Vaginismus was a big part of the early story of my marriage.

We were greeted on our wedding night by an inability to have intercourse because it hurt too much. I was expecting sex to hurt a little bit, but not like that.

It caused so many hurt feelings on both sides. We were both devastated.

But what made the whole thing worse was that we didn’t have a word for what we were experiencing. We thought I was the only one. We had never heard of someone who hadn’t been able to achieve penetration before. And so we both thought that at some level I was rejecting Keith (even though I certainly didn’t feel like I wanted to).

It took me several months to get the courage to talk to friends–who weren’t  helpful. Then we eventually talked to family (who were physicians) who took me to another physician, who wanted to put me naked in stirrups and have me touch myself while naming body parts, because then I wouldn’t feel shame.

I literally ran out of the room hyperventilating and never went back.

(Here’s a picture of Keith and me from around that time):

Real Intimacy in Marriage--Keith and Sheila

In hindsight, I know what caused my vaginismus: the obligation sex message, that my body was not my own and that I no longer had a choice in anything, combined with the improper way I was breathing and holding my abdominal wall after years of ballet. When that doctor wanted to put me on display against my will, it just exacerbated everything.

What I needed was physiotherapy and permission to wait on intercourse, but I got neither. I pushed myself because I felt so guilty, and likely made the problem worse.

As Keith and I worked on our marriage, and after a few children, the problem eventually resolved itself. I also learned how to control those muscles and learned how to breathe differently, and that helped tremendously.

But I have such sympathy for little 21-year-old Sheila, completely blindsided by this and having absolutely no idea where to go for help.

We want to make the word vaginismus as well known as the words erectile dysfunction.

After all, of couples under the age of 40, vaginismus is about three times as common, at least in evangelical circles. In many ways it’s more devastating–because often she can have sex, she just can’t do so without pain. So she feels like, to give him pleasure, she has to accept pain. That’s a terrible, toxic thing to believe–that his pleasure is worth the price of your pain.

So few marriage and sex books even talk about vaginismus. This was one thing that Kevin Leman’s book Sheet Music does well, but even Married Sex by Gary Thomas and Debra Fileta doesn’t handle it well, because they call it a psychological disorder, and say the first line of defence is counseling. But it’s not a psychological disorder. It is a physiological issue that can, and often does, have some psychological roots, and that often causes relationship issues as well. But there can be physical roots too (like my breathing), and for many people it’s multi-faceted.

The best route is to see a physical therapist who is trained in this, learn about accessing the mind body connection, and then start seeing a counselor if needed.

One of the reasons that we wanted as many people as possible for our survey for The Great Sex Rescue was to have enough women with vaginismus that we could probe root causes.

And thankfully we were able to do that (and we’ll be presenting our findings at the American Physical Therapy Association convention in February!).  It’s been known for fifty years that conservative religious women (like evangelicals) suffer from vaginismus at roughly twice the rate of the general population, and we wanted to figure out why. We found that a number of common teachings are correlated with vaginismus (like the obligation sex message), and often the way we do our honeymoon (more on that in the upcoming Good Guy’s Guide to Great Sex, and the totally revamped Good Girl’s Guide to Great Sex! And you can pre-order them now!).

Because I talk so much about it, I often have people emailing me about their vaginismus stories.

One such women is Rachel Perry. She told me her story, and I was blown away by it. She’s coming on the podcast tomorrow to talk about it, since I felt that it fit so well with our series on mind-body connection. She had read The Great Sex Rescue, and from reading it she started to answer some of the questions about “why” this had happened to her. Even though she found healing a few years ago, she’s still peeling back layers, and the Great Sex Rescue was part of that process. 

Before she talks with us tomorrow, though, I’d like to share her story with you. She’s written it up on her website: Vaginismus: My Nightmare, My Cure. I encourage you all to read it before you listen to the podcast! But I want to share a bit with you today:

“Anticipatory pain”, as my parents would call it, marked me from childhood. Whether it was me crying before Mom had even touched the hairbrush to my curly mop or trying my best to avoid every mistake or uncontrolled variable that could destabilize me, I was driven by fear to avoid surprise or disappointment.

Little did I know, this would turn out to be more than just the personality quirk of a cautious child. I had accumulated and repressed anxiety which had been burrowing its way into my psyche throughout my entire youth, creating neurological maps. In adulthood, this would manifest loudly. My body would make itself heard. That anxiety was not an innocuous personality quirk or a sin to be prayed away, but a powerful storm that had been whipping up steadily out of both nature and nurture, now swirling out of control ready to do some real damage.

I discovered that I had vaginismus on my wedding night.

I can not bring myself to share with you graphic details of the evening, but it is all crystal clear in my memory. It was beautiful, it was full of trust and love, and it was also confusing. It is heart-wrenching to remember now, but only because I know now what lay ahead.

Rachel Perry

Vaginismus: My Nightmare, My Cure

She goes on to talk about her journey: How she sought out medical attention for years and nothing worked. Multiple medical professionals thought the case was hopeless. 

And then, after six years, she found real help at The Women’s Therapy Center in Plainview, New York. 

But in my heart I could not look ahead into a long life dragging this body along that I despised, that had failed me. I needed to believe I could be cured. It was not primarily about sex, or exams, or tampons, or even children, as people had long since begun to assume. It was about feeling like a defective human. The church we were attending at the time was led by dear friends who were among the very few who knew about my condition. The church was in the family of a fairly charismatic tradition, and when they offered to anoint my head with oil and pray for healing I was extremely reticent. Since the unwelcome arrival of vaginismus in my life, I had found passages in scripture about healing upsetting. I should ask God for healing? The God to whom I had given my devotion and for whom I had guarded my purity – only to have the rug ripped out from under me after we made our covenant before him? He had removed His hand of blessing from me and I was going to ask for healing? My complaint was fraught, because I was not certain whether He had not come through for me or I had not come through for Him, or whether this was a test and if I begged for healing I might fail it? But I eventually said yes. We prayed for God to heal me, in His mercy and in His time. 5 months later I stumbled upon the online presence of The Women’s Therapy Center in Plainview, NY.
Rachel Perry

Vaginismus: My Nightmare, My Cure

Her story is riveting, raw, and real, and if you’ve ever wanted to understand what vaginismus does to a person–and how healing can be found–please read it. It’s lovely. 

Tomorrow Rachel will share her story with us on the podcast.

But for today, I’d like to encourage all of us to use the word vaginismus more. Let young people know it can happen–though it likely won’t. But let’s not let another woman be blindsided on her honeymoon, feeling as if her body has failed her and that she’s defective. 

Let’s not let more women give up hope because they think they’re the only one.

Twenty-two pecent of us experience this in some way, 7% to the extent that penetration is impossible.

Healing can come. But it comes first when we start talking about it. 

What if you're NOT the problem with your sex life?

What if the messages that you've been taught have messed things up--and what if there's a way to escape these toxic teachings?

It's time for a Great Sex Rescue.

Vaginismus: One Woman's Nightmare and One Woman's Cure

Do you have a story with vaginismus? Or do you know how we can educate more people about it? Let’s talk in the comments!

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Sheila Wray Gregoire

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Founder of To Love, Honor and Vacuum

Sheila is determined to help Christians find BIBLICAL, HEALTHY, EVIDENCE-BASED help for their marriage. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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