Vaginismus affects of 1 in 10 women in the UK: expert guidance for dealing with it, if that's you

Plus, read one woman's story of overcoming the female health condition.

Vaginismus: Unhappy young woman feeling low
(Image credit: Getty)

Plus, read one woman's story of overcoming the female health condition.

Ever heard of vaginsmus? If you've seen Sex Education, then you will have. The character Lily, who's played by Tanya Reynolds, opens up about suffering from the condition in season two.

Much like endometriosis, PCOS and PMDD, the female health condition is typically under-diagnosed, so it's hard to determine how many people actually suffer from vaginismus, but it's estimated that around 1 in 10 women experience it in the UK.

There's a common misconception that vaginismus is simply the term used to refer to pain during sex, but that's not quite true. So, what is the condition, what are the main symptoms, and who is most likely to get vaginismus?

All good questions - which is why we've asked Jacqueline van de Bilt, a vaginsmus expert and author of How to overcome your vaginismus, and physician doctor Nesochi Okeke-Igbokwe to break it down for you.

Vaginismus definition: so, what is it? 

In short, that you experience a tightening of the vagina when any penetration is attempted. A little like your vagina burning after sex, this tightening can cause apprehension about getting intimate. "Vaginismus means that you inserting a tampon, finger, or penis into your vagina is impossible or painful," explains van de Bilt.

For women who experience vaginismus, you'll likely experience cramp in your pelvic floor muscles, which can make your vagina feel closed.

Okeke-Igbokwe agrees, further adding that it can mean your vaginal muscles spasm involuntarily. "Essentially, you don't have control over these recurrent muscle spasms or contractions," she explains.

Sometimes it can even feel like whatever you're trying to insert is bumping into something, preventing anything from entering your vagina, shares van de Bilt.

Vaginismus: Worried and Nervous Muslim Girl

FYI, vaginismus can also be referred too more broadly as vaginistic reactions, and are largely divided into two groups:

Primary vaginismus

This describes vaginismus where the first couple of times you try to insert something into your vagina, but it doesn't work or is painful. "This remains the same after trying repeatedly," explains van de Bilt.

Secondary vaginismus

This explains vaginismus developing later in life - closing of the vagina after being able to insert a tampon, finger, or penis without experiencing pain before. "Now you're not able to anymore, or it has become very painful for you", explains van de Bilt.

Vaginismus causes

Wondering how you get vaginismus? Good question. As van de Bilt explains, it's often a combination of causes. "One cause can also reinforce the other," she shares.

Okeke-Igbokwe agrees, adding that the aetiology of the condition is unclear. "However, conditions like anxiety disorders may contribute to ongoing problems with vaginismus," she explains. "The condition may also occur in those who have experienced sexual trauma and fear sexual intercourse, or those who have had pelvic surgery or pelvic injuries during childbirth."

Any of the following can cause it:

  • Fear of the size of the penis or pain it may cause.
  • A negative experience during an internal examination.
  • Fear of letting go and losing control.
  • Little knowledge of the functioning of the body and sex.
  • Negative thoughts and/or incorrect beliefs about the vagina, penis, men, sexuality, or intercourse.
  • A negative or traumatic sexual experience.
  • Dissatisfaction with the relationship with the partner.
  • Sores.
  • Irritation.
  • Infections, like STD's
  • Scar tissue around and in the vagina opening.

Vaginismus: Woman rubbing her neck in bed

Vaginismus symptoms: how do I know if I have the condition? 

Not sure if you have it but experiencing something similar? Watch out for the following:

  • Pain at the vaginal opening or a little further into the vagina when you want to insert a penis.
  • Pain during penetration, otherwise known as dyspareunia
  • Feeling that the penis cannot enter the vagina, as if you were bumping into a wall when trying to insert the penis into the vagina.
  • Difficulty inserting symptoms
  • Fear of sex secondary to pain being experienced.

Vaginismus cure: how can you treat vaginismus? 

If you're worried you might be experiencing vaginismus, know this: you're not alone, and plenty of others are experiencing it, too. Your first port of call is your GP or a gynaecologist for a professional diagnosis, say both experts.

Next, they may prescribe pelvic physiotherapy to discover how your pelvic floor muscles work, kegel exercises, vaginal dilator therapy or psychological treatment, to address underlying obstructed thoughts and fears.

Remember also that vaginismus is a sexual disorder that is treatable. "Topical lidocaine may also be prescribed sometimes to help alleviate pain," explains Okeke-Igbokwe.

Vaginismus: Bare Feet of a Young Woman on White Bed

I had vaginismus - here's what it's really like

Jennifer, 28, saw a sex surrogate to help treat her vaginismus. Here's how she got on.

"I’d known something was wrong with my vagina since my teenage years. Trying to use tampons was like jabbing at a solid wall of flesh and when a boy attempted fingering me, he couldn’t even manage to get his little finger inside. And it hurt so much I screamed."

"At 23, I burst into tears when my GP tried to insert a speculum during a cervical smear. She diagnosed vaginismus, and prescribed vaginal dilators – mini dildos that were supposed to get me used to the feeling of penetration. They were mildly useful but did little to help."

"I spent the first half of my twenties desperate for a boyfriend, but anxiety about my 'broken' vagina stopped me from dating."

I knew men would want sex and I couldn’t face the petrifying pain and thought I had no choice but to stay lonely. I heard about sex surrogates through a vaginismus support group. The concept of losing my virginity to a patient, trained man who wouldn’t push me was really appealing."

"On my first visit to John*, we did exercises like eye-gazing to help me acclimatise to being close to him in the clinic room of his house – in order to maintain professional distance, surrogates never come to your home. He was 51 and I didn’t fancy him, but that actually helped me relax, as I wasn’t worried about impressing him. I viewed him like a doctor; my 'vaginal physiotherapist'."

"I saw John every two weeks for eight months, paying £160 per session, attending psychotherapy appointments in-between. The effects were priceless."

"My therapist helped me work through traumatic events from my childhood; I had been inappropriately touched by a family friend, which had been subconsciously making me clench up. Meanwhile, John allowed me to slowly practise penetration."

"We spent several sessions with me on top, guiding his penis inside me only a centimetre or two; he stayed still so I could absorb the feeling."

"Being in control gave me confidence to gradually take more of his length, and finally to let him move inside me."

"Three years on, I have a long-term boyfriend and we have gentle, lovely sex. I was nervous the first time we slept together, but knowing I’d managed it with my surrogate gave me faith that I could do it. It’s an unorthodox treatment, but it worked for me – I have no regrets."

Ally Head
Senior Health, Sustainability and Relationships Editor

Ally Head is Marie Claire UK's Senior Health, Sustainability, and Relationships Editor, nine-time marathoner, and Boston Qualifying runner. Day-to-day, she works across site strategy, features, and e-commerce, reporting on the latest health updates, writing the must-read health and wellness content, and rounding up the genuinely sustainable and squat-proof gym leggings worth *adding to basket*. She's won a BSME for her sustainability work, regularly hosts panels and presents for events like the Sustainability Awards, and saw nine million total impressions on the January 2023 Wellness Issue she oversaw. Follow Ally on Instagram for more or get in touch.