‘I felt like less of a woman’: This is what it’s like to suffer from Vaginismus at uni
Uni life can feel impossible when you’re struggling with sexual trauma
It’s undeniable that hook-up culture is rife at every uni. From your first freshers’ night to the graduation afters, everyone ends up going off to have regrettable sex with a randomer at some point. And why not? Sex – when done safely – can be an exciting, enjoyable experience when you’re living away from home for the first time.
Despite this, no-one ever talks about how tough it can be to suffer from a sexual disorder when you’re a student. This is even more worrying given how common they are – you probably know at least one person with erectile dysfunction, endometriosis or polycystic ovary syndrome; even thrush or bacterial vaginosis. Gynaecological and sexual disorders can have catastrophic consequences on somebody’s confidence.
Vaginismus – a disorder which affects at least two in every 1,000 people – can be one of the most debilitating chronic conditions to live with. Not only due to the pain (and trust me, the pain is *searing*), but also the shame and stigma it brings.
Devastatingly, vaginismus is still a relatively new word to most people. It can take ages to get a diagnosis – even some doctors don’t have a clue what it is. Who wants to spread their legs for the GP when you feel like you might be laughed out the office for even mentioning the “v”-word?
While most vagina-owning students probably don’t think twice about having penetrative sex, using a tampon or masturbating; it can be life-ruining for others. I spoke to three students with vaginismus who want you to know what it’s like when your body simply rejects sex:
‘I felt constantly guilty’ – Ellie
When Ellie was 11, she underwent invasive surgery on her vagina, which was fused shut at the time. “They had to take some internal swabs before the surgery,” she said. “I remember being alone on a cold bench without my mum, while these two nurses rammed cotton buds inside me. Little did I know this was the source of my trauma.”
Seven years later, she found she struggled to have sex with her long-term boyfriend. “I’d be on my back, suddenly feeling so out of control. All the memories of the surgery came flooding back.
It was as though there was a literal wall at the opening of my vagina. I ended up in tears. It was very traumatic.”
According to the NHS, vaginismus can be caused by “an unpleasant medical examination.” Ellie said the pressure to have sex at uni made her feel like a lesser woman. “I think the hardest part was being surrounded by people having sex, like my friends. I felt like there was something so wrong with me.
“It wasn’t that I didn’t want to have sex, it was that the choice had been taken away from me.”
‘I hate having to explain it to people I’m seeing’ – Viola
Sometimes being scared of sex, or having an uncomfortable “first time” can trigger the development of vaginismus. That’s exactly what happened to Viola.
“Even after the first few times it was still really painful – sometimes to the point where I physically had to tell the person to stop because it was too much to handle,” she said.
“It was also affecting my mental health as I felt really anxious and self-conscious around my partner. I thought they wouldn’t want to be with someone who couldn’t have sex.”
Navigating a uni social life with vaginismus has been incredibly hard for Viola. “It’s shit to think you can’t to something that you’re supposed to be able to, especially when sex is such a big part of relationships and university life.
“I sometimes feel especially shit about the fact that my friends can meet guys on dating apps or in clubs and have one night stands, and I can’t. It’s not that simple for me.”
‘I thought people would automatically not want to be with me anymore’ – Amy
Other forms of sexual trauma – such as assault – can be the root cause of vaginismus. After Amy was sexually assaulted at 16, her anxiety began to seriously affect her during consensual sex.
“Pain during sex was always a problem,” she told me. “It was variable to how anxious I felt but I ignored it.
“Eventually when I got to uni I decided to go to my GP. They did an exam – which caused me pain – then referred me to the hospital to get an internal scan. They found nothing physically wrong and concluded it was vaginismus.”
Amy had two relationships while at uni, and tried casual dating during single periods. “Sex definitely caused anxiety for them as well – sometimes we’d have to stop due to the pain and they’d feel guilty about hurting me.”
Opening up to her friends made her feel slightly better about having the disorder. “Them not having a strong reaction made it feel more normal,” she said.
“I’ve also learnt it’s best to be honest when dating someone. If anything, at least it’s a good dickhead filter.”