Thirty-three-year-old accountant Jasmine was always suspicious her boyfriend Bryan might not be right for her, but it wasn’t until she realized her vagina was “allergic” to him that she knew for sure.
It wasn’t that anything was outwardly wrong with him. Sure, sometimes he was prone to moments of extreme insecurity and yes, it seemed like he was beginning to rely on her for emotional and financial support like some kind of surrogate mother he also wanted to fuck. But he was sweet. And he made her laugh (at least when they weren’t fighting).
They were about a year into things when sex with him started to hurt. She began to feel a raw, burning sensation in her vagina both during and afterwards, and she developed a strange new discharge that looked grayish and “smelled like absolute death.” Her first thought was STI (Bryan had a history of cheating, so that wasn’t out of the question), but a couple rounds of testing at her gynecologist revealed it was actually bacterial vaginosis, a type of vaginal inflammation caused by an overgrowth of certain “bad” bacteria. Exactly what causes this overgrowth isn’t always clear, but according to the Mayo Clinic, douching, new sex partners and a change in vaginal pH are common culprits. Her doctor prescribed antibiotics and sent her on her way.
Unfortunately, it didn’t go away. What started as a mild irritation blossomed into a debilitating, recurrent infection that plagued her for over a year. The antibiotics did nothing, nor did any of the more “natural” options she tried (word to the wise: Garlic does not go in the vagina). Bryan was of little help. He grew frustrated that they couldn’t “bang” like they used to, and accused her of faking her infections to avoid having sex with him.
Their breakup surprised no one, but it was what happened afterward that did: Her infections went away. “Within, like, a week or two of us breaking up, my vagina came back from the dead,” Jasmine tells me. “When I look back on it now, it was almost like it was screaming at me to get out of the relationship. Maybe my body knew he was the Antichrist before I did.”
Jasmine and her intuitive vagina aren’t alone in that experience. According to Tami Kent, a holistic women’s physical therapist who says she hears stories like this “all the time” in her practice, many vaginas and vulvas send out distress signals in the form of pain, dryness, a lack of sensation, sudden allergies and recurrent infections when the person they belong to is with a partner who isn’t healthy for them. And while exactly zero research has been conducted on the vagina’s ability to forecast partner compatibility, there are endless internet anecdotes and a staggering amount of Elite Daily bloggers who seem to agree that vaginas, vulvas, clits and other pleasure-parts seem to inherently “sense” that something’s off, often before the person realizes it themselves.
“Anytime someone with a vagina is having problems in their life — be they sexual, romantic, work-related, relational, physical or psychological — their pelvic region tends to react,” Kent explains. “There’s an intelligence in the body, particularly in that area, and I’d say there’s at least some truth to the idea that the body knows something is wrong. If a person or situation doesn’t feel right, it’ll send a lot of distress signals to try to get you to listen.” Many parts of the body do this, actually; it’s just that these reactions tend to be the most obvious in places people can see and touch. In a sexual relationship, those places are often the vagina or vulva, both of which are made of tissue sensitive and reactive enough to clearly broadcast any disturbances in the force.
Lots of different situations can elicit SOS signals from those areas, says Kent. For Jasmine, it was uncertainty about Bryan and what she describes as a “general lack of trust” in him. For other women, like 23-year-old art director and visual artist Sophie, it was the fact that her college boyfriend Nick was “holding her back in life” (or so she thinks).
Sophie has endometriosis, a painful condition in which uterine tissue grows in lesions throughout the abdomen. The pain was manageable with CBD during the first few years of their relationship, but when he started to act “hurt and pissed” that she wanted to move to another city for a job, it worsened to the point where they couldn’t have any sort of penetrative sex. “My vagina definitely reacted to the stress of having to deal with that,” she says. “My libido nearly croaked, and it just hurt to be touched down there, which created even more stress and resentment between us.” It wasn’t until she made good on her promise to move away that she felt back to normal. She slept with multiple new partners, none of whom elicited the same painful reaction Nick did.
Not that she blames him for anything. “It would be ridiculous to say it was his fault that my body reacted that way,” she says. “Endometriosis is a notoriously tricky condition, and it does flare up from time to time without warning. At the same time, it was interesting how I was able to enjoy sex with other people after we broke up.”
It’s not always shitty partners or situations that can cause these kinds of reactions, though. Sometimes, everything’s fine in a person’s life — great, even — but there’s just an innate, inexplicable biological incompatibility between partners that makes sex hard.
