| Tara Langdale
Written by Angelica on Let the Good Thoughts Grow Blog - Reposted with Permission
19 was a year of many firsts for me, including the first time I was in a serious relationship. For a lot of young women, this also comes with the another first: the first time you have sex. I was no different.
However, when I first tried to have sex, I couldn’t do it. I also couldn’t do it the second time, the third, the fourth, the fifth, or the 40th. In fact, it took a little over a year after my first attempt for it to actually happen.
When I was 19, I realized I suffer from a condition which affects an estimated 0.5% of women—vaginismus. Up until that point, I thought it was normal to be afraid of being intimate with a man. I thought it was normal to be incapable of inserting a tampon. I thought it was normal that a simple touch near my vagina would cause my muscles to tense up and for me to feel uneasy.
Vaginismus is a condition in which a fear of penetration causes your pelvic floor muscles to spasm. This spasm can either make penetration of any kind painful or even impossible. Essentially, your muscles tighten up. Physically, there is nothing abnormal about your vagina. In fact, my vagina is perfectly healthy. Vaginismus, at least for me, is a psychological issue. My body associates penetration with pain and therefore causes my pelvic floor muscles to involuntarily tense up. The best way to describe it is by comparing it to how you react when something suddenly comes toward your face. If I were to throw something at you, you will end up shutting your eyes despite not thinking about it. It’s a reflex. That’s what vaginismus is like.
There can be a lot of risk factors. Some of these include: past sexual trauma, a deeply held aversion toward sex or the idea that sex is “dirty,” misinformation surrounding what it’s like to lose your virginity (e.g. belief that your first time is supposed to be painful or that you’re going to bleed)(+1 for me), generalized anxiety (+1 for me), or painful conditions associated with the vagina (e.g. endometriosis). But, for most women, vaginismus’s exact cause is unknown. Personally, although I do fit into some of the risk factors, there isn’t one thing I can point to and say caused me to have this condition, it’s just something I realized I had when I first attempted to have sex.
Treatment for vaginismus varies, but it’s usually done through the use of dilators, behavioral therapy, physical therapy, or a combination of these. For me, I used both dilators and behavioral therapy. First, I used my dilators and then I sought the help of a psychiatrist who specialized in sexual disorders.
After about a year or so of consistently dilating, I was finally able to experience “normal” penetration. I use quotation marks around the word normal because I don’t want to give off the impression that the first couple of times I had sex were magical because they were far from it. In fact, for a good while after I was able to finally to let something in, I didn’t feel any pleasure from sex. At all. It was more so something I did because I felt like it was necessary in order to keep my relationship. In a sense, it helped me feel normal and helped combat some other insecurities I had in terms of how I valued myself.
That’s the thing about vaginismus. It does a pretty great job of messing with your head. I can’t even count the amount of times I felt like I was less of a woman because I either couldn’t have sex or didn’t enjoy it. My constant joke was that I was born with a “faulty vagina.” I spent a good part of my college years jealous of people who could casually have sex, not because that’s what I wanted, but because I felt so much envy at the fact that people could have sex so easily with people they didn’t even care about while I couldn’t enjoy sex with someone I did care about. I wanted to be normal. I wanted the ability to have sex with someone I cared about or even casually if that’s something I wanted. I desperately wanted control over my body. When I would get really upset, I’d start thinking about how I would never be able to get married, how no man would ever love me or want to be with me, or how I would never have the opportunity to have children. Because how are you going to create a baby (much less get through childbirth!) when you can’t even insert a tampon?!
Having vaginismus is also a lonely experience. I’ve never met a woman in person with the condition, but it’s also something no one really talks about. Although there are plenty of commercials and references about men experiencing sexual dysfunction, you never really hear about a woman’s experience, do you? But then again, when the condition affects less than 1% of women, there aren’t exactly a lot of people to discuss things with in the first place! But even so, the loneliness stems a lot from the fact that most people just don’t get it. They don’t understand what it means to feel like you’re getting stabbed when you try and insert something inside of yourself. They don’t understand what you mean when you say that sex just doesn’t feel good for you. They don’t understand why you can’t just “relax.” They don’t understand what it’s like to be stressed for days because your annual exam is coming up at the gynecologist and the last time you went you were so uncomfortable, you yelled at the doctor to get out. Honestly, I sometimes have a hard time understanding why I just can’t relax, either. I’ve gone to gynecologists who didn’t even know what vaginismus was. I’ve had doctors ask me to explain what my condition was despite them being specialists in the female reproductive system. I had my parents see my dilators once and accuse me of being disrespectful by bringing sex toys in their house (which now is kind of comical to me because I wouldn’t have been capable of even using a sex toy that requires insertion at that point!). I’ve had people tell me to “just do it!” I’ve tried drinking a glass or two of wine before sex. I’ve taken meds before sex. None of that works.
What did work? My treatment was similar to treatment a lot of women use. Like I mentioned earlier, I used dilators and also underwent behavioral therapy. My psychiatrist addressed both my vaginismus along with some other things I was/sometimes still go through, so having her was incredibly helpful. But, nothing was more helpful to me than my dilators. It sounds silly, but the first time I was able to insert a dilator (as in the smallest one, maybe the thickness of a thumb), I was ELATED. I went from being able to handle absolutely no penetration to being able to insert my first dilator. Slowly, but eventually, I was able to progress through all of my dilators until I was able to have PIV sex. Again, slowly but eventually, I was able to enjoy sex. Some days I feel sensitive and may just not be in the mindset for it, and that’s okay! You’re under no obligation to have sex with someone, ever. Yes, sex is an important part of a relationship for many people, but things can be balanced. No one should make you feel as though you need to have sex with them seven days a week in order for them to love and respect you. Yes, sex matters (to some), but it’s not everything. For me, I feel loved and cared for in different ways. My love languages are acts of service and words of affirmation. Sex is just a plus for me.
