When assigning a name to this bizarre, barely-understood condition, they couldn't have really thought of an uglier name than "vaginismus". When I first heard it, a few years ago, I thought it sounded clinical and at the same time utterly lacking in substance. What on earth does it really tell us about the condition, except that it is a bit to do with someone's vagina? I suppose that’s the point. From what I have learned about Vaginismus it seems that really people aren't really sure what it is. It is a complex condition, it doesn't necessarily have any obvious origin, but then again it could have come about through a horrific series of events, it might happen at any time in a woman's life and leave again with relative ease, it might be a long term, traumatic battle. There is very little material available to a woman interested in finding out more about it.
I was diagnosed with vaginismus about 9 months ago, but the road even to diagnosis was a difficult, emotional and often humiliating one. I've decided to write a blog about it, not because I think I am in any way an expert on the subject, but because it is such a huge part of my life, and the lives of so many women, and it is barely spoken about. Few people even know what it is.
I consider myself to be a feminist. I am a passionate, excitable, neurotic, often ridiculous but nevertheless entire human being. In our society however, to be "sexless" in any way - and as a woman unable to undergo penetration in this society seems to be considered sexless - is to be in so many ways worthless. I fight not only with this condition, which I have through no fault of my own, but with society's opinions about what a young, single twenty-something woman living in London should be like.
I started writing my blog because I want to share all the stupid, embarrassing, heartbreaking, hilarious things that happen to me on this journey. I want to support other women who are going through the same thing. I want, in some small way, to draw attention to the struggle we go through. I have called the blog "La Matadora" not only because I am dreadful at naming things, but also because as Vaginismus is to be fought and conquered, so too the prejudice that says I am to be defined and lessened by it.
If you find yourself where I was way back at the beginning, experiencing difficulties and not knowing what’s going on or why, you might want to know how vaginismus feels to see if it is something that resonates with you. I’m not saying this is exactly how V is to everyone, but just personally how I have experienced it; there will of course be variations from woman to woman.
This being a *whisper it* sexual disfunction, it has to be put in terms of a sexual situation so buckle up; things are about to get steamy, yo…..
Picture the scene: You’ve managed to insinuate yourself into the solo company of some delightful creature who likes Murakami novels and rides an up-cycled bike to the local farmers market for his weekly shop. He’s* got a delightfully mischievous smile and come-to-bed-eyes and is most DEFINITELY looking at you in a very promising way indeed. Together you’ve polished off a very good bottle of wine from Tesco (when I say very good, I mean drinkable for under a fiver) and finished discussing that TOTES EMOTIVE film you just watched together at the local picture house before popping into his for a night cap. His housemates are all out. Things are getting interesting. You both DEFINITELY want it. Then, this happens:
To begin with, everything feels fine. Good, even, if Mr up-cycle knows what he’s about. Vaginismus itself doesn’t prevent you being turned on, and the physical process of the body becoming aroused is the same, so for this part things are pretty exciting. V doesn’t prevent orgasm either. You’re approaching the main event… but when any sort of penetration is attempted, things start to go wrong.
First off, it hurts. You try to breathe through it. Then it really, really hurts. It feels a bit like you’re being ripped in half, right down the middle. This is due partly to the psychological side of V kicking in (of which, more later), but it’s primarily because the muscles physically clamp themselves closed. They are not keen on that weird looking thing coming towards them and trying to force its way in, in what is - quite frankly – a very pushy manner. The muscles, instead of relaxing and widening, start to spasm, which forms a sort of physical barrier. It’s the pushing against this wall of muscle that hurts, along with the actual spasms themselves.
It feels impossible, like there’s no physical way on earth anything is going in there, let alone anything THAT size, you horrible brute! That can’t even be NORMAL can it?! That thing is like a missile or something! The pain makes sense, you think, because obviously it’s going to hurt if you’re trying to push something fairly sizeable through an impossible barrier. Finally comes panic – waves of butterflies and sometimes frantic tears, and then the indisputable need to be right out of that situation. RIGHT out. At this point, it is the gentleman’s duty to cuddle and reassure. You hear me gents? PUT THAT THING AWAY AND CUDDLE AND REASSURE!
