Vaginismus is a condition that causes the pelvic muscles to involuntarily contract to such an extent that anything inserted into the vagina is incredibly painful. Penetration of a finger, tampon or penis is virtually impossible.
At Passionfruit we speak to so many vagina owners who are suffering from painful sex and up until recently, the medical field has largely been ignorant of the issue. As far as we can tell, vaginismus is rarely discussed or studied in medical schools.
Vagimismus presents as pain inside the vagina whereas vulvodynia is pain felt externally on the vulva. Both conditions tend to be largely misdiagnosed and misunderstood and neglected, but healing and recovery is possible.
We speak to one sufferer who bravely instagrams her journey through vaginismus.
(Please note: this is a personal journey and not reflective of all sufferers. We hope that by publishing this interview, others experiencing vaginismus might find comfort and healing).
What first alerted you to the idea that something wasn’t right?
I started to wonder if something was wrong in 2018 because I had never been able to use tampons and I didn’t understand why. I always thought I was aiming wrong because I wasn’t sexually active and didn’t understand my body, but ultimately I could not rest not knowing if there was a legitimate problem.
My skin was aggravated by constant pad use, I couldn’t swim in summer, and I was quietly afraid I would not be able to have sex (meaning sexual intercourse) if I didn’t get to the bottom of it. However, I convinced myself nothing was seriously wrong because my vagina wasn’t sore to my own external touch.
How do you go about finding help for or even identifying this issue?
I first read about vaginismus on Teen Vogue in 2018. From that point I was always privately terrified that was my problem. My lovely GP always reassured me lots of people cannot use tampons but I told her I needed to figure it out for my own well-being so she referred me to a gynaecologist.
I explained my tampon issues to the gynaecologist - without mentioning my fear I might have vaginismus - and we agreed to do an internal examination. I was confident it would be fine because while I might be aiming wrong, the gynaecologist definitely wouldn’t so it shouldn’t hurt or be scary.
However, as soon as the gynaecologist laid her finger at the entrance of my vagina I screamed in agony and burst into tears. It was like someone had driven a white hot knife inside me and I was immediately in so much pain even the gynaecologist was shocked and upset. She tried again very slowly with a q-tip and it was still agonising and impossible, so she told me to dress and come and sit down.
I already knew what was wrong before she pulled it up on her screen - it was vaginismus. From there, I immediately went back to my GP, in complete hysterics, and she referred me to a sex therapist and a pelvic floor physiotherapist. The crucial first step is a fantastic GP who can refer you to the correct specialists for your situation.
A lot of people we speak with at Passionfruit want to understand why they have vaginismus. Do you think it’s important to understand the why?
It is incredibly important to understand why you have vaginismus. I spent the first 24 hours alternately in total distress and utter bewilderment, wondering how this could have happened to me when I am so sex-positive, and I didn’t have a sense of fearing my body.
It was not until my mother called me the next day and asked if I remembered being a victim of medical trauma when I was a child that I realised the problem. When I was six doctors performed a cystoscopy - a procedure where a tube is fed into the urethra to examine the bladder - without sedating me. It was agonising, and I remember thinking I might die as they held me down on the table.
If I didn’t know that was the cause of my vaginismus, I wouldn’t have been able to address my trauma and start healing. For other people, sexual trauma, physical trauma, or even cultural and religious conditioning can be at the root of these issues - and unlocking the reasons why your body is responding with pain in an effort to protect itself is the key to preventing that in the future.
How has vaginismus changed your relationship with your body?
At first, vaginismus sparked a real sense of disgust with my body. I was angry about my trauma, and I was overwhelmed with grief about what I perceived as failure, or dysfunction. I desperately wanted to use tampons and I desperately, desperately wanted to have sex at some point in the future. I felt completely and utterly broken.
That continued through the early stages of pelvic floor physiotherapy, when the treatment was ineffective and it felt as though recovery was impossible. But everything changed in an instant. One month after the disastrous start of my physiotherapy, I knocked off work early ahead of a weekend away with friends. I was home alone - which is rare for me - and I decided to spend some quality time meditating and self-pleasuring.
Entirely by accident, my finger slipped inside my vagina, all the way to my knuckle. I sobbed my heart out, moving my finger around inside myself - inside a part of my body I had started to believe I would never access, and would never enjoy. For the first time, there was penetration - and there was no pain.
My relationship with my body is now very good, for the most part. My physiotherapy still causes me some pain as I move through stages and I still worry about what sexual intimacy might be like for me in the future but I have experienced unbelievable freedom since I started healing.
I am constantly overwhelmed by the miracle of being able to invite touch and sensation into my body. I have discovered sexual pleasure through this healing process.
I have now developed a sense of peace with my body’s haphazard attempt to protect itself through vaginismus, and a kindness to myself and my past trauma that has enabled my capacity for healing and recovery from this condition. At last, I feel like I am friends with my body. And that feels really good.
