I haven’t had vaginal intercourse yet, but it’s not for a lack of trying. I did try months ago with my current boyfriend and…okay, my tolerance to pain is usually pretty high. But the ol’ in out? Yeah, no, wasn’t happening. My vagina wasn’t having it, y’all. I’ve written about this in detail elsewhere and talked about it with my friends, leading everyone from besties to strangers online wondering if my physical response was more than just first time nerves. Their collective suggestion: I have vaginismus.
You’re probably wondering, uh, what the hell is vaginismus? I don’t blame you. It sounds like a spell from Harry Potter or something. But trust me, if it was, it would be one effed up spell. Curious? Well, you’re in luck, because I’m going to let you in on the quick and dirty about vaginismus.
What is vaginismus?
Vaginismus is a condition in which vaginal muscles tighten, squeeze, or spasm, making it incredibly painful or damn near impossible for anything to enter the vagina. It’s sort of like a reflex, the same way you close your eyes if something gets too close to them.
Er, so what are the symptoms then?
Usually, excruciatingly painful intercourse is the biggest red flag, but others grow suspicious when they’re unable to insert tampons or deal with a gynecological exam. You’re probably thinking pain and discomfort is exactly what it felt like the first time you put a tampon or–gasp–maybe a penis up there. So what makes vaginismus different than just typical vaginal pain?
While it’s pretty normal for someone’s first time putting something up there to be anxiety inducing–leading to vaginal muscles contracting in response–constantly feeling mild discomfort or excruciating pain from any sort of attempt at vaginal probing might be worth checking out. Something could be wrong down there.
In a study about vaginismus, doctors classified the severity of one’s vaginismus into four ranges:
- One: There’s minor vaginal discomfort that can be eased as sex progresses.
- Two: Vaginal spasms and tightness persist throughout intercourse, resulting in an uncomfortable burning sensation.
- Three: Vaginal entry is difficult, as well as movement of any object that has managed to enter the vagina. Pain is definitely an issue.
- Four: The vaginal walls tighten so severely that penetration is impossible, unless forced.
People with a case of vaginismus that’s severe enough to reach level four may be prone to sweating, hyperventilating, shaking, vomiting, violence, etc during any sort of vaginal insertion. Yikes.
How does someone even end up with vaginismus?
There are tons of different ways that someone can develop vaginismus. For some folks, vaginismus is a physical problem resulting from a yeast infection, urinary tract infection, or physical trauma. But most symptoms are psychological. Here are the biggies:
- Fear of pain during intercourse, especially with fear surrounding the idea of hymens breaking or the assumption that intercourse is supposed to hurt.
- Stress and anxiety about penetration.
- Negative body image, especially around a partner.
- Negative opinions about sex, often associated with shame or conservative morals towards sexuality.
- Sexual abuse, which can turn sex into a triggering experience.
Sometimes people even develop vaginismus after going their entire lives with zero problems with penetration. This is called secondary vaginismus. The aforementioned reasons could act as triggers, as well as other issues like trauma during childbirth or menopause (which can make your cooch drier than a desert).
Okay, but what if I can put in a tampon but intercourse still hurts like crazy?
You could still have vaginismus, especially if you’re able to compartmentalize your symptoms. It’s possible to lack anxiety over inserting a tampon because you know that it’s for your menstrual cycle but become incredibly nervous about something entering your vagina for sexual purposes.
Is there a cure for vaginismus? Am I just stuck with an annoyingly stubborn vagina forever?
It’s totally possible to give vaginismus the boot. Treatment options can be tackled from both a physical and psychological angle.
It’s all about using an approach known as “progressive desensitization.” It basically means exactly what it sounds like: You’re doing little things to slowly but surely get your body used to something being inserted into your vag. And on that note, I’ve got two word for you: Kegel exercises. Kegels are basically vaginal exercises that make your pelvic floor muscles stronger. Why are your pelvic floor muscles important? Well, they’re the same guys who help you control your urine flow and keep all of your pelvic organs from falling out of your body. People also swear that by working on your pelvic floor muscles, you can achieve stronger orgasms.
But we’re not focusing on that right now. Let’s focus on how they can help vaginismus. When you do Kegels, you’re squeezing the same muscle you use to control your urine flow. You hold that squeeze for about two seconds and then relax those muscles. You can do about 15 to 20 of them at a time a few times a day. As you get used to them, try inserting a finger into your vag while doing your Kegal exercises. You can use lube to make this easier. Over time, progress from one finger, to two fingers, to three. You’re probably wondering how the hell this is supposed to help vaginismus. Well, apparently this helps your vagina learn how to relax and control its muscles during penetration, reducing your vagina from freaking out whenever something is inside of it.
Kegels might be helpful, but for folks with persistent vaginismus stemming from anxiety, shame, fear, etc, physical treatment can only go so far. As you probably guessed, one of the main ways that vaginismus can be tackled from a psychological angle is through therapy. Vaginismus sufferers are twice as likely to suffer from childhood sexual interference and might also deal with self-esteem issues, depression, etc. Obviously vag exercises can’t really address that.
Talking out any issues you might have regarding sex and sexuality with a professional might help vaginismus sufferers develop a much healthier approach to vaginal penetration–whether from a tampon, a menstrual cup, a sex toy, or a penis.
I think I have vaginismus and I’m really embarrassed about it. Plus, it’s really affecting my relationship! What should I do?
First, it doesn’t hurt to get a professional’s opinion on whether or not you really have vaginismus. Consider hitting up a gyno if you can. But whether you get a second opinion or not, the point is that penetration is painful for you and you need to let your partner know. I know, they might take it personally, but you have to assure them (and, frankly, assure yourself, in case you’re worried) that your vag plotting against you likely has nothing to do with your feelings towards them. Remind your partner that vaginismus isn’t about sex drive or attraction! Suggest doing other sexual activities for the time being. If your partner is going to be a baby about that, then that says a lot more about them than you or your vagina.
You’re not alone, either, so don’t let this make you feel like less of a person or a total freak of nature. Vaginas are weird, bodies are weird, brains are weird. Vaginismus just happens to throw all of that weirdness into one big pile of weird, and it can be annoying to lug that around with you in every vaginal encounter you experience. Just know that there are options out there for you to get your vaginismus sorted, but remember to take your time!
Do you think you have vaginismus symptoms? Is sex usually pretty painful for you? Tell us in the comments!