I was nineteen when my doctor diagnosed me with vaginismus. I wasn’t surprised. Two weeks earlier she had tried to insert a cotton swab inside of me and my muscles had seized up upon contact. I had to tell her to stop. It took her three tries to get a sample.
“There’s nothing physically wrong with your vagina,” she told me. “You just have trouble being penetrated.”
Vaginismus is a psychophysiological disorder affecting the vagina and vaginal muscles. It makes penetrative sex, and sometimes vaginal penetration of any kind, extremely uncomfortable, painful, or impossible. Upon attempted penetration, the walls of the vagina are likely to spasm involuntarily. The condition has been described as erectile dysfunction for women. It’s been compared to an eye automatically shutting when an object comes towards it. Patients with vaginismus have likened attempting penetrative sex to “hitting a brick wall.”
People with vaginismus may not be able to use tampons comfortably, or at all. They might find themselves consistently clenching throughout the day without realising it. They could become anxious at the suggestion of sex, or any form of foreplay. They often don’t have trouble becoming aroused, but still experience severe pain during penetration; a deep sting or burn or throb as their pelvic muscles tighten and contract. Some of them can’t achieve penetration at all.
I met my first boyfriend in college. Six years in an all-girls secondary school had rendered my experience with the opposite sex all but non-existent. I attended an Arts college and made a lot of friends. We’d sit around and gossip about the people we didn’t know very well. We’d encourage each other to shift that random lad from the model making course. We’d do very little actual work. It was an age where everyone was losing their virginity, or trying to, or at least bemoaning the fact that they could not.[pullquote]The condition has been described as erectile dysfunction for women. It’s been compared to an eye automatically shutting when an object comes towards it.[/pullquote]
I spent a fair amount of time casually shrugging off the inevitable “so have you done it yet?” questions. I wasn’t ready. The potential of pain and discomfort and bleeding outweighed any desire I had to have sex. The thought of breaking my hymen made me wince. Those free condoms that were so generously thrown about during every college event made me anxious. Harmless jokes about fisting and double penetration over lunch left me sitting alone in bathroom cubicles struggling to control my breathing. I was scared, but I had been told that this was normal. Everybody’s scared the first time. You’ll be fine.
Questions about whether I’d finally slept with my boyfriend became assumptions that we must have done because who stays in a relationship with somebody for two whole years without having sex? That would be weird. There was something wrong with you if you didn’t.
Most online resources will tell you that vaginismus is easily treatable. They’ll talk about sex therapy and relaxation techniques and CBT. They’ll tell you to do Kegel exercises even though those risk making your vagina even tighter. They’ll suggest that you practice penetrating yourself with special vaginal dilators that you can buy online. They tell you to do all of this to achieve pain-free sex. They won’t tell you how difficult it is. Or how expensive. Or how hard it is to force yourself to relax when all you can think about is the inevitable pain and disappointment and guilt after you’ve failed again.[pullquote]It was like I was suffering PTSD from a trauma that had never even taken place.[/pullquote]
I started seeing a hypnotherapist a month before my twentieth birthday. After that first consultation my boyfriend and I talked about how much better things would be when hypnosis fixed me. But after about two months, six sessions, and a lot of deep breathing, it was becoming clearer and clearer that hypnotherapy wasn’t helping. This isn’t to say that treatment like this doesn’t work – it does. It’s supposed to. But when those sessions ended and I received a follow-up email from my therapist asking how I was getting on I found myself lying. I told him that everything we had done – the calming exercises, the meditation, the hypnosis (handing him seventy quid every fucking week) – had all worked. I said I was cured. He had fixed me.
The truth was I was afraid of wasting more money on something that might not even work. I was scared of going back there and admitting that I still couldn’t relax enough to be penetrated. I didn’t want to try to uncover some deep-rooted cause of my condition that didn’t even exist. I worried about the guilt and the shame after trying to have sex, the inevitable rows with my boyfriend, the repetitive pleading that I would try harder next time, I just can’t do it today, it will happen soon. I was afraid of being alone because nobody else would want me like this.
It was like I was suffering PTSD from a trauma that had never even taken place. Vaginismus is often idiopathic; it has no cause. In some cases, rape and sexual assault victims, or women who have had particularly bad childbirth experiences, can develop the condition. In my case, it just happened.
In September, The Establishment published a piece detailing the experiences of some women who have vaginismus. The disorder was attributed to instances of trauma, psychological anxieties, and even Catholic guilt. The year before, Vice told the story of Jamie Manelis, a woman who had been diagnosed with vaginismus but still managed to achieve penetrative sex most of the time. The headline declared that Jamie was being ‘cockblocked by her own vagina.’ It was the first article on a person’s experience of the condition I’d ever mustered up the courage to read. It was the first time I’d ever laughed at what was wrong with me.
I was sick of being told that a relationship was pointless without penetrative sex. I was tired of having the same conversation over and over again.
“But you can handle the pain of a tattoo, why can’t you handle the pain of sex?”
“Why can’t you do this for me?”
“This isn’t fair.”
There’s a section on the vaginismus Wikipedia page that says that people with the disorder can still love their partners, they just aren’t able to have sex with them. As if that should ever need to be explained. As if not being in total control of your bits isn’t frustrating enough without having to justify your emotions too.
Vaginismus had torpedoed one relationship and I was left with the assumption that the same thing was simply going to happen over and over again for the rest of my life; like a little sexless merry-go-round filled with contracting vaginas and sad limp penises. There were brief moments of vague concern when I wondered whether I should change my Tinder bio to reflect my condition, lest I inadvertently lie to these poor, unsuspecting #lads. But I guessed that ‘Jade, 23, my vagina doesn’t work properly, 13 kilometres away’ probably wouldn’t get me half as many SuperLikes, so I didn’t.
As it turned out, I needn’t have worried. In a genuinely surprising twist of events, nobody was bothered that I couldn’t have sex. Being told that my condition didn’t matter – it’s okay, don’t be worried, this isn’t a big deal – was an unfathomable concept. For years vaginismus had defined my sex life; everything else had been inconsequential.
Right up until it wasn’t. For the first time in years, I actually wanted to have sex. I still couldn’t, but I wanted to. My perceptions around intimacy started to change. I stopped narrowly defining sex; I wasn’t guilt-ridden anymore; I didn’t care what anyone else thought. After four years of feeling inadequate and broken, I started to talk.
Vaginismus is explaining to someone that you just don’t want them to touch you that way. It’s feeling frustrated with your own body for not chilling the fuck out and doing what you want it to do for once. It’s unnecessarily apologising for something that is beyond your control. But it’s also not worrying about getting pregnant. It’s having a lot more oral sex and not spending any money on condoms. It’s forgetting to take your pill being a mild menstrual related inconvenience. It’s 10% of women not being able to have pain-free penetrative sex. It’s not being talked about enough.
Men with erectile dysfunction get Viagra. Women with vaginismus get hundreds of euros worth of therapy, (painful) vaginal dilators, and a lot of unnecessary lube. We get a severe shortage of medical studies carried out on the condition. We get told to just get on with it, it won’t be that bad, it’s just a bit of pain.
I don’t want to say that I’m a sufferer of vaginismus. I don’t suffer, I just have it. It’s like a nasty little pimple that just appeared one day; I’m sure if I squeezed hard enough I could pop it, but I don’t think it’s worth the trouble. Last year, the only thing I associated with sex was pain. That, crippling anxiety, and an overwhelming desire to become a nun. Now, things are different. I care but I don’t care as much. I’m frustrated but I’m not ashamed. I’m finally talking, and I’ve realised that I don’t need to be fixed.