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This is what it's like living with vaginismus

Tue 17th March, 2020


The year is 2019. It is a halcyon February day and the gynaecologist’s office smells like essential oils. The sun is streaming softly through the window. It was a perfect summer morning until approximately 30 seconds ago.

It has been precisely 4236 days since my first period - the first of many times I tried and failed to insert a tampon.

“Vaginismus,” she says.

The poor woman has just tried to examine my vagina and I am in hysterical tears, partly because it feels as though someone has driven a white-hot knife into my body even though she has barely laid her gloved fingertip on my vagina. I am also crying because I know what this means. I am 25 years old, I am in unimaginable pain, and I have female sexual dysfunction.

“You don’t seem surprised,” she says.

I know about vaginismus. I know why I’m suddenly writhing with pain in a gynaecologist’s reclining chair and why the barest touch with a cotton swab feels like the tip of a sharp knife, or a dozen bee stings, or a burning poker searing into the most sensitive part of myself.

I’ve been pushing the fear I might have vaginismus to the back of my mind since I read about it in Teen Vogue - and now, half-dressed and in tears, my nightmare is fully realised.

Vaginismus is a form of pelvic floor dysfunction that causes involuntary muscle spasms. In your vagina. Essentially, nothing is getting in there.

Tampons? Very funny. Sex? Absolutely no way.

The sun is still shining. The birds are still chirping cheerfully in the gum trees waving against a perfect blue sky. I can see the world is still turning from my seat in the gynaecologist’s chair. But the dreams of the life I thought I would have are shattered.

I thought I would never get to have sex.

I thought no man would ever want to be with me if I couldn’t have sex.

I thought I would never get to be in a relationship, or have a family, or even swim while I had my period, for crying out loud.

I thought I was permanently, irreparably broken.

But after 12 months in treatment, I finally believe there is life after sexual dysfunction.

Vaginismus is a physical condition prompted by psychological trauma. It usually has nothing to do with injuries, anatomy, or fertility. Mine is the result of medical trauma from a botched medical examination as a child.

For people with vaginismus, penetration with a tampon, a penis, or a toy, feels like hitting a wall - as though the vagina simply cannot open. As though it isn’t there at all. It feels merely fruitless at best. It is screaming, inexplicable, unbearable agony at worst.

I really want to have sex. (There, I said it.) I am not scared of intimacy. I deeply desire it. But my body remembers my childhood pain and it makes my vagina spasm involuntarily to prevent anything getting inside and causing me more pain. So, how do you unravel years of trauma? How do you teach your vagina not to be afraid?

I had to teach my body that penetration was possible - and that it could even be pleasurable.

I began dilator therapy with a pelvic floor physiotherapist within weeks of my diagnosis. Dilators are phallic plastic or silicone tools in a range of increasing sizes and you use them to train your vagina for penetration. They’re more clinical and less life-like than dildos, and they aren’t designed for fun. They are purpose-built for, well, teaching your vagina to relax. By stretching it. Repeatedly.

The commonly accepted benchmark for vaginismus recovery is the final dilator, which is approximately the size of an average penis - but hard plastic or silicone. Sexy, right?

At the start, it was utterly futile.

I couldn’t even fit a cotton tip inside my body, so even the smallest size, just slimmer than a tampon, was out of the question. The largest size was frankly laughable and it filled me with despair about my prospects of recovery, standing in a bleak concrete stairwell at a suburban medical practice with a $99 bag of plastic vaginal stretchers in my hand.

I had to teach my body that penetration was possible - and that it could even be pleasurable.

But week by week, the heavy fog of fear eased - and one month after my first physio appointment I accidentally discovered my vagina with my finger and suddenly everything was possible.

My vagina existed. It was there. It could experience touch without pain.

It wasn’t easy: It took nine months of extraordinary pain, and tears, and despair at every hurdle. But in October, 2019, I achieved the final dilator. The benchmark.

I’m not having sex right now, but it is theoretically possible. I’m not permanently broken. The life I dreamed of is back on the table.

In the midst of sexual pain, progress began with sexual pleasure. In an effort to address the trauma provoking my pain, I began working with a sex therapist. One of her first questions was: “How do you feel about self-pleasure?” (Masturbation. But we both hate that word. For me the idea of simply masturbating says nothing of the nurture, exploration, self-love, and enjoyment captured by the practice of self-pleasure.)

As a Christian woman I always planned on discovering sexual intimacy and pleasure with a husband - someone I loved and trusted. But life is unpredictable and I have female sexual dysfunction, so I said I was okay with it - and that’s how I became a single Christian woman with a box full of vibrators, a handmade dildo, and extremely strong opinions on the various kinds of lube.

The key is teaching your body it is designed for pleasure, not pain.

As I progressed through dilator therapy I had to teach my body to believe intimate touch could be comfortable and pleasurable - not just painful.

Working with my wildly unsexy collection of therapeutic plastic phalluses, I used my hands and a variety of toys to drop into an unprecedented intimacy with myself. Experiencing sexual pleasure during penetration rewired my brain to enjoy intimate sensation rather than fearing it to the point of incapacitation. The magic of sexual climax changed everything. It made my progress possible.

I learned important lessons through my initial struggle with sexual dysfunction and it began with the very first orgasm. When I came with the bullet vibrator my friend gave me for my birthday, weeks after my diagnosis, the light switched on.

Sex is not just penetration. Sex is self-pleasure.

I don’t know much firsthand, but I have now read enough books about healthy sexuality to know sex is a kaleidoscope of experiences rather than one singular narrative. Sex is nakedness. Sex is mutual masturbation. Sex is oral. Sex is manual. Sex is battery-powered. Sex is rechargeable. Sex uses mouths and hands and toys and skin and language and hearts and souls and a whole range of beautiful things that would still be available to me even if the dilators hadn’t worked and my vagina was never able to cope with internal sensation.

Even if I had continued to suffer sexual pain as acutely as I did at the start of my journey with vaginismus, I was never any more or less sexual. No more or less worthy of love and intimacy. No more or less capable of having a sexual relationship someday with someone who was willing to acknowledge the potential of sex that wasn’t purely penis-in -vagina sex.

Most importantly - I am no more or less capable of having a beautiful, joy-saturated life. Traumatised vagina or not.

Even in a modern world people almost never talk about any of this.

We almost never talk about the fact that it is not normal to experience pain with sex. We almost never talk about healing sexual pain. We almost never validate sexual experiences outside of penis in vagina as equal. We almost never talk about the human right to sexual, sensual pleasure. We are inclined to think of sex and sexuality and pleasure and pain as taboo at best, shameful at worst.

I could tell you about my shoulder pain and you would not bat an eyelid, but as soon as I bring up my sore vagina it gets really weird, really fast. It is time to break the stigma.

I don’t need everyone in the world to know I have female sexual dysfunction, but if I bring it up I don’t want anyone to think it’s crazy. I don’t want anyone to think I’m broken. I don’t want anyone to think this is an unmitigated disaster, the likes of which I can never recover from.

I have vaginismus. It hurt for a long time. It sometimes still hurts now. But I am healing. And so can you.