Content warning: This story contains references to sexual violence and abuse, and race-related violence. 

It’s a common condition but many people with vaginismus - the involuntary tensing of the vagina - feel like they’re not being taken seriously by their doctor when they bring it up. 

Re: News contributor Alana Rae writes about the condition and speaks to people about what it’s like to have vaginismus. 

Growing up, Eda Tang just assumed that the vagina was a painful part of the body. 

Now at the age of 23, Eda has recently been discharged from pelvic physio after two years of treating her vaginismus. 

Almost 20% of young people with vaginas who have sex with men have experienced recurring pain

One of the main causes of painful sex is vaginismus.

Eda’s treatment included dilators, medication, a personalised at-home stretching programme and transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) therapy. 

She’s gotten to a point where while her vagina still hurts, penetration is possible. 

“I now understand it as the same kind of pain I would feel if I went to yoga,” Eda says. 

“It’s not a fearful pain. It's a manageable pain.”

Morgan Penn is a somatic sexologist, which means she has studied human sexuality and focuses on awareness through the body, and says the pain can be described as “burning, stinging, stabbing or like hitting a brick wall”. 

“To me, it's a way of the body communicating with you that it doesn’t feel safe - it’s literally shutting down.” 

University of Auckland reproductive biologist Dr Anna Ponnampalam says vaginismus can also include the fear of any insertion including tampons or having a vaginal examination. 

“There could be various causes of vaginismus from poor knowledge about sexual health to sexual trauma,” she says.

‘Oh shit, I didn’t think that would be part of it’

Eda’s grandparents grew up in the Sino-Japanese war era. 

“There was a lot of rape and torture,” Eda says. 

“Not just like, ‘let’s go kill people’ but ‘let’s strip them naked, mangle their bodies and display them in the most grotesque, sexually violent way.’” 

Eda remembers going to an exhibition on this when she was seven and seeing images of sexual violence. 

Going to psychosexual therapy and “looking at some intergenerational stuff in my family, I was like, ‘oh, shit. I didn’t think that would be part of it.’”

Eda says her family’s history might have a connection to her condition but her family has always been “kind of hush” about sexuality in general.

‘It feels like no one takes you seriously’

As a teenager, Liv Redman was a professional snowboarder. 

“When I was 16, I had an issue with a sponsor sexually abusing me over the winter season,” Liv says. 

“I knew what had happened, I just didn’t want to come to terms with it.” 

After that, Liv says “I noticed I was getting progressively worse pain down there - really bad pain”. 

The start of 2020 was when Liv started going through the public health system to identify the pain.

After being misdiagnosed with endometriosis, she was told her last option was to have a hysterectomy. She was 18 at the time.

“I was like, there’s no way I’m removing my uterus,” she says.

Instead, doctors offered for Liv to go to a pain management clinic, which she was put on a waitlist for.

“I got a call a year later that a spot had opened up when I had moved cities. I actually cried to the lady on the phone. It was ridiculous [how long I waited].”

Liv’s friend then suggested she go to a counsellor, who then asked if she had ever thought her sexual abuse and pain were related. 

This was something Liv hadn’t thought about - she says when she went through the public system, she was never asked and so she didn’t think it was important. 

“When you go to a doctor for vaginismus, it feels like no one takes you seriously or they can just be so black and white about things.”

But Liv says she recently had a win - a month ago she was approved to see a gynaecologist through ACC. 

“She made a treatment plan and wants me to get botox down there. So that’s a cool victory to have ACC pay for my botox.”

More awareness and education about vaginismus needed

Ponnampalam says there are many factors that make it difficult for people to discuss vaginismus with a doctor. 

These can include lack of public awareness of the condition or shame and possibly fear of judgement by their partners, Ponnampalam says. 

There is definitely a need for more awareness and education about vaginismus among health care professionals, she says.

“It is such a taboo subject that women and people with vaginas often feel embarrassed to talk about it, so inadequate training to understand it by the health professional likely makes the situation worse.”

Alana Rae was born and bred in Tāmaki Makaurau. Having recently graduated from AUT’s School of Communication Studies, she is now a freelance journalist.

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