Back in the early 2000s I suffered with a condition called vaginismus. At the time, it wasn’t widely known about, and I had never heard of it. In fact, I didn’t even know I had it.
Looking back to this period of time, I remember I had some discomfort when trying to use tampons, and sex was very painful, but I didn’t understand the cause. Any time I tried to penetrate myself with something, I felt like my whole body was rejecting it. The sensation was most uncomfortable, almost like a burning feeling. Penetrative sex with vaginismus would make me cry, and then my partner would feel guilty, which put a strain on the relationship. I didn’t have a reason for why it was hurting so much, and I felt bad for making my partner feel guilty.
I can’t honestly say why I didn’t visit the doctor about these symptoms, but I was quite young and embarrassment probably played a big part. The only ‘downstairs problems’ I‘d ever heard of were thrush and period pain. And while there were TV adverts and magazine articles discussing thrush and heavy periods, there was nothing around vaginismus.
At some point during this time, I was called in for my regular smear test. This wasn’t the first smear test I’d had, but being in my early twenties I’d probably only been tested once before. I’d never refuse a smear test – my sister had cervical cancer and I wasn’t about to become another statistic.
I went to the nurse and told her I was feeling anxious. She tried her best to put me at ease, and then inserted the speculum. I felt extreme discomfort. She could see I was in pain and advised me to try to relax. Then I heard her say some words you really don’t want to hear when undergoing any sort of medical test… “There’s some blood”.
The nurse withdrew the speculum and I looked down just in time to see her cupping her hands underneath the instrument to catch the blood that was dripping off it. There was quite a lot; more blood than I‘d ever seen before, and it was mine. The nurse became very busy wiping the blood that had dripped onto the floor with tissue, seemingly forgetting to look after me. Finally she handed me some tissue.
I stared down at my thighs and groin, stained red from the blood. I stood up in total shock and attempted to clean myself up. I told the nurse I felt faint and she pulled over a chair, advising me to sit down. She stroked my back and said I felt hot – I was burning up by this stage, sweating and with my heart beating so hard I felt it would knock me off the chair.
After I started to feel almost normal again, I tried to wait in the waiting room for a prescription. But the feeling of the lubricant the nurse had used for the speculum seeping out of me reminded me of the blood. That nauseating, lightheaded feeling once more washed over me and I had to run outside the surgery to get some fresh air. Grabbing the railings, I steadied myself until I felt able to return to the surgery. Eventually I was given my prescription and I finally got the chance to leave and go home, still in shock and unsure what had just happened.
The bad news doesn’t end there either. My regular doctor never told me why I‘d suffered this experience, so every time I was called up for a smear test I became anxious that it was going to happen again. Over the years following, I had another two or three difficult smears – although none as bad as that second one. And then about nine years later, during a routine GP appointment, I happened to see my medical records on my doctor’s screen. It was then that I discovered my diagnosis of vaginismus as it was staring me in the face! I didn’t even know what it meant, so I had to google it.
If the nurse or my regular doctor had spoken to me about this diagnosis at the time, that could’ve saved a lot of the problems I’d had, trying to have sex with vaginismus without even knowing it. I look back and wonder how my partner must have felt when I kept pulling away from him and telling him I didn’t want sex. Telling him ‘it hurts’ must’ve seemed odd as we’d always enjoyed a healthy sex life before. He must’ve felt it was him, that I didn’t want to have sex with him any more. From my perspective, I just felt that my body wasn’t working properly, and wasn’t really equipped to talk about what was happening to me. Thankfully the condition eventually went, although I don’t know why or how. My sex life therefore returned, but what if it hadn’t?
Vaginismus as defined by the NHS is “the body’s automatic reaction to the fear of some or all types of vaginal penetration”. It’s an involuntary reaction and isn’t something you can just ‘turn off’. If you experience pain during penetration of any kind, such as a soreness or a burning sensation, then you might have vaginismus. You will need to see a doctor to determine the cause and get a diagnosis. There are other conditions that can cause painful sex too, and it’s really important to get yourself checked out. Don’t, like me, let your doctor’s silence stop you from speaking out.
If you’re diagnosed with vaginismus, there is a lot more information available now than there was when I was suffering with it. Expert help for vaginismus is available as well as lots of information about how vaginismus affects sex.
It’s good to try relaxation techniques prior to attempting any sort of vaginal intercourse, and to build your way up by using a very small dildo or vibrator until you feel comfortable – you can also buy dilators to help with this process. If penetration of any kind is painful then my advice would be to cease intercourse until you‘ve reduced the pain. You can get sex toys that can make non-penetrative sex more fun, like the Hot Octopuss PULSE DUO LUX. Counselling may help, hypnosis is another possibility. The aim is to get the body to relax enough so the muscles stop involuntarily tightening.
Most importantly, take it slow and don’t feel pressure to do anything that’s uncomfortable. Trying to force sex to keep your partner happy will only make it worse, but do communicate with them so they understand what you are feeling. Looking back, the lack of communication from healthcare professionals and lack of information in the media made it impossible for me to talk to my partner about my difficulties during sex. Don’t let that happen to you – talk to your partner and your doctor!
Petra Pan is a 30-something pansexual adult product and lingerie lover. She also blogs about sex and wellbeing.