Sex is difficult sometimes.
Sometimes it’s scary.
Sometimes it’s painful.
Sometimes it feels like it should be natural – it just doesn’t work.
At times, even a tampon or menstrual cup may seem impossible to penetrate.
If you’ve ever Googled why you’re sitting tighter than usual, or why inserting your tampon feels like it’s bumping into a wall, chances are you have vaginismus.
Vaginismus is the involuntary tensing or contraction of the muscles around the vagina. These unintended muscle spasms occur when something – a penis, finger, tampon, menstrual cup, or medical instrument – tries to enter the vagina.
Also read: “The Gender That Is Not One”: Vaginismus and the Construction of Female Sexuality
There are in the first place two types of vaginismus:
Primary vaginismus is when a woman or person with a vagina was in pain every time something entered their vagina, including a penis (called penetrative sex), and when they were never able to insert anything into their vagina.
The cause of primary vaginismus is trauma. This trauma can fall into one of the following general categories:
- Past sexual abuse
- Believing that sex is bad, dirty, or immoral.
- The belief that sex is painful is reinforced by violent rape scenes in movies or young girls hearing discussions about how painful the first night was.
- Painful vaginal exam by a doctor
- Any past physical trauma related to the vagina
Secondary vaginismus is when a woman or person with a vagina has previously had sex without pain, but then it becomes difficult or impossible. It is also called acquired vaginismus. This can be caused by a yeast infection, childbirth, psychological causes, or a combination of causes.
Symptoms of vaginismus
- Involuntary tightening of the vaginal muscles
- Fear of vaginal penetration
- Decreased sexual desire related to penetration
- Burning or stabbing pain
Pain from vaginismus can range from mild to severe and is often accompanied by emotional stress. Vaginismus does not mean that a person cannot experience sexual arousal. But the idea of having penetrative sex can sometimes cause symptoms of anxiety that lead to an extreme aversion to sex.
Despite the misery caused by the disease, many Indian women and non-binary people are reluctant to seek treatment or even talk about it with their intimate partners because talking about sex is taboo in society. Childhood sexual abuse is often the leading cause of vaginismus in Indian women and non-binary people, according to medical experts and therapists. But thanks to our culture of silence and shame, many people don’t come out and talk about it.
Also read: The destigmatization of painful sex is just as important as the normalization of enjoying or not enjoying sex
Vaginismus can lead to feelings of inadequacy, shame, and low self-esteem in women and non-binary people because they internalize the guilt of not being able to “offer” sex. Another problem to be addressed is that many Indian women view sex as an act of “giving” pleasure rather than receiving it, and they tend to neglect their own needs. These ideas contribute to the fact that women are at odds with their own bodies.
The point in discussing mental health and sexual pain is that while vaginismus is rarely viewed as a serious condition, it still follows a person’s healthy lifestyle.
In a patriarchal society, penetrative sex is seen as the only type of sex that is acceptable. Female eroticism involves more than just penetration, and there are several ways that women and non-binary people can achieve orgasms.
Having vaginismus does not mean that you will stop enjoying sexual activities. Those suffering from this condition may still experience and crave sexual pleasure and have orgasms. And this can be done through oral sex, massage, clitoral stimulation, or masturbation. Foreplay is key to making your partner feel comfortable, loved, and relaxing her vaginal muscles.
Treatment of vaginismus
- Sex therapy and counseling
- Vaginal dilators
- physical therapy
The good news is that vaginismus can usually be treated. In programs and research around the world, the success rate of vaginismus treatments has been close to 100%. Treatment is most often given by psychiatrists experienced in sex therapy (these may be psychiatrists or counselors). Sexologists also offer treatments for vaginismus.
On the one hand, while young adults are exposed to a culture that is becoming increasingly sex-positive and encouraging people to explore sexuality, people may never open up to the “group” due to stigma and having painful sex for years to participate. Having a healthy conversation in a safe room could really help it go away.
Vaginismus is like any other condition. The only difference is that not many people talk about vaginismus. Not being able to have sex can be emotionally draining and mentally disturbing. But it is time we understood, this is not our fault. Guilt is the most common companion of vaginismus. It affects the woman’s mental health and the harmony of the relationship, which often leads to breakups. We need to be open to conversation and better understand our body and its needs.
Also read: The Crowdsourced List of Gynecologists We Trust
Featured image: Shreya Tingal for feminism in India