for you, here are some things to consider: do you naturally gravitate towards literature, audio, or film? How much room do you want to leave for your imagination, meaning, how explicit do you want your erotica to be? If you aren’t entirely sure of the answers to these questions, that’s ok! That’s the beauty of today’s erotic landscape–there are so many resources to explore and experiment with. The menu is constantly expanding to support different types of desire, attraction, orientations, and identities. Here are a few great places to start:
- Dipsea is an audio erotica app with sexy storytelling made by, and for, women.
- Bellesa is a Canadian-based porn site that also offers sexy toys, webcam models, and erotic fiction.
- Quinn is another erotic audio app that offers people a less explicit avenue towards pleasure and arousal by using sound versus imagery.
- Literotica is a free resource of erotic fiction and fantasy. They also accept erotic story submissions!
- Erika Lust is a female porn director known for her award-winning, pleasure-positive films. She has helped change the landscape of pornography, showcasing true representations of sex.
As you embark on your erotic journey, remember that there are many avenues to explore and experiment with. Be kind and gentle with yourself as you navigate tough feelings and physical experiences related to your vaginismus. Don’t forget the power of working with your mind and the role that mindfulness and healthy distractions (like erotica) can play in the larger ecosystem of your vaginismus journey.
- International Journal of Sexual Health. Jul2020
- Meditation-Based Therapy for Chronic Low Back Pain Management: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials. Pain Medicine. Oct2022
- A treatment model for anxiety-related sexual dysfunctions using mindfulness meditation within a sex-positive framework. Sexual and Relationship Therapy
- An integrated mindfulness-based approach to the treatment of women with sexual pain and anxiety: promoting autonomy and mind/body connection. Sexual & Relationship Therapy.
- Interventions for vaginismus. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2012 Dec
- Psychology of Chronic Pelvic Pain: Prevalence, Neurobiological Vulnerabilities, and Treatment Clin Obstet Gynecol. 2019 Mar
- Better Sex Through Mindfulness by Lori Brotto