Shayla, a 31-year-old lawyer in L.A., says she has a great relationship with her girlfriend, but for whatever reason, she almost always gets a yeast infection when they have oral sex, share toys or use lube (even the healthy kind). “I feel totally safe, happy and loved with her, but there’s just something about her spit or whatever’s going on in her vagina that totally throws mine off,” she says. “The sex feels awesome, but I always wake up the next day with pain and irritation.” Shayla and her girlfriend still haven’t figured out what the problem is, but her infections and irritation do seem to dissipate when they use barriers like dental dams and condoms.
Nevertheless, she says it’s led to some insecurity in their relationship. “It feels like our bodies are trying to tell us something,” she says. “Are we not a good match? Are we better off as friends? It’s hard not to ask questions like this when your bodies are seemingly allergic to each other.”
What’s happening on a biological level to create these kinds of partner-specific reactions isn’t exactly clear, but one 2016 review of genital contact allergies published in the Indian Journal of Sexually Transmitted Diseases and AIDS cited urine, candida, topical and oral medications, certain soaps and detergents and consumption of common allergens like nuts or dairy as possible reasons why one partner might cause infections, allergies or pain in another.
“There are just people whose bodies and biomes don’t seem to interact well,” says Sheri Winston, a nurse, sexuality teacher and founder of the Intimate Arts Center. “Certain partners or sexual activities do seem to lead some women to having vaginal infections where others do not.”
Semen allergies are one of the clearest examples of this. Though they’re extremely rare — American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology spokesperson Janna Tuck has only seen one in her 25-year career — they’re extremely uncomfortable for the people who have them and can cause a shitload of problems for heterosexual couples, particularly ones who are trying to conceive. Symptoms vary person to person, but generally, the tissue of the vulva, vagina or throat will react to semen the same way as it would to any allergy: with redness, itching and pain. In rare cases, it can even cause anaphylactic shock.
Interestingly, Tuck says semen allergies tend to be partner-specific. “Sometimes it’s just an allergy to one partner as opposed to a universal allergy,” she says. “Other times, it’s all semen. It really depends on the person and the situation. There’s just something in some people’s ejaculate that irritates other people.” Tuck’s guessing it’s a protein, but she highly doubts an allergy to that protein has anything to do with relationship compatibility. “That sounds a little out there,” she says. “I’m not sure an allergy or infection can indicate whether someone’s with the right person or not.”
Winston agrees. “I don’t think there’s necessarily a connection between being in an unhealthy relationship and having those sorts of problems,” she says. “I’ve seen these conditions in people who have wonderful relationships. I’ve seen people in terrible — in fact, even abusive — relationships who don’t have those problems at all.” And to be fair, it’s not uncommon for the exact same problems to occur with brand new partners who may not have even had the chance to reveal their dickhead nature yet. So while it’s tempting to picture the vagina, vulva and surrounding area as clairvoyant, all-knowing and capable of differentiating good from evil, that’s probably not what’s really going on here.
A likelier explanation? Stress. According to Winston, any time a person is stressed — be it because of a bad relationship or any other discombobulation in their life — their muscles tend to tense up, their immune system becomes weaker and their normal levels of hormones can change, all of which can make them more prone to pain and infection. So it might not necessarily be the body of a partner or the way they treat them that vaginas and vulvas are reacting to, but the general stress they cause.
Nevertheless, Kent is quick to point out that recurrent pain, allergies and infections are incredibly important to pay attention to, not only so the person having them can be cared for and treated, but because it could also signal a problem with their partner’s health. It could be the partner who has candida or who’s using products or medications that are causing slight changes to their skin or bodily fluids that irritate the other person, or that irritation may be a sign that someone could be carrying toxins, parasites or other pathogens that weaken their health.
That’s why Kent recommends that all partners of people having untreatable or inexplicable vaginal or vulvar problems do some introspection about the well-being of their own bodies and the health of their relationships with others. What are you eating? What are you washing with? What medications are you taking? Do both of you feel safe and secure in your relationship? Is there anything causing stress between you that you might want to address? Are you considering their needs and boundaries?
“Take a holistic look at your habits and relationships and see if there’s anything that needs to be addressed,” she explains. “When you clear up the things in your life that might not be healthy for you, your whole body — not just you or your partner’s vagina — will respond with less tension, less pain and less infection.”
Nonetheless, Jasmine is still sold on the idea that her vagina is a divining rod. “I don’t really care how medically accurate this is, but if someone makes my pussy feel good, I’m just gonna assume they’re my soulmate,” she laughs. “Healthy vagina equals healthy life, right?”
Not exactly, but we’ll let her have it.