Editor’s Note: Sexual trauma addressed in this week’s column.
I really appreciate your column and the work that you do. I have a really embarrassing sex problem. I was sexually abused throughout various parts of my life, starting in my childhood and going into my twenties. I have vaginismus, but with therapy and dilation, it’s slowly but surely gotten better. I’m seeing someone new who I really like, and the vaginismus is coming back. I feel very safe and cared for with this person, so it’s both perplexing and embarrassing. I feel like I can never escape the sexual abuse of my past and move on to have healthy sexual relationships. Help!
— Reaching for Relief
First, it’s crucial for you to hear, know, and reaffirm to yourself that neither the sexual abuse inflicted on you nor the resultant vaginismus is your fault. While it’s extremely common for sexual abuse survivors to feel shame and embarrassment as a result of their abuse and/or its aftereffects — in your case, vaginismus — these feelings of shame and embarrassment are misattributions of responsibility for the abuse onto you rather than rightfully onto your abuser/s. Again, neither the abuse or vaginismus are your fault.
I can only imagine how painful and frustrating it is to have to manage the aftereffects of these traumas inflicted on you in this new relationship with someone so great.
Vaginismus — the unexpected tightening of the PC muscles/vaginal canal during sexual penetration resulting in physical pain and discomfort — is an especially upsetting and fickle symptom of trauma as its root causes are often both physical and mental/emotional. It sounds like you’re doing all of the right things by digging down to these two roots via therapy and dilation.
Whether we have a trauma history or not — and so many of us do — our bodies aren’t always going to cooperate with our minds during sex.
First, have you noticed any trends as far as sex acts, moods, positions, or contexts that either make the vaginismus better or worse? Emily Nagoski’s amazing book Come As You Are has some fabulous worksheets (great to bring to your therapist, btw!) that can help readers home in on these triggers to create more positive sexual experiences.
Then, open a dialogue with your partner about sex that includes things to know about you (I have trauma-induced vaginismus. It’s not your fault and it’s not my fault, but here’s what I know about managing it) and also things to know about your partner (How do you like to have sex? What should I know about your body that I might not?). This is a two-way dialogue — not just you professing the ways in which you feel broken — you aren’t! — or different — everyone is!
Finally, keep doing what you’re doing: communicate openly about the realities of your sexual body without shame, validate your experience with readings such as Healing Sex by Staci Haines, and process your trauma via physical exercise and therapeutic interventions. Vaginismus treatments that combine both physical and mental/emotional work report a nearly 100 percent success rate, making vaginismus one of the most treatable sexual problems.
Local holistic options to explore for healing trauma via vaginal/pelvic health can be found at Sacred Spiral Healing Arts in Easthampton and at Purple Rose Healing Arts in Northampton.
Yana Tallon-Hicks is a pleasure-positive sex writer and educator living in the Pioneer Valley. She has a website bursting with sexual advice, resources, and workshops at yanatallonhicks.com.