Their breaths were uneven, heavy and catching in their throats. Her heart was beating loudly in anticipation and arousal. There was a sticky wetness down there, and she was thoroughly enjoying every bit of it. She had been waiting for this moment for so long, and it was finally happening! As he came closer and closer, almost there, her vaginal muscles suddenly contracted, not allowing him inside. Neither of them understood what was happening, and they had no idea what to do! What was this freak-of-nature experience? Porn never prepared them for this.
This, ladies and gentlemen, is what, in medical terms, is called vaginismus. It is an involuntary contraction or spasm of the vaginal muscles which causes discomfort and pain, making any kind of penetration impossible and extremely unpleasant — this includes insertion of tampons and menstrual cups. It is a condition that affects thousands of women worldwide, yet there are barely any conversations around it.
This involuntary condition has been known to cause mental health issues like increased anxiety. It is also the reason a number of relationships or marriages breakup. “When I first experienced the vaginal shut down, I started to feel an unexplainable unease and anxiety. I wasn’t sure what to do, and asked my partner to go on. When he tried to insert a finger, I screamed in pain and recoiled. My vagina burnt and hurt badly just from trying… I didn’t know what it was at that time,” says Aswitha about her first experience with vaginismus. “Later, after multiple failed attempts with another partner, he said ‘It’s like your doors are permanently closed’ and those words stayed with me.”
Getting intimate with someone is not the only way a woman can discover she has vaginismus. “I had an infection in my vagina which required me to put in some gel using a tube. When I tried to do it, I realised how clenched and tight my muscles were and it just didn’t feel natural. I did a bit of research online after that and that’s how I discovered that I had vaginismus,” says Aishwarya, 23. “I tried to figure out the reasons behind it, and I realised that my growing up in an abusive household could definitely have been a factor in contributing to my vaginismus. I also heard and read a lot about how painful sex is, and I think that also instilled some fear in my mind.”
Knocking on closed doors
Vaginismus can stem from various reasons, and the first step towards treating it is to understand the cause and act accordingly. Dr Prakash Kini, senior gynaecologist, CloudNine, says, “Once the woman is able to figure out what’s causing it, then doctors can give accurate counselling and advice on what needs to be done. More often than not, taking time to get comfortable with your partner and slowly easing into it does all the magic. It is slow and gradual, but can be very rewarding in the end.”
For women who have PTSD or other problems in their marriage or relationships, though, going to therapy and consistently working on their mental health can positively impact their experience. Dr Kini adds that vaginismus is absolutely curable without any medication. “It’s a largely psychological problem. Treating the mind right will always help treat the condition.”
21-year-old Aarti’s long term relationship ended because of this condition. “When I first experienced it, I thought it was absolutely normal because I had grown up hearing how painful it is to have sex or insert tampons. But when it happened, I felt extremely anxious and cried after; because I thought it was permanent and felt helpless.” However, she adds that she has had better experiences since then by learning to trust her partner and allowing herself to relax, reducing the anxiety surrounding it.
Vaginismus has more to do with mental conditioning than anything else. In a society that stigmatises female sexuality and sexual independence before marriage, it is common for women to be scared about sex, which is a major cause for the vaginal shut down that they experience. It is even possible for someone to experience it even if they have had sex before, because vaginismus can also arise because of a traumatic childbirth experience, marital discord or because of other medical conditions like endometriosis. To add insult to injury, the condition is painful and highly stigmatised.
Mind over matter
Despite vaginismus arising mostly out of fear and stigma, there are a couple of things a woman can do to help herself ease out of it. One is the usage of dilators, which are thin, tube-like instruments made of metal or plastic, available in packs of tubes in increasing sizes. They work by gradually stretching the skin in the vaginal area, over time. However, one must consult with a gynaecologist before starting the use of dilators. Dr Kini also suggests Kegel exercises as an effective way of working the vaginal muscles. They’re proven to help women with vaginismus, and the best part about them is that one can do them anywhere, even when sitting on a chair, and nobody would know!
Having vaginismus is painful enough as it is. So how can we, as a society, help women with the condition? By listening to them and not simply dismissing their experience as something trivial. By learning to unlearn regressive ideas that we have been fed, so that women can enjoy good sexual health and be able to discuss it without the fear of being judged or criticised. We must also encourage all the women in our lives to have regular checkups with a gynaecologist, because it is just as important as going to a dentist or a general physician regularly. Dr Kini recommends that women with vaginismus get checked every three weeks after the start of any kind of treatment. Once women have a closer relationship with their own bodies and understand themselves better, vaginismus would be much easier to deal with.
As we slowly inch towards a more open attitude towards sex, we must also hold healthy conversations about sexual health and wellbeing, empowering women to take care of themselves and not fear being shunned by the society.
For more information about vaginismus, visit www.vaginismus.com.
For group support, check Vaginismus Support (@dyspareunia.support) on Facebook.
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