You don’t necessarily know what’s happening or why. Before I started therapy I didn’t know that the muscles were spasming, all I was aware of was the pain and the feeling of physical impossibility. I thought that perhaps there was something physically wrong with my anatomy, that perhaps I didn’t have a fully formed vagina, or maybe I had an intersex condition I wasn’t aware of. I didn’t know why it was happening or what to do about it.
Crucially with vaginismus, there is nothing physically wrong with the vagina. Vaginismus is, at heart, a psychological issue. Something - of which you may or may not be conscious – is telling your body that whatever is going on down there is very wrong and needs to be blocked, so your body reacts as above to prevent it. This could be due to an experienced trauma such as sexual violence, or there could be absolutely no obvious reason for it at all, as in my case. Sometimes shit just happens.
Vaginismus doesn’t just affect sex. Take, for instance, periods. Some things about being a lady-woman just aren’t as fun as others, like this monthly ritual of aches and blood and hormones and men shuffling away looking a bit scared because I’ve mentioned aches and blood and hormones. At best, it’s an inconvenience – a messy, achey, undignified inconvenience.
For the lady with a clamp, it can be another irritating hurdle.
I refer of course to tampons. Ah, the humble tampon. They’re stored down supermarket aisles that have names like “Feminine Hygiene”, “Women’s Healthcare”, “Blood-trappers”, and “ALERT! YOU WITH THE COCK AND BALLS! THIS AISLE IS NOT FOR YOU! GET OUT, GET OUT WHILE YOU STILL CAN!”. And then there’s using the flipping things. The suggested stance of putting one leg up on the bath, like it’s a valiant beast you’ve overcome with naught but your wit and a ruddy great gun, while fiddling about *down there* is one I’ve personally never mastered. Now I come to think of it, it’s probably a very particular form of yoga.
For women with V, tampons can be more than an inconvenience; they can be simply unusable. They sit there on the shelf in the lady-aisle, all prim and multi-coloured, and mocking the reluctant frou. I know this to be a true fact, because this was the case with me for years and years. Until 3 years ago, I genuinely thought that it was probably because I was a *whisper it* virgin, and gave up trying, but know now that it was because of that dastardly vaginismus.*
Now, I went to a Catholic all girls school, so my sex ed wasn’t exactly cutting edge. It was fine, but it wasn’t, you know, progressive. One particularly memorable class featured a video of a woman giving birth, and the message “DON’T EVER HAVE SEX OR YOU WILL GET PREGNANT AND GIVE BIRTH AND PROBABLY DIE, unless you’re married, in which case go for your life but DON’T USE CONDOMS”** Basically, I was an innocent type.
If you are struggling to use tampons, and are wondering if you may have vaginismus, ask yourself the following:
· Do you I feel anxious, scared or panicky when I think about, or try to, use a tampon?
· Am I certain that I am inserting it in the right place?
· Does it physically hurt when I try to insert it?
· Does it feel like something is physically stopping the tampon going in properly?
If you’ve got it in, but it doesn’t feel quite right - that is, you can feel the tampon - it’s not in properly.
Now, I know there are lovely, soft, un-intrusive sanitary towels, which obviously ladies with V can use. But that is not the point. Because honestly, tampons are amazing. They are OK? They have really and properly changed my life. I can swim! I can wear normal, not awful knickers! I can quietly change one in a communal toilet without that loud CSSSSSHHH! sound that lets EVERYONE in a mile radius know you are changing a sanitary towel.
They are a start. Honestly, if you are just in the process of starting to treat vaginismus, they are a good, small, manageable size. If you are struggling with using tampons, try applying the tips I’ve given on using dilators to see if they can help – it is important to say also that I’ve found applicator tampons are far, far easier to use than non-applicator types. I still can’t use these without the old familiar feelings of panic and fear. Applicators all the way.
And now, strap on your favourite thong sister, and welcome to the club!!!!!....The…tampon club… yes, OK so I didn’t really think that sentence through....shhh.
* I’m a straight lady, so have put this in context of a male-female relationship, but I’m by no means inferring that vaginismus only affects straight women, and therefore relationships.