Body Heal Sex

When Sex Hurts

vaginismus
Liz Baudler
Written by Liz Baudler

BAUDLER

Coping With Vaginismus

“The first time I tried to have sex, I thought, “oh, it might hurt a little—not that it’d be impossible”, says Audrey, a 23-year-old Chicago woman. “You know how you brace yourself for when a dentist is coming at you? It felt like I was bracing myself for something I wasn’t allowing to happen.”

Though Audrey didn’t know it at the time, she was suffering from a condition called vaginismus. Its name gives little hint to what actually was happening to Audrey—the muscles around the vagina contract, making it painful, if not impossible, for penetration to occur. While it doesn’t mean that other forms of sex aren’t fun, vaginal intercourse is definitely off the table until the problem gets resolved. As Audrey put it, “Your instincts have the power to push the brakes, whether you want to or not.”

This is not some obscure sexual issue—according to vaginismus.com, the condition is the main cause of unconsummated sexual relationships. It interferes with the vagina’s basic role, and depending on the study you consult, 12%-17% of women seeking sex therapy do so for vaginismus. But that number might be as high as 47%, amazingly high for a problem no one seems to have heard about. Audrey, in fact, only heard about vaginismus because a close friend with a severe case started speaking and writing publicly about it.

“At first, I thought it was normal, that I was nervous and in a few more tries I’d be fine,” said Audrey. “It was about a month later that I realized there was a problem.” The fascinating thing about vaginismus is that while the physical cause is obvious—muscles refusing to unclench—why those muscles are clenching in the first place can be harder to determine. It can still be physical—inflammation, infections and surgeries can lead to those muscle spasms. But the primary causes of vaginismus are, in a sense, in your head. Sexual abuse, trauma, and a fear or belief that sex is wrong often coincide with the experience of vaginismus.

For Audrey, growing up in a conservative Christian environment definitely contributed to her eventual condition. None of her friends had lost their virginity, and it took her until college to realize that people could and did have sex. And because of her shame, she decided she wouldn’t deal with this problem she had. She wouldn’t go to a gynecologist. Even after she heard about her friend who’d had vaginismus for three years, so what? She wasn’t dying. “Psychologically, I didn’t want to know that I had a serious problem. I was never good at sports, and now it felt like, “sex is another sport that I’m not good at.”

While a gynecologist can heighten fears—after all, vaginismus can be so severe that doctors can’t even get a speculum in for an inspection—they’re also key to solving it. They can prescribe solutions such as pelvic therapy, special dilators to stretch the muscles, and muscle relaxants such as Botox. But still, much of the work is mental—cognitive behavior therapy is another treatment option.

Sometimes even the simple assurance that the problem exists and is treatable helps. Five days after a visit she’d been putting off for years, Audrey lost her virginity. “I think hearing from a doctor that you’re not gonna die helped me. I’d been hearing my whole life from authority figures that sex was wrong, but here was this authority figure saying something different.”

As you might expect, partners can have a huge effect on a woman’s vaginismus journey. Audrey experienced both supportive and impatient partners. Of her first boyfriend, she says, “It demoralized us both. He didn’t think I found him attractive, and he became frustrated and selfish. I don’t think it ever dawned on him how much sex could hurt me, or that he wasn’t entirely convinced he was hurting me. He never said, but sometimes I think he wished I’d just suck it up.”

Her next boyfriend demonstrates all the fantastic things a partner can do for someone with vaginismus. “When I told him, he knew of the condition. He wanted to have sex with me, but he wanted me to go to a gynecologist on my own time, and to make it more for me than him. He actually studied vaginismus more than I did, and even pointed out which muscles were the ones that tensed up. I’ll forever be grateful to him.”

There are still some limitations to what Audrey can do in bed—sex can start slow, new positions often take some adjustment and might be painful at first. She’s found marijuana to be helpful in getting her vaginal muscles ready for sex. Whatever treatment works for a given woman, success rates are usually high. Just don’t put off that visit to a gynecologist.

 

About the author

Liz Baudler

Liz Baudler

If you ever hear a bespectacled girl in a camouflage helmet honking the horn of a bike that's much too big for her, you may have encountered Liz Baudler. She writes for Newcity, Chicago Literati, and periodically, Ms. Fit. Check out her stuff at www.lizbaudler.virb.com.

