Women who suffer from vaginismus may well desire penetrative sex. But their vagina won’t allow it. (Photo: Colourbox)
Women who suffer from vaginismus may well desire penetrative sex. But their vagina won’t allow it. (Photo: Colourbox)

Mysterious illness clogs up the vagina

Vaginismus is a rare and frustrating disorder that makes it almost impossible for women to engage in vaginal penetration. A new book may help those affected.

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Vaginismus is an unpleasant and mysterious disorder that affects women’s sex lives. Even though they would like to have sex with a man, the vaginal spasms make penetration impossible.

Despite the severe consequences suffered by these women, researchers are still in the dark in regard to the causes of the condition.

Now a new book presents the scientific information available about the illness. Based on her experience with treating women with vaginismus, gynecologist Else Skytte Christensen has written ‘Vaginisme – når kroppen siger nej’ (‘Vaginismus – when the body says no’ (available in Danish only)).

“I have heard many different versions from the girls I have spoken to. The condition is not caused by a disgust of sexual love as such. Rather, it’s a fear of penetration,” says Christensen, who has experience from a number of gynecological departments, plus 20 years in private practice.

Scientists are struggling to figure out what causes vaginismus. In one case, a patient may have developed the condition because as a little girl she was told not to fondle her genitals. (Model photo: Colourbox)
Scientists are struggling to figure out what causes vaginismus. In one case, a patient may have developed the condition because as a little girl she was told not to fondle her genitals. (Model photo: Colourbox)

”We actually don’t know a lot about vaginismus. But it consists of unwanted and unconscious contractions of the vaginal muscles.”

Cause of vaginismus remains a mystery

Nobody knows exactly why vaginismus occurs. However, a study from 2011 shows that 0.4 percent of all women suffer from it.'

According to Astrid Højgaard, the chief physician at the Center for Sexology Research at Aalborg University Hospital, the condition frequently affects women in their 20s.

In some cases it also appears to arise if the woman has a tendency to feel pain in the vulva, including the labia, also known as vulvodynia.

I have heard many different versions from the girls I have spoken to. The condition is not caused by a disgust of sexual love as such. Rather, it’s a fear of penetration.

Else Skytte Christensen

“If sexual intercourse is painful, there will be a reflex-like contraction of the pelvic floor. And the more frequently it happens, the more pronounced the reflex. In the end, the vagina starts contracting as soon as something approaches,” says Højgaard.

She says that women who have vaginismus can be divided into three groups:

  1. Women who have been sexually assaulted.
  2. Women who at some point experienced abdominal pain when an object was inserted into their vagina – for instance because they had sex while suffering pelvic inflammatory disease, or because they have undergone a rough gynecological examination.
  3. The third group is the largest, but also the most mysterious. It is not easy to find a common cause for these women. At first glance it looks as these women are affected randomly.
There must be a psychological component

Although scientists have not yet discovered any definitive cause of vaginismus, the condition is being treated by gynecologists and sexologists. This experience indicates that the illness may be caused by a special psychological vulnerability.

“It’s not easy to separate the physical from the mental, because our psychology definitely affects our body’s reactions,” says Christensen.

We actually don’t know a lot about vaginismus. But it consists of unwanted and unconscious contractions of the vaginal muscles.

Else Skytte Christensen

“Some women have experienced something before the age of three. This is a period that people normally don’t remember well. There may be some traumatic experiences there.

“Although it need not be sexual assault, it may well be remembered as a severe pain. A pain that the body still remembers, even though you cannot recall what caused the pain. So is it a physical or a mental thing? I’d say a bit of both.”

A woman’s strict Catholic upbringing

Women affected by vaginismus have widely different backgrounds that may explain the psychological element of their condition. At one time, Christensen treated a young woman, who clearly did not have a casual relationship with her genitals.

It is the story about ’Lucia’ – a name that Christensen made up to conceal the woman’s identity. Lucia grew up in a strict Catholic environment.

It’s not easy to separate the physical from the mental, because our psychology definitely affects our body’s reactions.

Else Skytte Christensen

Her school and her kindergarten were both Catholic. At home she learned that she should not touch her genitals – and preferably not even think about them. When she was babysitting, she was told not to take off the babies’ diapers because that could result in them starting to fondle themselves.

“At no point was she told why this was such a horrible thing,” explains Christensen.

‘Do not fondle your genitals’

When Lucia started school she experienced something that may have been the defining moment in the development of her vaginismus.

“The children were sitting in a circle and she scratched her crotch. The schoolmistress noticed this and shouted out about it so everyone could hear.

“This reprimand made the girl very unhappy. She regarded it as the worst experience of her life. She was very sensitive about this issue. She knew that genitals are a bad thing and maybe even dangerous. I believe this may have contributed to the development of her vaginismus.”

When the researcher met Lucia, the condition was so severe that it was untreatable. In such cases a gynecologist usually refers the woman to a sexology clinic.

The vagina adapts slowly

Astrid Højgaard, who has been treating women with vaginismus for years, says that a successful treatment needs to be gentle.

“We’re working with the physical as well as with the psychological. We perform physiological exercises where the women learn how to contract and relax their pelvic floor,” she says.

“They also use small sticks of various sizes, which they can use at home to insert into their vaginas. They start out with a very thin stick, and then they increase the thickness 2 millimetres at a time. It’s important for them to feel that they control their own pace.”

Go see a doctor – not a sexologist

If you think you may suffer from vaginismus, you should note the difference between a ‘clinical sexologist’ and a ‘sexologist’.

‘Sexologist’ is not a protected title, which means that anyone can call themselves a sexologist.

“These sexologists do not possess the required anatomical understanding that a physician does. There may be people treating vaginismus without the required skills,” says Højgaard.

“Unfortunately, there is a lot of money in this field, and it’s a big grey zone. So always go to your doctor with your problem and then you will be referred to a specialist from there.”

Professional practitioners have been relatively successful in treating the mysterious vaginismus – even though scientists have yet to come up with any clear answers about its cause.

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Read the Danish version of this article at videnskab.dk

Translated by: Dann Vinther

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