Not a lot of people are aware of vaginismus.
I can’t say I blame them. The disorder, which prevents penetration through the involuntary contraction of the vaginal muscles, is not the kind of thing we discuss in our society. I was never taught about it in sex education (although I do remember having numerous lengthy conversations about erectile dysfunction) and often mainstream media provides a lot of harmful misinformation.
This is, I think, a great factor of my own struggle with the disorder, and why it took me such a long time to accept the help I truly needed. I felt abnormal. I felt like a failure of a woman, a failure of a girlfriend, and a failure of a sexual being – everything a sex-positive feminist like me so vehemently aims to fight against. I knew that women aren’t determined by their vaginal capacity but nevertheless my irrational, emotionally tarnished train of thought had naturally led me to one conclusion: that I had failed.
The very idea of inserting objects into my vagina has always been a source of great anxiety. Even as a fresh-faced eleven-year-old attending my first sex education session, I remember I’d sit at the back of the classroom, stomach churning at the thought of using a tampon, my body practically contorting with fear when I assumed a less invasive alternative didn’t exist. It wasn’t until the age of 20 that I realised inserting a tampon needn’t be an agonising venture – because nobody ever told me.
“I felt like a failure of a woman, a failure of a girlfriend, and a failure of a sexual being – everything a sex-positive feminist like me so vehemently aims to fight against”
Things didn’t get better from here. Losing your virginity, I was informed, is a bloody, excruciating ritual of gore which boasts absolutely zero pleasure for the woman. Sex can only lead to three things – premature pregnancy, a lifetime of infection, and/or a torn vagina.
This so-called ‘knowledge’ which my primary teachers imparted onto me remained at the back of my mind until I went through my ‘experimental’ phase at age eighteen. Most of my friends had lost their virginity at this point, and I couldn’t help but wonder how. How are they able to endure sex without crying out in pain? How are they managing to comfortably use tampons? And why am I so different? Over the next couple of years, I began to feel increasingly alienated from my sexually-charged peers. As far as I was concerned, the idea of sex with a man was akin to inserting a knife into my reproductive organs and twisting it around. And I thought I was the only person in the world feeling this way.
Attempting insertion slowly became a means of self-destruction. I’d attempt to insert a tampon, a finger, a vibrator, and my body would reject it every single time. One of the most frustrating elements of Vaginismus is that the contracted muscles create a blockade in the way of the object of penetration. This essentially means your body absolutely will not let you attempt penetration in any way, shape or form. The excruciating sensations often left me sobbing in my room for hours. I tried insertion every week, to no avail. Little did I know, it was making matters a whole lot worse – when you have Vaginismus, the more trauma you inflict, the longer the treatment process can take.
It wasn’t until I found myself in a long-term relationship that I actually confessed my feelings. My boyfriend and I spent hours googling my symptoms, ruling out other reproductive issues like endometriosis. Finally, we came across the NHS page on vaginismus. Each terrifying symptom corroborated with my own experiences: the inability to be penetrated, burning, bleeding...
“Realising I suffer from the condition was one thing. Getting checked out was an entirely different ball game”
Realising I suffer from the condition was one thing. Getting checked out was an entirely different ball game. I was barely taught about the most intricate workings of the vagina, let alone detailed gynaecology, and I was cripplingly terrified they might try to shove a speculum inside me without warning. And even if they didn’t, what if I smelled? What if my vagina looked like a Martian mutation? Would I see a doctor with a warm, sympathetic nature? Or a cold, clinical battle-axe who’d dismiss my symptoms as merely psychosomatic, before laughing me out of the office? This train of thought didn’t come as a surprise to my already nervous disposition – but it was certainly a difficult obstacle to climb.
I’ve learned in my twenties that discourse around smear tests are fortunately becoming more common – it’s a conversation you simply can no longer avoid. But as fussy as I am over my health, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of impending doom hanging over my head like a blackening cloud. I knew I wouldn’t be able to undergo a smear test if I couldn’t handle any form of penetration; including speculum insertion. I once watched an interview about the introduction of the new speculum which was supposed to calm the nerves of doubters. The cheery woman in question mentioned that ‘the speculum just slips into the vagina. And that’s it! If you can take a penis, you can definitely handle this’.
I couldn’t even handle a tampon.
But what was my other choice? To continue to mull over the sight and smell of my vagina, until I missed the deadline for my first pap smear, thus putting myself at risk? I finally bit the bullet and scheduled my first appointment. An appointment which ended up changing my life. Speaking to my doctor about my vaginismus wasn’t only a fifty tonne weight lifted off my mind; it was a cautionary tale. Symptoms present themselves in a similar fashion to those of Chlamydia and Gonorrhoea, and the disorder is not exclusive to virgins.
“Young women aren’t taught in sex education to look after the health of our reproductive organs. Burning, bleeding, itching and dull pain isn’t normal, yet we soldier on regardless”
Again, young women aren’t taught in sex education to look after the health of our reproductive organs. Burning, bleeding, itching and dull pain isn’t normal, yet we soldier on regardless. My appointment was the first sharp intake of fresh air I’d inhaled in a long time. Being able to speak frankly to the doctor about my health and sexual history, being in control at all times during my internal examination, even being given a reassuring hug by my GP at the end... it was honestly one of the most empowering experiences of my life. Even so, I went away feeling disheartened by the fact that there would be thousands of people like me in the UK alone won’t be able to understand the same level of empowerment.
One in thirteen people in the United Kingdom suffer from vaginismus and dyspareunia, and I’m willing to bet the majority of those people had no idea until they ventured to google it after years of pain. One in thirteen, in exactly the same position as myself, had to learn about their disorder through a search engine. No human interaction, no empathetic ear, no reassurance of any kind. When it comes to young boys learning about erectile dysfunction; we’re told about how commonly it occurs, how it’s nothing to be ashamed of… When it comes to the health of a woman’s reproductive system, however, we’re simply conditioned to put up and shut up.
Nothing changes if we remain silent on the matter. While sex education remains a blind spot of gender inequality, it doesn’t warrant the total lack of exposure glossing over the facts. If our young women are taught from a pre-teen age how common vaginal infections and disorders are – and how painless and efficient examinations are and how treatable they are – we stand a greater chance of raising a truly sex-positive generation of women.
More people will have adequate access to and confidence in smear appointments, more sufferers will be able to connect through open discourse. Most importantly, people like me will see their vagina not as an elusive enemy, but just a firm friend.
Hannah Van-de-Peer is a student and journalist
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