We're delighted to have a guest blog post from Sarah Berry- a psychosexual and relationship therapist who specialises in (and is a former sufferer of) vaginismus.
Every person with vaginismus has a different relationship to their vagina. Some just need to know about the Kegel muscles and what maintains their condition before they move to working through different-sized insertibles. Others find this process frustratingly slow, peppered with avoidance, backward steps and an idea that they will always have to “work” at trying to have pleasure or body connection. Some cannot bear the idea of anything going near their vagina. Others cannot bear the idea of looking at it – indeed it’s not something you catch a glimpse of accidentally. And there are many more who would prefer to ignore the fact that they even have a vagina, while still wishing they weren’t at the mercy of the condition. If you are stuck, anywhere on your vaginismic journey, some of these ideas might help you bond with what lies below your torso.
While penis owners can choose from a varied list of sexual, funny, sweet, offensive and biological names for their members; vagina owners have slimmer pickings. Indeed, even the name ‘vagina’, while colloquially taken to mean all of the below, only describes the passage inside you and not the vulva or pubic mound.
If you don’t feel comfortable with this word or any of the others (fanny, cunt, twat, quim, yoni), it can be hard to talk about it – to yourself, any partners, doctors, therapists – anyone! Thus, any shame you may feel about the condition, your body or sex (I do often find there is some shame somewhere with clients) is intensified as awkward silences and squirms are endured.
Finding a word that you feel comfortable using can be very powerful. You can Google alternative names for a vagina, give it a person’s name or employ useful, euphemistic phrases like “my bits”, “down there”, “up me” or “inside”.
Write to it
Some people find writing a letter to their vagina can be an interesting exercise. You could also write a letter to yourself from your vagina.
Venting feelings in these letters can be very cathartic. If you suppress feelings, this can lead to anxiety or depression. You may find anger seeps out in other ways (for example, getting disproportionally angry at internet pop-up ads). Or you might find yourself unable to stop thinking obsessive thoughts, maybe uncontrollably and even offloading them to other people. Expressing thoughts and feelings on paper gets them out of your head. You are facing them, acknowledging and respecting them. This is what feelings need. If you do this, then there is room in your head to move on.
Another thing you can do, following this, or instead of it, is try writing a compassionate letter to your vagina. Imagine that it is a distressed friend in need of help. Recount what it’s gone through, empathising with how it might feel and assuring it that you aren’t going anywhere (of course you aren’t, it’s part of you, but expressing this within the letter, as a friendly, supportive sentiment can be comforting and connecting).
Consider your ear
Some people with vaginismus do not have any problems with their vulva. They are happy to look at it, touch it, masturbate and enjoy arousal. Others find the vulva problematic. Some feel squeamish, describing as an odd squishy mass of hairy, squelchy flesh, around a hole that weirdly leads into an abyss.
While penis owners often grow up cheerfully playing with this tail that grows out the front of their body, it’s a lot easier for vagina owners to avoid their bits. Unless you actually go out of your way to look at it, you won’t see it. And if you have a troubled relationship with your vagina it’s entirely understandable why what lies beneath would be more of a mystery.
But consider another orifice that you are much more au fait with, that may not be so hairy (at least not for younger cis women), that can ooze (waxy) stuff and has an odd hole that leads into your body: Your ear. Of course, your ear doesn’t spasm and isn’t meant to enjoy being poked, so is usually much less trouble.
Spending some time thinking about your ear, and comparing your thoughts about it to those of your vagina can help challenge fearful thoughts.
When I see clients who find it hard to touch their vagina, I ask what happens when they wee. Most people were wiping their vaginas several times a day, long before any phobias came into play, and therefore take this motion for granted.
When you next go to wipe, maybe linger a little and think about what you feel beneath the toilet paper. I would add that the most important thing is to not render weeing problematic. You don’t want to hold in your wee or scrimp on wiping because the awareness is difficult. If this feels like a good opportunity to bond, then go forth. If there is any unease then don’t worry, this isn’t the step for you.
