A new Irish study on vaginismus suggests that the condition may have its roots in childhood and may be linked with the experience of negative and frightening messages regarding sex and pre-marital pregnancy.
Vaginismus is the experience of being unable to have penetrative sex. When penetration is attempted, the vaginal muscles tighten involuntarily. It is associated with high levels of distress and it can have a profound impact on how a woman feels about herself, her partner and her relationships.
To date, research on how women and couples experience vaginismus has been very limited and even attempting to establish rates of the condition has proven difficult. This is because most studies are based on clinical populations and it is likely that prevalence rates in the general population are higher.
Vaginismus tends to be a very hidden problem because of the shame and stigma attached to sexual difficulties and even sex in general.
Dr Maria McEvoy from Dublin City University’s (DCU) School of Nursing, Psychotherapy and Community Health decided to investigate this further. This is the first Irish study in 40 years to look at the psychosocial factors that contribute to vaginismus.
Based on interviews with couples who have experienced it and helping professionals, Dr McEvoy developed a theory about the condition. She found that it appears to have roots in childhood and may be associated with the experience of negative and frightening messages regarding sex and pre-marital pregnancy.
In many cultures, including Ireland, a daughter’s sexual behaviour can be perceived to have wider implications for the reputation of the family, leading to feelings of fear and shame being associated with sexual relationships.
These feelings of fear and shame can manifest physically as an automatic tightening of the vaginal muscles whenever intercourse is attempted. This may be interpreted not only as an attempt at physical protection of the body, but also as an emotional protection from the shame associated with sexual behaviour.
The shame of these early messages can persist for many years, impacting relationships for some time.
Couples in the study reported that understanding and resolving vaginismus is a process that can take time, so a feeling of connection, understanding and support from the healthcare professional is vital to the success of any treatment.
Professionals, including psychotherapists and medical practitioners, noted that the resolution of vaginismus is a unique journey for every woman and couple and it is incumbent upon healthcare professionals to work with other professionals to provide a multidisciplinary response, rather than a one-size-fits-all approach.
Meanwhile, the study also noted that a major barrier to accessing help is cost. In Northern Ireland, many psychosexual services are available free of charge from the NHS, but in the Republic, there are limited specialist services available in the public health service. As a result, the financial burden of resolving vaginismus can be considerable for those affected.
“A lack of knowledge about vaginismus from healthcare providers and in the general population leads women to believe that their experience is unique, which contributes to feelings of shame and helplessness.
“Vaginismus is a common sexual difficulty that can be effectively treated when appropriate help is provided by knowledgeable, trained practitioners who can support women and couples to understand and resolve it,” Dr McEvoy commented.
For more on the latest research into this condition, click here.