I’m on my own these days, so I can’t say anything exciting has happened recently, but I actually still dilate. I dilate in order to remind my body that penetration is A-okay, just in case she forgets. Tampons though…. I just don’t think we’ll ever be on good terms.
I’d like to finish this up with some general advice for anyone dealing with vaginismus or for anyone who just wants to provide support to someone dealing with it:
- There is literally nothing wrong with you. Physically, your vagina is normal. It has zero abnormalities (however, if you are experiencing painful sex despite not being afraid of penetration, I’d consult a doctor just to eliminate any other possibilities. Regardless, I’d still visit a doctor or physical therapist who is knowledgeable on vaginismus to confirm if you have vaginismus);
- Going off of my last point, treatment is more than possible. Seeing as your vagina is completely healthy, it is more than capable of handling penetration, everything from a Q-tip to a penis. Your vagina is capable of pushing out a human child, you can handle a penis or tampon after some work;
- Treatment is available and success rates are high. It may not always be easy finding a doctor or therapist who specializes in sexual disorders or pelvic floor pain, but there is still a community of women out there who can offer support. I got incredible support from online forums dedicated to vaginismus.
- On that note, don’t worry if you don’t have a specialist near you, can’t afford one, or your insurance doesn’t cover it. Personally, I don’t think they are necessary. They can be helpful, but not necessary. I enjoyed having mine mainly because she helped me deal with other things I was going through. The main treatment kit sold for vaginismus includes a great deal of information that is quite helpful on its own. And like I said earlier, most of my progress came from that kit (which includes the dilators). This is a personal preference obviously and dependent on your personal struggles, so think of what’s best for you, but don’t feel pressure of doing it a certain way;
- Don’t let your vaginismus dictate how you see yourself. I struggled with this a lot. You are not less of a woman because you may not be able to have sex yet or because sex is painful to you. Do not reduce yourself down to one part of yourself, especially a physical part. Whether or not you can have sex is not indicative of your character, your values, how you treat others, what you’ve contributed to your community, your aspirations, or anything else of significance. It’s one part. And it’s a part which you have the power to change;
- Please do not let anyone make you feel like you are less deserving of respect because of your condition. Vaginismus does not give anyone the right to disrespect you. Before I was able to have sex, I found out my boyfriend at the time cheated on me. I was devastated to say the least, but I was quick to forgive. I’m not saying forgiveness is bad or should be frowned upon, in fact, I think forgiveness is an important step in healing and moving on. But, I was quick to forgive him and stayed with him because I felt like it was justified that he cheated on me. I thought it was justified because I couldn’t give him sex, so of course he was going to try and get attention somewhere else…. right? Wrong. Yes, his frustration was valid. But frustrations or issues within a relationship do not justify someone looking for validation from someone else. It doesn’t justify them consciously making the decision to hurt you. I wish I could go back in time and tell my younger self to have more respect for myself;
- Don’t get frustrated if your progress doesn’t look like someone else’s, if maybe you stall for a week or even a month, if you feel discomfort one day, or if there is a day where things just don’t feel right. It happens! Dilating should be a positive experience since you are working toward teaching your body that penetration is not something to be afraid of. So, if you find yourself getting upset or are in pain during a session, stop and take a break. Try again. If nothing has changed, try again tomorrow. This is a process, it doesn’t need to be done in one week. It took me over a year;
- Take ownership over your body. No one is going to understand your body better than you and having a solid understanding of your body and what feels good to you can really help your progress. It can help you understand in a more detailed manner what’s going on with your body. Understanding your body can also do wonders when it comes time to being intimate with someone else, since it can help you communicate with your partner what does and doesn’t feel good for you. This subject is still pretty taboo with women, but there is no shame in the game (trust me!);
- If you just can’t have sex right now, that’s okay. It’s better for your treatment to be low-stress and not rushed. There are other ways of feeling intimacy with your partner. PIV sex is not the end all, be all. This may sound really silly, but I love kissing. It may be because I didn’t have the option of having sex for a while, but I love it. Couples also have sexual relations in ways other than PIV sex, so think of alternatives that you feel comfortable with. But, don’t feel pressured to do something if it makes you feel uneasy. Intimacy can also be felt by simply spending time with someone you care about and making a point to be present and in the moment. Talking about something that means a lot to you, something that’s making you stressed, something that’s making you sad—sharing all those experiences and feelings with someone you care about creates intimacy. A feeling of closeness with another creates intimacy and that doesn’t always need to be physical.
- You can and will enjoy sex!! It may take longer than it does for someone else and it may be something you need to actively work on, but you are more than capable! When I was 19, I never imagined I could have sex, much less enjoy it. I never thought I’d one day have a normal sex drive, but that’s all changed. I know I can have a normal sex life even if there are some days where I have to tell my partner to be gentle. I know I’m going to be able to have children and I know that my worth as a woman has always been there despite what I’ve gone through. The same applies to you.
That’s all I have for now! I may add some more general advice if I think of any later, but I hope these were at least helpful to anyone going through it or insightful to someone who may know someone with this condition! I’m no professional, this is just an account of my own personal experience. If you are going through it and need someone to talk to, please feel free to reach out to me, there are plenty of us out there willing to offer support!