Content warning: This article discusses sexual assault in a way that may be distressing to some readers.
I found out that I had vaginismus when I was 14 years old. Having spent the first two years of my menstruation using pads, I decided it was high time to try using tampons like everyone else — but no matter what I tried, it just physically wouldn't go in. "You must not be doing it right," other women in my life said, just as baffled as I was about my situation. After months of failed attempts at using tampons and applicators, I went to a doctor for a physical exam.
As she began the examination, she immediately hit the wall of resistance that I had become very accustomed to when trying to insert tampons. But with an unholy amount of pressure and one unforgettable swift motion, I experienced penetration for the first time in my life — and it was the most painful thing that's ever happened to me.
Over time, I learned to breathe in deeply and bear it. And although inserting tampons and eventually penetrative sex was always slightly uncomfortable, I ended up getting on just fine. And often, more than fine! I enjoyed sex the same as everyone else, and tampons were a regular and normal part of my life. It seemed my vaginismus had, for the most part, gone away. But my body had other plans.
After years of easy penetration, my vaginismus returned when I was 21, seemingly without warning. One day I was blissfully enjoying sex and the next, I was screaming at my sexual partner to stop because I thought I might die if he continued. What had once been easy, delightful and natural suddenly felt, quite literally, like a thousand flaming knifes being stuck into my vaginal walls. As I later found out, they call this secondary vaginismus, meaning that penetration was once possible and easy, but when presented later in life, makes penetration painful or even sometimes impossible.
For those that don't know much about vaginismus, I should probably backtrack at this point and give you a definition. Vaginismus is an involuntary bodily response to either penetration or even the anticipation of penetration, rooted in fear of pain — a fear which, ironically, becomes more heightened as your vaginismus and pain persists, which leads to more fear, which leads to more pain, and on and on. Essentially, the muscles within your pelvic floor involuntarily contract so much that penetration becomes excruciating or even physically impossible.
Not only did getting secondary vaginismus have a profound impact on my sex life (in that it stopped it, completely), it had a detrimental effect on my confidence and sense of self. My body felt weak, broken and useless. As all the women around me talked about their amazing sexual experiences, their sexual openness, how freeing and wonderful they found it, I was curled up in the foetal position nursing a vagina that felt like it was on fire anytime someone came near it.
It got so bad that after a while, a simple touch of my genitals became excruciating — this is what they call vulvodynia, which is the damage and oversensitivity of the nerve endings in your vulva. It seems that my fear and pain in one area of my vagina had morphed into a whole new problem. It was at this point that I was ready to give up on sex and body confidence forever.
During this time, I remember once thinking back to all the men who had complimented me on how tight my vagina was, and how proud I had been that my body was so pleasing to them; that I was young, sexy and tight, and that made me valuable. At the height of my vaginismus, thinking back to these moments and experiences made me want to cry. My greatest strength in bed suddenly felt like my greatest failure, and I truly believed I wasn't going to be sexually pleasurable to anyone ever again. Only in hindsight can I now see and truly understand how toxic and misogynistic the glorification of vaginal tightness is.
As to why I, or anyone, has vaginismus, the reasons are pretty varied. For some, their pelvic floor muscles are just naturally a lot tighter. For others, stress and tension in both the mind and body can be the cause or at least an antagoniser. But it's also pretty common that vaginismus is linked with sexual trauma. While I mostly had a fulfilling sex life before my vaginismus became an issue, some of my first-ever sexual experiences can be described as nothing other than assault. It took me a really long time to realise and accept this truth, as I'd been desperate to just chalk it up to a bad time — but these things have a way of catching up to you. So it certainly doesn't seem odd in hindsight that around the time I was confronting my sexual past, my vaginismus reared its head again.
Unsurprisingly, along with the vaginismus came a lot of sexual anxiety — not just around my sexual performance or its lack thereof, but because of fear and a dislike of sex that I'd been burying for some time due to those past traumas. All of a sudden, sex, and penetration specifically, became the most painful thing imaginable to me, in more ways than one. It broke my heart to have gone from a sexually independent and confident woman to someone who didn't want anyone to touch her.
But one night, as I was curled up in bed, feeling unsexy, unloved and broken, I came across someone on social media who was documenting their own journey with vaginismus. She'd suffered with it for 6 years, and even though she was still struggling with it, she was loving life, enjoying sex and mostly, she was proud of her body.
A small spark of hope flared up somewhere inside me as I continued to go through her page. She talked about all the different ways she could enjoy sex that wasn't penetrative, how she approached the chat with partners about her vaginismus, and how she didn't give them the time of day if they couldn't be respectful of her condition. She spoke about pelvic floor therapy and dilator training, and I finally felt like I might have some real options for treating my vaginismus.
Because, as permanent and damaging as it feels, it turns out that vaginismus is treatable, with many people either fully healing or healing enough to continue experiencing and enjoying penetration. When I found out, I wept with joy.
Leaping into action, I started seeing a pelvic floor physiotherapist every couple of weeks. While the work we do is painful, both mentally and physically, my therapist is able to not only send me off with temporary relief but give me long-term mobility exercises that will treat my pelvic floor from the inside out. Our sessions involve rather unusual stretches, painful yet cathartic massages, and internal exams to gauge my progress.
Along with my therapy, I started using dilators at home three to four times a week. A dilator set will come in an increasingly bigger range of sizes — starting your therapy with the smallest, you can move up each size once you no longer feel any pain with the dilator you're using. While it's tempting to try and rush your progress (which admittedly I did try to do, and paid the price in unnecessary pain), it's important to take your time. Even if you're on the same size for weeks, it's a matter of realising that you are still moving forward, in leaps and bounds, even if it doesn't feel like it. And that's the biggest thing I learnt overall during my vaginismus therapy journey: you can't rush authentic healing.
A big part of treating vaginismus is also going to be psychological, as even though there are some obviously important physical components that won't get better without physical therapy, fear, anxiety and trauma are fuel to the fire of vaginismus. Regularly seeing a psychologist about everything from my sexual trauma to my self-worth is a crucial part of my healing journey. I've also started alternating between a regular psychologist and a dedicated sexologist so that I can really address specific areas of my sexual wellness and mental health with the right kind of professional.
My physical therapy aside, what really changed the game for me was realising that my vaginismus didn't make me less of a woman or sexual being. The tightness or looseness of a vagina shouldn't ever make someone feel less desirable or undeserving of sexual attention — if anything, the variety of muscular range in vaginas should just be another thing we celebrate about them, as they tell stories about who we are and what we've been through, and there's nothing shameful about any of that.
My understanding of what sex is also had to change, and with that came a newfound respect and value for other kinds of intimacy. This allowed me to enjoy sex on my terms and in ways that healed my relationship with sex instead of hurting it, allowing me to understand myself and my sexual partners better than ever before.
It still sometimes feels like a challenge to convince myself that my body is whole and worthwhile when it feels pain, and some days it's easier to believe than others. But with each stretch, each dilator and every kind thought I lend myself, I learn to love my body again.
If you or anyone you know has experienced sexual or domestic violence and is in need of support, please call 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732), the National Sexual Assault Domestic Family Violence Service.