Having a happy sex life with vaginismus
Saoirse discusses how seeking help for vaginismus can be frustrating, especially for those with non-heterosexual identities, but perseverance is key.
Written by Saoirse O'Connor
Voices - Experiences
Young people share their personal experiences.
Vaginismus is a condition that causes the pelvic floor muscles around the vagina to contract involuntarily. This means that the muscles tighten by themselves. It makes penetration of the vagina, such as inserting a penis, tampon or finger, difficult, painful or impossible. Like many conditions that affect people with vaginas, vaginismus is very under-researched, and little is known about how common it is to experience it. .
There are several things that are thought to cause vaginismus, such as a negative sexual experience, fear or anxiety around sex, or inaccurate/ inadequate sex education. In my case, I’m fairly sure that the sex education I got (fear-based education that strongly encouraged abstinence) had something to do with it.
Getting diagnosed with vaginismus
I first realised I might have vaginismus when I couldn’t insert tampons. I would go back every couple of months or years and try again, but the result was always the same – it was like I was pushing the tampon against a solid wall of flesh. I assumed that this issue would resolve itself eventually, and left it at that.
When I went to college and started having sexual relationships with people, it began to dawn on me that maybe this was a problem that needed a little more attention. I went to the local sexual health treatment centre, where the nurse told me it sounded like I had vaginismus but didn’t offer me any solutions for it.
That was the first of several different places I went to try to get answers, and everywhere I went the answers were disappointingly vague. I was getting more and more frustrated, and it was putting strain on my relationships.
Thankfully, it doesn’t really bother me that much any more. Actually, it seems to bother other people more than it bothers me.
What people get wrong about vaginismus and sex
Oftentimes, when I tell friends or family I have vaginismus, I will get one of the following questions in response:
- Is it possible you’re just not trying hard enough?
- Why don’t you just have a few glasses of wine and then give it a go?
- When do you think you will be able to have sex?
In response to the first two questions, I usually remind people that vaginismus is a condition with real physical and psychological symptoms – it’s not “all in my head”. Also, consent gets murky when alcohol is involved, so telling me to just have some wine is like saying that being able to have penetrative sex is more important than being able to fully consent to said sex. Talk about skewed priorities.
The third question is the one that really gets under my skin because, actually, I have quite a good sex life. I have a great boyfriend and we have a lot of fun together.
What they’re really asking is: when are you going to have penis-in-vagina sex?
And, every time, my response is this: Penis-in-vagina sex is not the only kind of sex.
Being a queer woman, it was perhaps a little easier for me to see sex this way, as queer sex is often not penis-in-vagina sex.
Trying to get help for vaginismus
When I started seeking treatment I was surprised to find how heteronormative the world of vaginismus treatments can be.
I saw a sex therapist for a while whointroduced me to dilation. Dilation is a method used to make the vagina muscles widen. It’s a plastic or silicone rod or cylinder with a rounded end that is inserted into the vagina to help stretch the tissues. She talked a lot, though most of it was things I already knew.
She also repeatedly referred to sex as something that happens “between a man and a woman”, despite me reminding her that I also date people of other genders. I was baffled – I thought that of all people, a sex therapist should surely know to respect and include non-heterosexual identities. The therapeutic relationship didn’t last long after that.
I also tried sensate focus. This is an approach to intimacy with a focus on touching and exploration rather than on orgasm. It’s quite good – it takes the pressure off and allows you to see sex as the exciting journey it should be. I don’t deliberately do it anymore but I have taken a lot of the techniques and mindset and incorporated them into my current sexual practices.
I kept dilating for a while and made some really good progress with it. The progress kind of ebbed and flowed, though. I would feel like I wasn’t getting anywhere for weeks, struggling with the smallest dilator, and then all of a sudden I was able to insert a larger one. Then, the week after, I wasn’t.
I tried not to let it get me down, and I reminded myself that progress isn’t always linear. Everyone has something different that works best for them – I found it helped to do it in front of a mirror while listening to upbeat music. It works best for me to insert the dilator very slowly – sometimes I’m halfway through the third song on my playlist before it’s fully in!
Support groups for vaginismus
I joined an online support group that t was actually quite helpful. We exchanged dilation tips and chatted about the diagnosis process and other treatment options (for example, physiotherapy). Another thing I learned from that support group was that the healing process takes time. Some people in the group had been dealing with vaginismus for far longer than I had. That scared me at first, but in a way, it was also quite validating.
Many of the healthcare professionals I had dealt with along the way had a very matter-of-fact approach and gave me the impression that either treatment wasn’t needed, or that treatment would be quick and straightforward. It felt good to see other people acknowledging that it wasn’t necessarily as simple as that. I realised that if I was going to be in it for the long haul, I might as well make my peace with it andI think that’s what I’ve done.
At the moment, I’m not doing much to actively “overcome” my vaginismus. I dilate occasionally, and I plan to go back to it more regularly soon. Eventually, I want to be in a place where penetration is easy for me. Even from a practical perspective, it will make trips to the gynaecologist much less unpleasant.
However, the pressure to get to the stage where I can have penetrative sex as quickly as possible isn’t there any more. I enjoy the kinds of sex I have at the moment and so does my boyfriend. I’m happy where I am now, and I don’t care how long it takes to move forward.
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