Vaginismus: solutions to a painful sexual taboo
Many women use terms such as ‘failure’ or ‘freak’ to describe themselves
Vaginismus is often a problem from the start of a woman’s sexual life but for some it is a secondary problem, developing even though there may have been previous positive sexual experiences
Vaginismus is a very common but rarely discussed problem. Most women I see with this difficulty will not have discussed it with anyone else, not even female members of their own family or girlfriends. The silence that surrounds the issue and the sense of shame experienced sometimes serves to compound the difficulty itself. Many women with whom I have worked will use terms such as “failure” or “freak” to describe themselves, wishing they were “normal” just like every other woman.
Before seeking therapy, they will often have suffered this distress over a long period of time, not feeling able to embark on or enjoy sexual relationships. The thought that they may not be able to conceive through intercourse is frequently a huge anxiety for these women.
What is vaginismus?
Vaginismus occurs when the muscles around the entrance to the vagina involuntarily contract. It is an automatic, reflexive action; the woman is not intending or trying to tighten these muscles, in fact it is the very opposite of what she is hoping for. Often it is a problem right from the start of a woman’s sexual life but for some it is a secondary problem, developing even though there may have been previous positive sexual experiences. In most cases, the woman is unable to use tampons or have a smear test.
What are the symptoms?
The main symptom of vaginismus is difficulty achieving penetration during intercourse and the woman will experience varying degrees of pain or discomfort with attempts. Partners often describe it like “hitting a wall”. This is as a result of spasm within the very strong pelvic floor or pubococcygeus muscle group. Spasm or tightening may also occur in the lower back and thighs.
What are the causes?
Vaginismus is the result of the body and mind developing a conditioned response to the anticipation of pain. This is an unconscious action, akin to the reflexive action of blinking when something is about to hit our eye. This aspect of vaginismus is one of the most distressing for women as they really want their bodies to respond to arousal and yet find it impossible to manage penetrative sex. The more anxious they become, the less aroused they will feel and the entire problem becomes a vicious cycle.
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Vaginismus can occur as a result of psychological or physical issues. Often it is a combination of both. Psychological issues centre around fear and anxiety; worries about sex, performance, negativity about sex from overly rigid family or school messages.
Inadequate sex education is often a feature in vaginismus, resulting in fears about the penis being able to fit or the risk of being hurt or torn. There can also be anxiety about the relationship, trust and commitment fears or a difficulty with being vulnerable or losing control.
Occasionally a woman may have experienced sexual assault, rape or sexual abuse and the trauma associated with these experiences may lead to huge fears around penetration. There are physical causes too – the discomfort caused by thrush, fissures, urinary tract infections, lichens sclerosis or eczema and the aftermath of a difficult vaginal delivery can all trigger the spasm in the PC muscles. Menopausal women can sometimes experience vaginismus as a result of hormonal-related vaginal dryness.
Vaginismus is highly treatable. Because every woman is different, the duration of therapy will vary but, with commitment to the therapy process, improvement can be seen quite rapidly. Therapy is a combination of psychosexual education, slow and measured practice with finger insertion and/or vaginal trainers at home and pelvic floor exercises. Women with partners are encouraged to bring them along to sessions so that the therapist can work with them as a couple towards a successful attempt at intercourse.
Vaginismus can place huge stresses on a couple’s relationship as well as their sexual life; therapy can help the couple talk about and navigate these stresses. This is particularly important for a couple wishing to start a family.
What do I do if I think I have vaginismus?
Make an appointment with the GP. It will be helpful to have an examination to out rule any physical problem and have it treated if necessary. The GP is likely to refer you to a sex therapist, a psychotherapist who has specialised in sex and relationships through further training. They have specific expertise in working with this problem on a regular basis. You can also refer yourself to a sex therapist but, because of the very complex and sensitive nature of sex and sexuality, it is important to ensure that they are qualified and accredited. Sex therapists in Ireland may be found on www.cosrt.org.uk
Robert was my first boyfriend. We waited six months to try sex, mostly because I was a virgin and very nervous. My mother had always warned me about not getting pregnant and I think I was too scared to try. When we did try, it didn’t work, it was disastrous. We tried again and again but he could not get in.
Every time we tried, I ended up in tears and over time I started to avoid sex. Robert was really patient but I know that it was very tough for him and I felt guilty. We thought it was a phase and it would improve with time. It didn’t stop us getting engaged because we knew we were right for each other.
Eventually I got the courage up to go to the doctor who diagnosed vaginismus – the relief of having a name to put on it was huge. She referred me to a sex therapist. I was embarrassed even talking about it, but quite honestly it was a relief to finally discuss it all. She explained everything about my problem and started me practising with vaginal trainers. I even got to start using tampons, something I never thought I would be able to do.
Robert also came to the sessions and that was a big help. We were given exercises to do at home together that helped me relax a lot. I made a lot of progress over a couple of months and, finally, last Christmas we got to try intercourse again. Success! Our sexual relationship is completely different now, no more worries and lots more fun.
I feel as if a huge worry has been lifted off my shoulders.
Teresa Bergin is a psychotherapist, sex therapist and couples therapist. She is an accredited member of the Irish Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy, the College of Sex and Relationship Therapy (London) and a member of the International Centre for Excellence in Emotionally Focused Therapy (Canada). For more information see sextherapy.ie