Fingers, as well as any phallic-shaped insertables, can drive fear into some vaginismus sufferers. Some may have previously been fingered by a partner and felt pain, either because of the condition, or maybe because the finger owner had long nails or wasn’t gentle enough.
But when grouped together in a cupping position, placed in unison over the vagina, these fingers can seem less of a threat and feel more like a hug. Cupping yourself over clothes, knickers, or flesh on flesh can be a good way of connecting to your vagina.
The aim of this is not titillation or exploration but to feel relaxed with yourself. In time, cupping may feel more natural and less of a daunting event. Maybe you could cup while reading, watching TV or as you drift off to sleep.
Moving your hand
The next step from cupping can be moving the hand up and down, side to side or in circles. You could also try wiggling the fingers. I would recommend you use lubrication for this – Sh! Women’s store (www.sh-womenstore.com) has a lot of advice about these and which type might be the best for you. The reason for this is that the lube can help your fingers move freely, without friction. When the vagina is aroused, it usually provides it’s own lubrication. Sometimes, touching with lubrication can help stir these juices.
Often, when clients are exploring their vagina, they feel disappointed or angry if it doesn’t get aroused. Their head fills with negative thoughts about the process and they feel more hopeless. Mitigating expectations and having an instruction for your head is important.
At first, this exercise is about curiosity. Touch mindfully, exploring how it your vagina feels on your fingers. Are some bits more sensitive than others? You may find touching becomes comforting. You may build up to pleasure, maybe with the help of fantasies or stimulating material. But always remember, if it ever gets tricky, you can return to being curious. You’re getting to know your body and how it likes to be touched.
Look at pictures
Some people are happy to never, ever look at their vagina. And that’s fine - you don’t have to conquer each step recommended to you in order to bond with or enjoy your vagina. Some people don’t want to look, hate fingers, hate vibrators, but are still able to enjoy sex. Others looked once, found it too difficult and fear doing so again.
One of things that baffles me the most about vaginas is how they are represented in most clinical illustrations. From school text books to self help guides, they are depicted as neat, symmetrical, entities. In actuality, vaginas are as amazingly individual as the thumbprint. We all have different sized lips (from each other and from one side of our body to the other). And they may be redder, darker or lighter than your skin tone, hairy, tufty, not hairy, and many other things.
If you find it hard to look at your own, looking at photos of vaginas can help you to understand and move towards accepting what is down there.
If you want to look but find it difficult, drawing your vagina, can help. It gives you the eye of an artist or intrepid explorer. To do this, a position you could try is sitting on the floor with a mirror between your legs. Often people find that the more they look, the more there is to see. And once you’ve drawn it, you’ll have a picture you can look at, to remind you of this bonding experience if you feel bad or disconnected.
Make time for it
Avoidance is a constant bedfellow of vaginismus, be it avoiding therapy, not doing any body bonding/exploration work, not talking about it with your partner or steering away from any forms of affection. Dealing with any of these can take building up to, deep breaths and leaps of faith.
If you wait for the right head space to happen spontaneously, then progress can be very slow. Creating time and space in your week can help. This can be time alone, or with your partner. How much time you put aside is very personal. Maybe you could build up to two or three times a week. Anything from half an hour to two hours – if you want to work in time for a little avoidance, preparation for whatever it is you’re doing and space to take your time.
During this time, you can do anything that involves your vagina, sex, love or the body. If you don’t feel like doing body work, you could research the condition or do some writing. You may plan to do something but find it isn’t working. If this happens, then think of something that’s easier for next time. Then when you’re done, do something that is completely unrelated, that feels good.
The most important thing is to treat yourself, including your vagina, with compassion. Take your time, though if you feel like you’re avoiding and not making progress, repeating steps you’ve conquered can help you to reinforce a new bond. I can usually help clients to think of less daunting steps, whether it’s with their vagina, or outside their body, looking at having fun in an uncontrolled way. If you are stuck, there are ways to unstick. The road to conquering vaginimus may be difficult, but the steps don’t have to be.
Find out more about Sarah and her work at sarahberrytherapy.co.uk