Trigger warning: This article contains accounts of sexual assault.
For a woman who can’t have penetrative sex, reading about pleasurable lovemaking is isolating. Instead of enjoying students’ sexy articles in Catalyst, this edition will remind me to feel alien among them.
I have vaginismus, a condition so unheard of some of the doctors I have seen are sceptics. My favourite definition of the term is written by academics, whose advice is to improve current medical and psychiatric definitions of sexual dysfunctions in women. This is vaginismus according to them:
Persistent difficulties to allow vaginal entry of a penis, a finger, and/or any object, despite the woman’s expressed wish to do so. There is variable involuntary pelvic muscle contraction, (phobic) avoidance and anticipation/ fear/experience of pain. Structural or other physical abnormalities must be ruled out/ addressed.
All the things in the above description fit me, along with hypersensitivity. This means the sensation a vulva will usually feel from touch or pressure is much different to mine. My body is in panic mode, as there are constant danger messages sent around my brain and nervous systems.
The first four doctors I saw were perplexed about the pain and inability to have intercourse. One asked, “Do you use lubricant?” But he underestimated the unyielding pubococcygeus (PC) muscles in my vagina. Another suggested I’m not emotionally ready to have sex. Though avoiding the act only exacerbates the problem. I once had a pap smear where the female doctor laughed when I told her I have vaginismus. “Is your husband abusive?” she asked. “No. And I’m not married,” I replied. I tried to relax, but anger only squeezed my muscles tighter while she stabbed the instrument in.
Interviewing specialists and doctors about vaginismus doesn’t sit comfortably yet. I wouldn’t be a fair journalist. My ears have heard enough empty promises about cures and success rates. Not one has harnessed an understanding of the condition. If they have, it’s inapplicable to mine.
No longer a child who needs to squeeze her legs together, I’m learning to trust my own desires as an adult.
I’ve been treated by eight different people at the Royal Women’s Hospital and privately, but mostly their ideas clash with mine. It took six months of going to the Women’s to convince them I don’t have a low libido. For example, during foreplay, even when I’m soaking wet my muscles won’t let anything in.
Vaginismus is more than a physical condition. I’d argue it as psychologically driven by fear of penetration. I admit it’s a sexual phobia. A year of sexual abuse at aged eight encouraged me to tense my whole body at all times, as I never knew when my perpetrator would abuse me next.
No longer a child who needs to squeeze her legs together, I’m learning to trust my own desires as an adult. To reclaim pleasure by choice is fundamental to my sense of self. “A child’s brain is quite malleable,” my pain specialist told me while reflecting on how mine developed. But she’s confident we can re-wire it.
I’ve always seen myself as a sexual person, but ironically I never touch myself. It doesn’t help that while trying to masturbate, flashbacks disrupt me. Having a good clitoral vibrator is a nice alternative, as there are no negative associations with vibrations.
Fighting vaginismus is part of fighting trauma. This may not be the case for other women, but certainly for me. Hypnosis might work, but being in control is priority. Suppression only snubs the unconscious. If I don’t address my feelings, they intrude my dreams, so I awake haunted by my dreaming memory. Psychotherapy has been excellent to explore such things.
During the height of my vulva hypersensitivity, my partner going down on me was terrifying. A soft kiss provoked sharp pains. It was hard not to scream and thus too easy to stop sex altogether. Sometimes I’d lay in bed at night and notice the feeling of hundreds of pins and needles tingle my vulva. I couldn’t get them to go away.
Seeing my partner’s face when I told him this was heartbreaking. He’d no idea how badly the sensitivity had escalated. We shed many tears together over these months and tried to find experts to help us. He was so patient and supportive, but I still felt I was letting us down. I suggested he leave me to make love to a real woman. But I discovered penetration isn’t the most important part of our relationship.
I’ve made desperate attempts to cure myself. I used to buy expensive lubricants and candles to help relax and feel sexy again. Lingerie lay in my drawers with the tags still on. My partner and I had a pattern of avoidance.
Dilators are my enemy. They are pushed into the vagina, even when the muscles are in spasm. Apparently they’re the most effective. After using them I’d curl up in agony for hours, take a few Panadol, and cry myself to sleep.
Vulva pain endured though my first and second years of journalism at RMIT. In tutorials I would shift in my seat and adjust the fabric of my trousers to let any pressure off the area. Lectures were the worst. Even cotton knickers under an A-line skirt could make me flinch. I’d leave classes early or not show up at all. I felt so ashamed and alone.
Social environments became difficult. I might confess to friends I have a weak bladder now if they notice, but before I took meds, I’d urinate every few minutes after drinking something. This is another symptom of vaginismus due to the PC muscles being overworked.
Before discovering the benefits of pain medication, I found recreational drugs numbed my sensitive vulva. I snorted cocaine one night, and it erased the pain for two days. But I was devastated when I noticed. Instead of relishing in the opportunity of foreplay, I yearned for pain to return. My partner felt betrayed, as my response to pain relief contradicted our fight to get rid of it.
Now I have amazing orgasms with no consequences, and my vulva is not inflamed or swollen.
I see a good psychiatrist every week. Irrational fears of being attacked are part of who I am. Other fears, like women being assaulted can also hurt my vulva. There have been journalism tutorials when rape cases are discussed and students describe brutal assaults. The muscles in my vagina go into a fit as a vision of the crime plays out in my mind. I’m still working on detaching from situations like these.
It’s easy for me to get angry with students who talk about sexual assault sensationally. But really, I hate myself for having such a sublime relationship to it too. There have been years of self-inflicting pain, as pain was my friend. Pain reminds me to distrust men, knowing what they can do to me. But I must take responsibility for my own feelings.
Finally, I convinced a doctor to put me on nerve pain medication—which is also used to treat other things such as epilepsy. Why it works is due to my vagina having frequent spasms, similar to epileptic fits. The meds calm them down and stabilise my mood. Just like when I took cocaine, my pain
Now I have amazing orgasms with no consequences, and my vulva is not inflamed or swollen. Having chronic pain and muscle spasms all the time made me despise this part of my body. I felt it poisoned my day-to-day life. But it was really a wound from traumas unaddressed. My vulva felt mine again after I truly listened to it, learnt about, and medicated it.
There is a happy ending to this story, pun intended. For the first time in two years, my partner and I just made love. I’ve been prescribed a compounded vaginal cream to relax. I can enjoy sex for the first time.
There will be a day when I can stop taking meds. They have their side effects, but for now, the benefits are making me happy again. I feel so excited about my future sex life. My loving partner and friends close to my heart know what’s going on, and they’re fantastic. I can only hope to stir some curiosity among students who knew nothing about vaginismus before.
Sexual dysfunction is embedded in the identity of the person experiencing it. I’ve learnt to see my bodily responses to sex as mirroring who I really am. Discovering this was a challenge. Only now it’s a pleasure.
This article was originally published in issue one of Catalyst. Cover image by ddanielbe, via Flickr.