What if You Can’t Have Sex?

Sex! It’s passionate and earth-shattering. Or loving and tender. It can bring you intense pleasure, relax you, express your love, and even make a baby. But what if you can’t have sex?

While there are many pleasurable sexual activities—like kissing, stroking, and oral sex to name just a few—when it comes to discussing heterosexual sex, the word “sex” is often assumed to mean penis in vagina intercourse (PVI). But not everyone in a heterosexual relationship is able to have PVI. Vaginismus, pelvic pain, erectile dysfunction, premature ejaculation, and sexual fear or phobia are some of the reasons a person might not be able to have PVI. This can be quite distressing for some couples who expected to be able to have “sex” with no problem.

My interest in this topic began during my work as a sex therapist, working with couples who were unable to have PVI. Couples in this situation often report feeling very isolated, and may not have told anyone else about what they see as a problem. If they have sought help before meeting with me, they often have difficulty finding qualified service providers with experience in this area. For example, women with vaginismus—a condition where muscle tightness or spasm makes intercourse painful or impossible—are often told simply to relax, have a glass of wine, or use lubricant. This unhelpful response may in part be due to the limited research on the topic.

In the research literature, the inability to have PVI is referred to as being in an unconsummated marriage or unconsummated relationship. A lot of the research focuses on medical treatment, leaving out the relationship and psychological factors and what it is like to actually be unable to have PVI. As a PhD student, I’m now trying to address this gap. As part of my dissertation I’m interested in talking to people in heterosexual relationships who have been unable to have PVI. Are you interested in sharing your story? If so, you’d take part in an interview with me. The interview will take place in-person or online via video call. During the interview, I’ll ask you about your experiences of being in a relationship and unable to have PVI. I want to know about any advantages and disadvantages of being in a relationship without PVI.

The information gained from this study may be used to guide future research and to inform the work of sex therapists and other clinicians. For more information about the study, please contact me at ambairstow@mail.widener.edu.

Adrienne Bairstow Sex Therapist and PhD student Center for Human Sexuality Studies, Widener University