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One of my friends, as long as I’ve known her, has talked about her vaginismus, or involuntary contractions of the pelvic floor. She hasn’t necessarily called it that, but one of my earliest memories with her involves sitting around in a circle of our friends and playing Never Have I Ever. As we regaled each other with lurid tales of our sexual experiences, she revealed to us that she was “half a virgin,” because for her, vaginal penetration was unbearably difficult.
As the years passed and our circle of friends routinely reconvened, her stories began to transform. They became less about her so-called inability to have sex, and more about the bewildering process of trying to understand why.
Her story is mimicked by many others with vaginismus. How many? We’ll never know. The stats range from 0.17% to 17%, murky because of an unknowable number of people who don’t receive treatment — for lack of access to healthcare, for shame or embarrassment, or for the simple fact that it’s hard to talk to people about your sexual health, and even harder to advocate for yourself when the first several healthcare providers you consult may not even know what to tell you.
Five years ago, my then-teenaged friend talked about her frustrations with her body.
Two years ago, a budding young adult, she had finally discovered a name for it.
Six months ago, she was able to get a Pap test for the first time.
That journey didn’t come easily. Healthcare was difficult to access as she left school. Waiting for an appointment with a gynecologist ate up a significant amount of time. Trauma informed discomfort with several of the first few healthcare providers she did see. Building a trusting relationship took time. Working up the nerve to ask to take time and be careful during the procedure took guts.
“I probably wouldn’t have been able to get a Pap smear two years ago,” she says again. “But I did 6 months ago.”
There are different levels to vaginismus, I discovered. Different levels of pain. It can flare up. It can be triggered by anxiety. Every person’s body is different, and every person’s experience with vaginismus is different.
There are tools for recovery. (It’s important to note, here, that recovery does not have to be linear.) The tools that work, too, are different for different people.
Some people go to pelvic floor specialists, physiotherapists who dedicate their expertise to that one section of the body.
Some seek a different type of therapy, to address any underlying fear or trauma or anxiety.
Some wait for gynecologists, waiting to be prescribed medications to make their muscles more receptive.
And others, like my friend, try as many options as possible, gauging the effectiveness of each one, and then… opt out of the medical circle altogether and end up turning to sex shops. She purchased the same tool — a dilator — that many trans women use post gender affirmation surgery.
Different strokes for different folks really does hold true. The important thing is to find what works for you, but that’s so much harder to do unless we start sharing more and talking more and offering more — support, resources, information, stories.
Even if it started over five years ago, with a bunch of drunken teens revealing their bawdiest tales, there’s no underestimating the significance of a good story.
This was posted during Sexual and Reproductive Health Week 2018 (#SRH2018), where this year’s theme is #MindYourBusiness, bringing awareness to the intersection between mental and sexual wellness.
BIOJennifer Chan is currently the Product/Operations Manager at Eve Medical, a social venture that is extending health screening beyond the clinic into the privacy and comfort of patients' homes. Motivated by the 500,000 cases of cervical cancer that occur worldwide each year, Eve Medical developed and launched the Eve Kit Service for do-it-yourself at-home HPV screening. Jen is also a Venture for Canada Fellow (2017 Cohort). Along with a background in biomedical engineering, she has previously facilitated and organized around queer, youth, racialized, and disability initiatives.