What Sex Education Gets Right About Vaginismus

Photo: Courtesy of Netflix.
Warning: Spoilers ahead for Sex Education season 2 finale, “Chapter 8.”
Sex Education’s Season 2 finale opens on a sex scene. After Lily (Tanya Reynolds) admitted that she doesn't want to be "just friends” with Ola (Patricia Allison) at the end of Episode 7, Episode 8 opens with the new couple in bed together. But while Ola is in a striped top and jeans, Lily is decked out in a sexy alien costume (reminiscent of the costumes in the school's outer-space Romeo & Juliet musical), complete with tentacles attached to her fingertips.  
All is going well until Ola slides a hand under Lily’s silver miniskirt. “Ow!” Lily yelps, and explains to Ola, “It’s not you, it’s me. I have something called vaginismus. My vagina’s like a Venus flytrap.”
Lily gives Ola a quick explanation of her condition, showing her a kit of five different-sized dilators that she’s supposed to insert into her vagina — though so far, she can only use the smallest one. “I think it’s because I put too much pressure on myself,” Lily says. After Ola asks, Lily explains that she does masturbate. "I just keep to the outside,” she says, which gives Ola an idea: mutual masturbation. Cut to the couple gasping in bed together as they both come.
Fans of the show are calling its portrayal of vaginismus groundbreaking — especially because it shows that the condition doesn’t have to mean the end of sexual pleasure
Vaginismus “is a spasm or contraction of the muscles around the vagina,” the nonprofit medical centre the Cleveland Clinic explains. While it can happen during sexual activity, it can also happen while inserting a tampon or during a Pap smear
While the condition — including how common it is — isn’t well understood, the Cleveland Clinic notes that it’s "thought to be a psychological condition, although some physical conditions can contribute to it.” The list of potential causes includes anxiety, fear of sex, past sexual trauma, and negative emotions towards sex, as well as physical conditions including yeast infections, UTIs, vulvar vestibulitis (an inflammatory condition) and atrophic vaginitis (a painful condition caused by lack of estrogen after menopause). 
Vaginismus is treated both physically and psychologically, with counselling, Kegel exercises, pelvic floor physical therapy, and vaginal dilators. More rarely, Botox treatments are used to ease the painful spasms.
Dilators like the ones Lily uses aren’t meant to “stretch” the vagina, the Cleveland Clinic says. Instead, they help patients get familiar with the sensation: “The goal [is]... to give a woman the comfort of being able to place these safe devices both outside and inside her vagina, in the privacy of her own home.”
In 2014, Chloe Schildhause wrote a personal essay for Refinery29 about her experience with vaginismus. “While I didn’t go the Botox route myself, I did invest some time in meeting with a physical therapist who guided me through breathing techniques while I inserted dilators,” she wrote. “I then took this practice home with me; a few weeks later, I found that I was able to wear tampons for the first time. About four months later, I was able to undergo a vaginal exam. And, the following year, I was able to have sex without pain.” 
And though it’s not true for everyone, some people with vaginismus also maintain great sex lives by following Lily’s technique: focusing on the clitoris rather than penetrating the vagina.  As sex blogger Sasha Kazantseva, who is a lesbian, previously wrote for Refinery29 UK, “[I’ve had] vaginismus for the majority of my life, and I had no problems with it; I just practiced non-penetrative sex and explained it to my partners.”
Near the end of the episode, we see Lily in her bedroom by herself. After considering the smallest dilator, she instead picks up the second-smallest. To her surprise, this time, she’s able to insert it. As for what this means for her and Ola’s sex life? We’ll have to wait until Season 3 to find out.
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