11 Comments

  • Excellent article, though I would have liked to see inclusion of a related condition called vulvodynia which is where areas or the whole of the vulva can be hyper responsive to pressure causing pain, sometimes quite severe. I have it and avoided doing anything about it for almost 10 years because I didn’t realise I had a medical problem until I finally broke down in tears with my campus doctor because I couldn’t stand the thought of suffering through another PAP test. Luckily, he recognized the problem and referred me to a specialist.

    As an aside, women should know that while these problems can be linked to trauma or poor societal messages about sex, they don’t have to be. I was raised in a very open family and all my experiences were consensual, but yet I was still afflicted.

  • I too, suffered from this. The first time I had sex it was very painful. I figured subsequent times would improve, but they did not. It took over a dozen extremley painful intercourse sessions before I could manage to tolerate (not enjoy) it. I was too embarrased to bring this up to a doctor. Later in life, I told both my mother and a doc about it and they both dismissed it with “it was because you had intercourse so young” (I was 15 at first attempt, 16 by the time I could tolerate sex, 17 when I enjoyed it). Do you think this is some kind of ageism?

  • As someone with this condition I actually found that vibrator’s helped immensely. The stronger ones tended to vibrate the muscle which made it harder for the muscle to clamp down. I have a deep and abiding hatred for dilators.

  • I have had sex with the same (awesome, patient, caring, attentive) partner for years, and thought my body was just ‘hit and miss’ with sex, and that that was my normal. I’m so happy to read this article and know that treatment might be possible for this condition if this is what I have. Time to see a gynecologist – thank you, Ms. Fit!

  • I really, really wish you’d included lesbians in this article. We have vaginismus too, it affects our lives and relationship (for example, my vaginismus means that I can’t get examined to see if I have cervical cancer), there is a complete lack of inclusion of us in all literature on vaginismus, and most gynecologists assume their patients make the presumtion that their patient have straight sex which makes you feel even more uncomfortable. All of this shit adds up to a huge alienation which makes treatment a lot harder. I once read a book from 2010 which described the “ultimate goal” in curing vaginismus as being able to insert a penis into your vagina. There is, to my knowledge, not a single article or book even partly addressed to lesbians and queer women with vaginismus, and this article adds to that void.

    Ms. Fit, rectify yourselves in another article, please? It would mean a hell of a lot

    • Thanks for writing — you’re totally correct. There needs to be information to address the needs and concerns of lesbians with vaginismus as well. I hope at least that you found the actual tips and advice helpful, even if the anecdotal story was about a woman in heterosexual relationships.

      • Hey commenter, agreed, and no offense or lack of inclusion was intended. I’m a lesbian too. In this article, I definitely wanted to spread awareness of the condition for starters. While it seems to me self-evident that anyone who’s trying to get anything into their vagina is going to have a heck of a time doing so if they have vaginismus, and hopefully advice about therapy and supportive sex partners is helpful for LGBTQ folks, I agree it would have been great to see a queer angle on the topic. Not a lot of info exists on vaginismus in general, since for whatever reason it’s not talked about as much as it should be (hence me writing the article.) If you have any info to share, I’d love to hear it. Sincerely, the author.

    • I completely agree with this comment. I’m a doctoral student in clinical psychology and recently gave a presentation on vaginismus and heteronormativity. So far, I haven’t found anything in the literature (medical, psych, or physical therapy) that talks about vaginismus with queer women. I interviewed several practitioners who use dilator therapy who did not understand why the treatment may not be appropriate for lesbians. Suffice it to say, I feel your pain, and I’ll do my part to try and add to the literature with my own work in the future. I second the call for Ms. Fit to do an article specifically about vaginismus (even vaginal pain in general, there’s so many conditions!) for lesbians and queer women. It really would mean a great deal. Thanks!

  • I found out I (probably) have vaginismus through the internet. Various sites advise that it’s something you must work on yourself, but I have found having a supportive, understanding sexual partner(s) has helped me much more than my dialators ever did.

  • I sometimes have similar issues when trying to use a tampon, but not 100% of the time. Its beyond my control. I am glad she at least found out what a jerk that one guy was.

Leave a Comment