A couple of weeks ago, we did a shout out for anonymous confessions about your sex life for our new Sex Stories regular feature. The responses that flooded in were jaw-dropping, heartbreaking, awe-inducing and everything in between. Your upfront, unashamed honesty floored us, and we can’t wait to share your stories. There were also replies that sparked completely separate feature ideas, from polyamory to sudden loss of sex drive to vaginismus.
We’d heard of vaginismus, but we weren’t entirely sure what it was. According to the NHS, vaginismus is “the body’s automatic reaction to the fear of some or all types of vaginal penetration”. Basically, whenever penetration is attempted, your vaginal muscles tighten up involuntarily, making sex, or simply inserting a tampon, almost impossible. As soon as more than one reader told us they were living with vaginismus, we knew we needed to open up the conversation and shine a spotlight on yet another hidden women’s health issue. Here, two women tell us the effect vaginismus has had on everything from their sex life to their self-esteem.
Kate Griffiths, 30, Leicestershire
“Vaginismus is when the vaginal muscles contract when penetration is attempted. Primary vaginismus is when penetration has never occurred. Secondary vaginismus happens when penetration has happened in the past but is no longer possible or difficult. Two years ago, aged 28, I was diagnosed with the former.
Prior to my diagnosis, I spent years in shame asking several doctors to do something. After many, many failed attempts at penetration, I found myself in tears in front of a wonderful doctor who took me seriously and finally confirmed what was going on.
There are different causes that lead to vaginismus diagnosis. It is something that affects women due to personal experiences, so there is often not one root cause. It could be anxiety led, or due to a traumatic experience such as childbirth. For me, it is controlled mainly by anxiety. It’s something I have suffered with since I was a child, but I only began seeking help for it in my early twenties. My issue is that I am petrified of penetration, and I don’t just mean sexually. Up until about a year ago, I had never been able to insert so much as a cotton bud inside me and I have never used a tampon. I’m scared it is going to be painful and when anything comes near to penetrating me my vaginal walls contract involuntary, making it impossible. I spent at least 13 years thinking that I was broken. That successful, pleasurable sex was something that was never going to happen for me.
I’ve had a few boyfriends in the last 10 or so years, but only two serious relationships. The first was very toxic and a boyfriend who tried to force penetration. I also vividly remember a failed attempt with my first boyfriend that resulted in him complaining I was “too tight”. Both things I now know may have caused the vaginismus to be worse. My current boyfriend, whom I’ve been with for seven and a half years, has been incredibly supportive. Within the first few weeks of dating, I confided in him about my ‘issues’ regarding sex. We have worked together to try penetration over the years and it is only recently that I now think this will be possible. He has been the most patient, understanding man.
For the past year, I have been seeing a psychosexual counsellor, who in our first session, reassured me that I was not broken or useless. These sessions consist of talking therapy and homework of dilators. These brilliant dilators come in a handy little case and in four sizes (although you can buy different sizes online). My counsellor talked me through how to use these dilators, starting with the smallest first (about the size of a tampon) using relaxation techniques and breathing exercises. There is also no set time limit or period for these steps to be completed, and at no point have I felt pressure to force myself to do something I’m scared of. It took several weeks of patience and literally inch by inch to fully insert the first dilator. I cried like a baby with happiness, screaming at my boyfriend with excitement. While I’ve not been able to have sexual penetration yet, I know I am close. I have progressed up to the third dilator – and even a cheeky finger from one very happy boyfriend – but I still have work to do. However, this is the first time in my life that I have actually thought I may be “normal” enough to have sex and hopefully in the future become a mother.
What I have learnt from my experience of vaginismus is not to be scared to seek help. It is absolutely ok to get help with this, or any other seemingly taboo issue. Patience is something I have learnt to master, and my number one tip is plenty of lube or a lovely wonderful bath!”
Jade Marie, 27, Sheffield
“It’s estimated as many as 1 in 10 women in Britain struggle with vaginismus, yet it isn’t something that seems to be spoken about much. I know I personally struggled in silence and confusion for over a year before I finally found out I had it, and that was more by accident than anything else.
In a nutshell, vaginismus is the bodies automatic and involuntary reaction to the thought of something going into your vagina, making you tense up and causing pain or discomfort. This isn’t just with sex either, it can happen when you try to use a tampon or mensural cup and can make going for a smear test a difficult and painful experience.
Vaginismus can be triggered by a lot of different things, such as a bad sexual experience, an unpleasant experience with a smear test or other internal examination, or even giving birth. It can also be the result of a strict and/or religious upbringing, where sex has been spoken about negatively and you’ve been conditioned to think about it as a “bad” thing.
For me, it was a combination of being brought up in religion for the first 16 years of my life, and my first sexual relationship, aged 17, being less than great. I won’t go into details, but it made me associate sex with pain, anxiety and other negative feelings which stuck around long after I got out of the relationship.
Vaginismus had a really negative effect on my mental health and self-esteem, especially as I didn’t know anyone else with the condition at the time. I felt like there was something “wrong” with me or that I was “broken” in some way. Of course, that wasn’t true at all, but it was the mindset I got myself into and that I grappled with for quite a while, which didn’t help the depression I had already been struggling with for most of my life.
Thankfully, my college offered a form of psychosexual counselling that I was able to access, and the lady who provided it was so lovely and supportive. She helped with so many other things apart from my vaginismus, like self-confidence and even some real sex education, because let’s face it, the stuff we got at school was pretty much useless.
She also got me a referral to the hospital to double-check there was no physical reason for the pain (there wasn’t) and they gave me a set of dilators, which are insertable items of differing thickness and, combined with lube and a vibrator, and have been really helpful for me. The smallest is roughly about the thickness of your finger, so it’s not too intimidating when you’re first starting out. It took quite a while, but I eventually got to the point where I could use the larger dilators without any pain or anxiety, and I even managed to mostly work through the things that had triggered my vaginismus in the first place.
Around that time I also started talking to my now fiancé and, after a few months, we started dating. I knew I’d made quite a bit of progress, but I had been happily single for a long time and was worried things would be different with an actual partner, so I made sure to tell him everything before we even went out on our first date, and he was so supportive and understanding.
Eventually, we ended up having sex for the first time, and even though I was a bit anxious (I was still half expecting it to hurt and was worried it might affect our relationship) I was so shocked as, for the first time ever, there was no pain or discomfort at all! I was actually able to properly relax and enjoy it, and I can still remember how happy I was that evening nearly five years later.
I would love to be able to say that it’s been like that every time, but unfortunately, life is rarely that simple. My vaginismus seems to be closely linked to my mental health, and on the days where I’m struggling with my depression, anxiety, or self-confidence, I’ve noticed that it does seem to come back again, although it’s nowhere near as bad as it used to be.
Plus, knowing that my partner would never make me feel guilty or put any pressure on me to do anything helps more than I can say. While I’m probably always going to struggle with my vaginismus to some degree, and the things I’ve been through over the years have been extremely difficult at times, I’m so proud of the progress I’ve made and how much I’ve grown as a person.
If I could give once piece of advice to anyone who might also struggle with vaginismus, it would be to talk about it with someone you trust or a GP. I know from personal experience how hard it can be to say out loud, but you don’t have to struggle in silence as there is help available, and sometimes just knowing that vaginismus is actually quite common and you aren’t alone can help so much.”