Vaginismus: Sex therapist explains the psychological impact it has on women
"Often, women will say they don't feel like a 'normal woman'."
Despite being a treatable condition, vaginismus can have a huge psychological impact on the women who experience it.
If you're not familiar with it, vaginismus is a condition in which the muscles around the vagina tighten involuntarily, making intercourse and penetration extremely difficult or impossible.
Not only can it prevent a woman from enjoying intercourse, but it can even make inserting tampons or undergoing smear tests a hugely uncomfortable experience.
The causes for vaginismus are varied - there are physical and psychological reasons that a woman can develop this condition.
But one thing many vaginismus patients do have in common is a sense of shame, distress or secrecy relating to their sex lives.
Dublin based Sex Therapist Teresa Bergin says the psychological impact of vaginismus can be hugely difficult for women to deal with.
"A woman experiencing vaginismus will often say she feels she’s carrying a very heavy burden that she can’t talk about, because women don’t often talk about this. There’s the sense that they are the only one experiencing the problem."
Theresa says she often meets women with the condition who battling feelings of isolation or loneliness over their sexual difficulties, with many feeling like they're not a 'normal woman'.
But, when sexual difficulties are so common, where does this sense of shame come from?
Well, it's likely because we don't talk about these problems enough.
Teresa says that for many women, their GP and their sex therapist can be the only people who know their experiencing sexual difficulties
This can leave these women feeling totally isolated, like they're the only ones having these problems.
"There is the sense that they're the only one experiencing the problem. Everyone else seems to be getting on with their sexual life and having no difficulties with sex, when actually vaginismus is so common and there’s lots of people in the community experiencing the same difficulty."
Teresa says that, while negative messaging around sex has lessened in Ireland over the decades, the pressure to have "a perfect body, a perfect sexuality and a fully functioning libido" is impacting women today.
"So there can be this pressure to perform and for everything to be fine, and that kind of messaging can put people under pressure."
Unsurprisingly, Ireland's approach to sex education may also play a part in the pressure vaginismus patients are feelings. Teresa says that Ireland's sex-ed curriculum is improving, but still has a lot to answer for.
"Our sex education is really directed at the reproductive cycle, and again that is improving, but we don’t receive education about what to do if something goes wrong, and what to do if a sexual relationship doesn’t work or if we experience difficulties in our bodies."
Teresa says that women with vaginismus often say they've lost their confidence and that it prevents them from dating, due to concerns about performance should the relationship become sexual.
This pressure can often lead women to feel that the condition is not treatable, and that they will be dealing with sexual difficulties for the rest of their lives.
"Typically women would have that sense that they won’t be able to get past this, that they wont be able to have a sexual relationship, that they may not be able to conceive, and that’s a huge worry for women. But in fact vaginismus is a very treatable issue."
Teresa says that with the right support, awareness and by embarking on therapy, a woman can get past this problem and ultimately be able to have a satisfying sexual relationship, without pain and discomfort.
"So there's a lot of hope there for treating vaginismus."
Teresa Bergin is a sex therapist, psychotherapist and couples therapist based in Dublin City.