Vaginismus: When your body just says no to sex

By Nesta McGregor
Newsbeat reporter

Isley LynnImage source, The Other Richard

"You're not always in control of what your body is doing. With or without your input."

When Isley Lynn recalls her first sexual experience as a teenager she describes it as a non-starter.

"I found it really heartbreaking. I felt like I was broken. I felt at fault for something that wasn't my fault."

While many of us can probably relate to the awkwardness and clumsiness of a first sexual encounter, Isley's reaction was the result of a little talked about condition.

Isley, now 30, still has vaginismus and is touring her play, Skin a Cat, which is all about her experiences.

Image source, The Other Richard
Image caption,
Skin a Cat details the experiences of a woman with vaginismus

The NHS defines vaginismus as the body's automatic reaction to the fear of some or all types of vaginal penetration.

The vaginal muscles tighten up and the woman has no control over it.

Someone with it may find it hard inserting a tampon, struggle to have sex or feel a burning or stinging pain.

Isley says: "I tried my first tampon when I was 10 years old. It was excruciating, it felt like there was no hole, like there was a wall in front of where a hole should be.

"I knew something was seriously wrong after my first boyfriend."

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Those with vaginismus may experience problems using tampons

The condition has also had a big emotional bearing on Isley's relationships.

"I remember feeling really afraid that partners maybe thought I just wasn't in love with them or I wasn't physically attracted to them," she says.

The playwright was diagnosed with vaginismus in her late teens and was treated with vaginal trainers which slowly increase in size to try to relax the muscles, and physiotherapy.

Isley says that after attempting the treatments, she soon realised they weren't working and that "being fixed" wasn't the solution to her long term happiness.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Treatment for vaginismus includes psychosexual therapy and relaxation techniques

"It was a therapist that stopped me and asked me how much did I want to be normalised.

"And it's that conversation you see in the final scene of the play. This character is asked to define what she wants from her sex life.

"She realises she doesn't have to have a sex life like everyone else's to enjoy it.

"That you write your own script in life and should do what makes you happy."

Image source, Science Photo Library

If you're affected by any of these issues you might find useful information on the BBC Advice pages.

It's difficult to estimate how many women in UK have vaginismus although a recent survey suggested nearly one in 10 British women finds sex painful.

Although this could be down to a number of different reasons - vaginismus being just one of them.

"Vaginismus is different from just pain during sex because it's the body's automatic reaction that causes it," explains Dr Vanessa Mackay, a consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist at the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital in Glasgow.

"It's probably difficult to put a number on how many women have it because the majority of women who are suffering sexual problems just don't talk about it," Dr Mackay added.

In addition to addressing the physical side of the condition treatment also focuses on the mental side, the fear of penetration.

Psycho-sexual counselling is often also used explains Dr Mackay: "It's a sort of talking therapy helping you understand and changing your feelings towards your body.

"Things like relaxation techniques to help you learn to relax your vaginal muscles. Pelvic floor exercises are also something that can be used to treat vaginismus.

"And we prescribe vaginal trainers too, these are smooth tampon-shaped objects, that come in different widths that make you get used to having something in your vagina."

Image source, Teresa
Image caption,
Teresa attempted hypnosis to treat vaginismus

Teresa, 23, also has vaginismus and says after being diagnosed she was offered a variety of different treatments.

"One counsellor suggested I try hypnosis which in a dark moment I did try but it didn't work for me at all. I'm a bit of a sceptic so the whole time I was there I was like, 'This isn't going to work for me'," Teresa says.

She adds: "The one thing that did work for me is graded dilators where you just teach yourself to relax using them.

"Life today is pretty good, I don't worry about it on a day to day basis. I'm pretty chilled, pretty happy. It was difficult at the beginning but I think once you find your own solution it's easy from there."

Additional interviews featured in this story were by BBC Radio 1's Alix Fox, presenter of the Unexpected Fluids podcast.

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