How has the condition affected your daily life?
Vaginismus has made me sad. I grieve the loss of “normalcy” - that my body isn’t effortless. I grieve my pain. I am afraid of what my capacity for sexual intimacy may look like in the future and I am scared of the hard conversation I will have to have one day if I eventually find a partner with whom I want to have a sexual relationship. It has also been very isolating and lonely at times.
Sexual self-pleasure has been an essential element of my healing and I am extremely grateful for that, but as a single woman who really values and enjoys physical affection and touch, only having a relationship with my vibrator sometimes just makes me more sad about being alone.
However, having my vaginismus diagnosis has opened the door to healing. It has helped me understand my body better. And I know that in spite of my pain, my grief and my sadness, what I am learning now through the everyday management of my condition is preparing me for a better and more fulfilling sexual relationship in the future - if I am lucky enough to have one.
And if not - I am also learning how to love myself, and that is something that will serve and sustain me whether I am single or in a relationship.
What therapy are you undertaking and what does that typically look like?
I have a fabulous Christian sex therapist and a pelvic floor physiotherapist. My sex therapist has helped me address the fear and trauma in my lizard brain which has caused my pain. She has also helped me with the fundamentals of self-pleasure as someone who had never experimented with it before - how it is supposed to feel, what you can use, and how you can actually romance yourself instead of just getting off.
Separately, she is also helping me cope with being single with vaginismus. I am learning healthier coping mechanisms, how to be kind to myself, and what to actually look for in a partner who is strong, compassionate, kind and self-assured enough to walk with me through this journey.
I am also anticipating she will prepare me for discussing this with a hypothetical future partner and for the mental and emotional challenges I will face if I am actually preparing to have sex some day.
My pelvic floor physiotherapist works through dilator training with me, as well as internal muscle release. The dilators are a set of white plastic cylindrical objects - effectively, clinical plastic penises! - that increase in size to prepare the vaginal muscles to accommodate the real thing.
She also massages and releases the muscles internally, which is often painful but also very freeing - like physio on any other part of your body.
Recently we have introduced silicone dilators which are curved and a little softer to the touch, which makes them more realistic. I am using these to bridge the gap between the last two plastic dilators.
Lots of people do not like the plastic dilators but I am persisting with them with my physio and when I work on my treatment at home because I believe if my body can successfully adjust to quite a clinical, unsexy tool, that’s the best way to be prepared for the real thing - which will hopefully be comparatively easier and nicer. (Ha!)
You’re a practicing Christian. Has the prospect of self pleasure conflicted with your religion and if so, how have you reconciled the two?
We rarely talk about self-pleasure as Christians, and certainly not in the context of healing. My Christian sex therapist and I agreed it was in my best interests to engage with self-pleasure for the purposes of my treatment and in that sense it has been extremely effective.
Using a vibrator during and after dilator training lessens my pain significantly, and it makes the process feel less punishing and more like an investment in myself. That reason alone is sufficient for me to reconcile this as a healing process with my faith.
Something incredibly important my therapist told me was that sometimes babies touch themselves in the womb. They can’t be sexual yet, they’re unborn babies - all they know is that it feels good, so they do it. As a Christian that’s how I view it. I look at it as physical release, as a form of comfort, as a form of healing because it feels good and it is achieving something healthy and useful for me.
As Christians we also believe God invented sex, pleasure and the miracle of human bodies right down to the otherwise-unnecessary addition of the clitoris - so ultimately I see it as a celebration of the way God designed me.
What gave you the idea of publishing your journey on social media?
I started writing about vaginismus on Instagram because I had too many feelings. I was angry. I was scared. I was incredibly sad and lonely. I needed an outlet and I needed to know I wasn’t alone. I also wanted to make the process less ugly.
It might seem crazy but creating a pretty Instagram that tells the story of my sexual healing by celebrating the everyday moments, the tools, the experiences, the little wins made it seem less terrible in my mind.
I wanted to write a different story about vaginismus. I wanted to see it through less judgmental eyes. So I created an Instagram where it actually is sunshine and roses and aesthetically pleasing sex toys - a story of hope and beauty and possibility - instead of misery.
What advice do you have for people who think they may have vaginismus?
If you think you have vaginismus: talk. Talk to someone. See a doctor. See a gynaecologist. Get great advice. Get support. Find people you trust who you can release this to.
Vaginismus is not normal. It is normal in the sense that you are not crazy or broken or defunct or stupid for having it - YOU are normal - but don’t just accept that your pain is just an unavoidable way of life. It isn’t. Help is available and there is a world of possibility out there for you beyond sexual pain.
Healing is possible. And you deserve it. You deserve to feel comfortable and safe in your body. Honour yourself enough to know you deserve healing.
Please follow @uptight.allnight on instagram and give your support to this amazing person who has so kindly published her journey so that others might be informed and comforted. All photos supplied by @uptight.allnight
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