The moment my gynecologist uttered the word “vaginismus”, my heart sank in disbelief. I had spent the previous few months going from doctor to doctor to try to understand why I was suffering severe pain during penetrative sex. As a young, sexually liberated woman, it had never crossed my mind that a spontaneous tightening of my vagina could be the source of my pain. I was relieved I finally had a diagnosis, but my partner and I had previously enjoyed our sex life, and I couldn’t help but worry this diagnosis would sound its death knell.
Vaginismus can be caused by trauma, either physical or mental, or, as in my case, it can occur for no obvious reason at all. It causes the vagina to suddenly tighten when something is inserted inside it, and its symptoms can be debilitating, causing burning, stinging and pain that can severely affect a sufferer’s mental health. Treatment can include psychosexual therapy, relaxation techniques and pelvic floor exercises.
In my case, I was referred for physiotherapy and taught how to use dilators to slowly stretch out my muscles in a bid to become comfortable with penetration again. But while I focused on treating the physical cause of my pain, I hadn’t noticed that my confidence and identity as a sexual being had been obliterated.
I was riddled with anxiety at the thought of intimacy and lost all sense of my sexuality. Even just a kiss would cause me to panic. But driven by fear, I persevered – more often than not unsuccessfully. Attempts at intercourse would end with me spluttering through tears, “There’s something wrong with me.” No matter how reassuring my partner was, I couldn’t help but feel I had lost my sex life, and a part of me with it.
It took me time to come to terms with the diagnosis, but once I did, my attitude slowly started to shift. Delving into sex-positive resources helped me redefine what sex could look like and I found a creativity in my pursuit of pleasure that hadn’t been there before. Whenever I could have painless penetrative sex, I would, but if that wasn’t possible, I lent on other things.
My partner and I experienced with mutual masturbation, erotic films, sex toys and other ways of giving and receiving pleasure to get our sex life back on track. I invested in lingerie that made me feel confident – and not just for the bedroom, but to be worn every day as a reminder to myself that I was sexy. I discovered the joy of using lubricant, and learned more about my own pleasure than ever before.
The payoff has been dramatic. My orgasms have never been more intense, but my most important awakening has been realizing that sex doesn’t have to mean penetration, something I now see was a decidedly heteronormative and patriarchal view of pleasure.
My unlearning of these deeply ingrained beliefs about what sex should look like has – put simply – helped me become better at it. And its impact on my relationship has been palpable.
When I first started feeling pain, I worried about the strain a difficult sex life would put on our relationship. But our innovation in the bedroom, through challenging circumstances, along with my partner’s compassion and patience, has brought us even closer together. It’s taught me that mind-blowing sex, the stuff we all dream of, can only be achieved with absolute trust and consent.
The times when I slip back into old habits and try to “push through” the pain, my partner stops me. He has never made me feel guilty or put pressure on me to carry on, and this in turn has paved the way for more honest conversations about what feels pleasurable.
Ultimately, being diagnosed with vaginismus has been hard. No one wants to experience painful sex, and I’m relieved that my condition has improved with treatment. But as I reflect, many of my initial fears following the diagnosis have proven to be unfounded. Patience, honesty and creativity have helped make my sex life the most exciting it has ever been.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism