What comes to mind when you think of vaginal health?
Have you ever heard of vaginismus?
Does this term ring a bell, or does it sound like “a condition that’s basically… [the word for vagina] mixed with the word for Christmas”? (as Ella Langley tells us half-jokingly in her newest play Have I Told You That I’m Writing A Play About My Vagina).
According to the Managing Director of the University of British Columbia and Vancouver Hospital, Rosemary Basson, “Vaginismus is involuntary contraction of muscles around the opening of the vagina in women with no abnormalities in the genital organs. The tight muscle contraction makes sexual intercourse or any sexual activity that involves penetration painful or impossible.” In other words: Vaginismus is when we cannot relax during sex and so our vagina contracts (‘freezes’) which leaves us in a lot of pain.
I must admit that I had never come across vaginismus or any of the long list of vaginal conditions for that matter. I never interrogated what may be going on ‘down there’, simply because talking about female genitals is such a societal taboo. Also, there is a deeply ingrained shame attached to admitting that, yes, sex may be and often is painful. Particularly women have been socialised into normalising pain; girls are raised to accept that all women must endure pain, based on the expectation that we all naturally will endure the pangs of childbirth. It is what qualifies you as a woman.
Simultaneously, the patriarchy is a system so encompassing that it overtly overlooks female pleasure. Even though women and men enjoy sex differently, male pleasure usually subsumes female pleasure. As a result, most men and women do not question if all those involved in a sexual practice are enjoying it equally. We do not talk about painful sex and assume that it is invariably always fun. This begs two important questions:
- Why do women feel like they should have sex when they are not feeling relaxed/comfortable in the moment?
- When sex is not fun, does it become just another pain that women have to endure?
At the beginning of the play Have I Told You That I’m Writing A Play About My Vagina?, Bea, the protagonist, chooses to dismiss her painful sexual encounters. Eventually she starts interrogating why this is continually happening to her, only to realise that even her doctors are not informed on vaginal conditions and cannot give her any substantial advice on what she can do. She goes on a journey, alone, with frequent interjections from her very own vagina (who is its own, opinionated, funny and lively character in the play). Throughout the play, Bea consciously chooses to ignore her vagina’s needs and wishes. Only in the end does she understand the importance of listening and having conversations with her vagina; to hear out what her body is telling her rather than being trapped in societal definitions of what kind of pain is considered legitimate.Vaginismus, like many other vaginal conditions, is still under-researched. There is barely any advice on the NHS website about what it is and what you can do to overcome it. If this is the way we talk about a vaginal condition that can be treated, we can only imagine how badly vaginal conditions with no cure are dealt with on a psychological and psychosomatic level.
Why is it that we talk so freely about male genital organs and not often about their female counterparts? Why is it that we know so little about how a vagina works?
I invite you to think about these questions, regardless of your gender. Genital conditions are valid and should be talked about more. We should be able to have a conversation with our sexual partners about what we feel. We should be able to inform ourselves and them on how they, knowing this information, can learn to help us ensure positive sexual encounters for everyone. Remember: there is no shame in talking about what we are feeling and interrogating how we can feel better.
The play is being shown at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival from the 21st-25th of August. You can get tickets to it here.
Below, there are links with information on other vaginal conditions that you may want to refer to.
On vaginismus: www.vaginismus.com
On other Vaginal conditions: https://www.webmd.com/women/features/vaginal-problems-that-affect-your-sex-life#1
Words by Valia Katsi
Photos provided by chuckeduptheatre