Written by Katrina Fairhurst the creator of @awenipleasure - a community for people who have or think they have vaginismus and want to reconnect with pleasure as they go through treatment.
I was 18 and at university the first and last time I tried to use a tampon, I was over my friend’s and she had given me one of her extra small tampons as it should fit everyone. I remember looking down and thinking “Well that’s going to be a problem” as it refused to move no matter how hard I tried to press it in. It felt as if it had hit a physical wall and I quickly realised that no matter what I tried it would not be going in. It would be another 9 years before I realised that there was a medical reason for this.
In the time before I got a diagnosis, I would go through the humiliation of being unable to use tampons or menstrual cups at a time when people get shamed for using just pads, the frustration of sex being painful and uncomfortable even when there was no penetration involved and finally the awkward moment of accidentally kicking a nurse in the face when I went for my smear test at 25.
During covid and the height of the lockdown, I finally had the chance to start researching what was wrong with me, I went to the doctors and finally got a diagnosis of what was wrong with me. I had Vaginismus.
What is Vaginismus?
The NHS defines Vaginismus as when the muscles in the vaginal opening contract painfully when penetration tries to occur, from penetrative sex to smear tests and even trying to insert menstrual items such as tampons and moon cups. This definition is true but it only covers the physical reaction that occurs in vaginismus, what isn’t talked about is that it is both a physical reaction and a mental problem as well.
There are many different causes for it to develop from bacterial infections, fear that sex is going to hurt, mental health issues such as anxiety and depression to sexual trauma and shame. It has even been linked to develop due to the pain of having the coil inserted and for some people, they just simply have it just because.
In some cases people have it a few times due to stress or anxiety then it goes away in other cases they have it so severely that just thinking of penetration in any form can bring about a contraction.
There are two types of Vaginismus, one can be bacterial and occur before sex or when penetration has never occurred, or secondary vaginismus, which I have, when penetration occurs and that causes it. In both cases it is important to note that you do not need to have sex to develop it, penetration can occur in different ways.
The current stats indicate that 1 in 1000 vulva owners have suffered from vaginismus at some point, personally, I think it is much more but due to the old views that a little pain in sex was normal as well as the shame many feel towards getting smear tests of having a Dr look at their vulva, many are being undiagnosed.
For more information on Vaginismus check out the site set up by sustainable condom brand HANX as part of their valentines Day campaign #letsopenup which features helpful tips on how to talk about it with doctors and partners, as well as more insight into the condition.
Finally getting help
Getting a diagnosis can be hard and can require not just talking with a Dr but also having a gynaecology exam that won't be as invasive as a smear test. In my case, I only had to talk because of the aforementioned kicking of the poor nurse when I went for my smear test helping to cement my case.
There are a few different ways you can get help from sex or hypnosis therapy to using dilators, they can be used on their own or in conjunction with each other. If your looking to get a diagnosis and treatment ask your GP what your options are and choose which works for you. There is no one-size fits all for treatment.
I chose sexual therapy and vaginal dilators, which are silicone tubes in differing sizes that you place in the vaginal opening and hold for a few minutes at a time to get the body used to penetration. As you get used to each tube you work up to the next size.
When using dilators it is important to remember that treatment is not a linear line, you will have days where you can easily move through the different sizes and days where moving past the smallest one is hard. This can be for several reasons from stress and exhaustion, being triggered or even due to your period making you sensitive. And, while it can be frustrating it is important not to give up.
A helpful tip for using dilators, make yourself as comfortable as possible and seduce yourself as you use them, get that pillow under your hips, pop on your favourite warm socks if you're feeling cold, play that playlist and tease yourself. I was encouraged to even try getting warmed up by using clit stimulator to help my body connect the dilators with pleasure to help my body relax into the sensation.
Even in the age of sexual wellness and liberation, shame is still a huge part of our society when it comes to sex, health and talking openly about our needs. If you don't fit heteronormative society's ideas of what you should and shouldn't be doing in the bedroom you are labelled as wrong and should be ashamed you're not having sex the same way as everyone else.
Before I got the diagnosis, shame and embarrassment coloured everything I did. I knew something was wrong and didn't know how to explain it without people treating me like I was lying, or on one very memorable occasion telling me it was because I didn’t have sex with men and my vagina was just “too tight because I hadn’t experienced sex with a penis.”
My worry that people would ignore the verbal cues that I didn't like penetration stopped me from dating. The embarrassment and pain made me dislike my body, thinking that my body had turned against me and I was unloveable and ugly inside and out. I avoided the doctors, and, it stole my confidence and stopped me from voicing my boundaries with people because I was confused about what was happening.
Since my diagnosis I have strived to talk about it as much as possible to shine a light on the condition; from my special vaginismus episode on the podcast I co-host, The Partition, to writing articles and even going to Sex Tech School to learn how to set up an online community and create a sex toy business focused on the issue. One of the best things that happened was once I started talking about it, people started talking back about their own issues, sharing stories or asking for more information.
Shame has a huge hold on people when it comes to sexual liberation and wellness but also looking after their sexual health, so for everyone reading this worried they may have it I say fuck feeling ashamed, there is nothing wrong with you and by talking about it and getting the help you can work through it and also find new ways of pleasure that work for you.
But what about finding pleasure?
Sex and vaginismus can be tricky, but it is not the end of your sex life, from sex toys and lube to oral, mutual masturbation and guiding your partner through what you like there is plenty of ways you can enjoy intimacy, pleasure and sex with a partner that isn’t focused on penetration.
My journey with Vaginismus was an awakening moment and as I moved through the last 5 years of my 20s it has been a blessing as much as it has been a curse. Without vaginismus I would never have learnt about pleasure outside of what porn or even the few times I had sex with my partners told me it was supposed to be, rub the clit, pop in a few fingers or something bigger and wait for the fireworks to happen.
Yet as I used my dilators and took the time to focus on my body it allowed me to tap into new ways to enjoy pleasure, yes a wand vibrator is great on the clit but also feels amazing on your nipples and when it’s run over your thighs. Also, the opening of the vaginal canal has some very fun sensitive nerve endings that a vibrating grinder or even the head of a g-spot vibrator lightly moving against instead of pressing in can stimulate, leading to some very intense orgasms (in this case I am lucky I live alone because the first time I tried this my legs shook for 5 minutes and I screamed so loud I am sure my neighbours heard me.)
It also taught me to finally communicate my needs, wants, fantasies and desires out into the world - not just with potential partners but with myself. My sex therapist once described Vaginismus as the body's final boundary when you feel your verbal and mental ones are being walked over. Having to have very frank and open conversations with friends, family and potential partners about what vaginismus is, how I got it and what I want helped me gain confidence to have these conversations with what I want after I had finished therapy and my dilators. It helped me reconnect with myself in a way that left me finally feeling complete.
It is this journey to discover the pleasure that Aweni came into being - why not create a space for other people, regardless of sexuality or gender, who have been diagnosed with Vaginismus to come together and discover what can happen beyond the therapeutic and clinical focus that we currently have for Vaginismus? Pleasure is for everyone and should be explored in all of its forms without worry, shame or fear of pain. Aweni is a place for inspiration, reconnection, pleasure, boundaries and building up your self-confidence.
If you think you might have vaginismus I urge you to go to your doctor and seek a formal diagnosis and look at all the treatment options available for you.
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