Vaginismus in the Media
Some Misleading Messages
Vaginismus so far got a brief mention in name and in description on national TV in a couple of shows (that we are aware of), a novel, a song even! and in some magazine articles.
We are very excited of course to see that vaginismus is Slowly being acknowledged in the public eye and that its actual medical name may soon no longer be a weird extra-terrestrial word ("vag. what??"), but rather a common one.
TV shows can help women lose the shame often associated with Vaginismus and can help partners understand what goes on and show all people involved that there are treatments and that it is far from being a rare problem.
That's all very good, but we have some concerns and the shows and book we will review hereafter unfortunately prove that we have reasons to be worried too.
Just like correct facts and information can finally be shown to a wider audience, so can the many misconceptions regarding Vaginismus, doing more damage than good to interested viewers.
Is that the price to pay for the word Vaginismus to be spread out there? Together with facts, will they help spreading the fiction too?
Well, we hope not or it would all be quite pointless, so we created this page and a section in the Forum so that together we can discuss these shows, articles, novels etc. and be a critical place so that TV-programme creators will know they are being monitored and viewers will have a second opinion over what they were shown.
Vaginismus on TV
SUMMARY:A couple comes back from honeymoon to a suprise welcoming party with family and friends at which the bride bursts into tears and runs upstairs. Her mum goes after her and asks her if it's her husband's fault to which she says: "It's not him it's me! I couldn't have sex!". The mother takes it personally and wonders why she hasn't confided in her. Then the mum and daughter are in the therapists office, and the mother says she thought they'd come back from honeymoon pregnant. The mother doesn't quite understand how come she would not want her husband sexually, to which obviously she replies saying she CAN'T and that her attraction has nothing to do with it. Next time they are on, the daughter is leaving her husband because he can't cope and the mum takes the son-in-law's side and says he deserved a medal for putting up with this, but that they need to work it out. She leaves, he realizes he is losing her, goes back to her, says he loves her and seems ready to do whatever is needed to help her. So then they both go together to the therapist. He vents his frustrations about how he couldn't handle anymore the disappointment of seeing that Vaginismus doesn't go away no matter what they do or try. Then the therapist goes back into the room with a leaflet where she reads that she has vaginismus which is what happens "when the muscles go into voluntary spasm". No further explanations. Then he gives them a therapy which sounds based on Sensate Focus exercises, with no sex and no genital touching for a while. Then the next session she says they are doing well, and she has been doing her kegels and this time she is told to go as far as they can if she is relaxed. So off they go, massaging each other, then she looks uncomfortable with what is happening under the quilt but then starts to smile, only for her mum and dad to barge in with a silly excuse. Back at the therapist's office, they talk about what happened with her parents, and of course the mum gets all the blame, (though daddy had barged in too), then the therapist tells them to stay away from her. In the next scene, she is on top of him, she is going all the way and she smiles, and he smiles and they kiss...
What misleading messages can viewers get?
1. That lack of intercourse can break havoc in a couple unless it's fixed fast and only once fixed the couple will be happy ever after..
1a. That men have limited patience to deal with vaginismus and are the real poor victims
2. That to cure vaginismus or understand it, you need to pay a therapist/psychologist who knows better than you..
3. That vaginismus is about muscles spasming out of control. We know from recent scientific evidence that spasm is no longer believed to be a necessary or even important diagnostic criterion.
4. An overpowering mother seems to be the root cause of vaginismus, mothers are bad and keeping them away from your married life will help you solve vaginismus.
No one mentions the possibility that mothers too may have had traumatic first sexual experiences, may have been threatened to be abandoned if sex wasn't provided and may have been pressured to have children to keep the husband close. Yet all this is not acknowledged and once the mother is out of the way, the couple starts functioning well..
Women bashing, as per usual...
5. Marriage's only purpose is having children, whether sooner (like the mother wants) or later (like the doctor implies). The fact that there could be an option for a couple not to ever want children seem unconceivable.
6. The treatment seems to only last about 3 weeks or about 4 sessions (thought they don't really say, but that is what it seems), sending false expectations about a quick recovery.
7. They never mention dilating (although she does use her finger) nor do they show the difficulty of transitioning from dilators to penis, so viewers could end up thinking that after all it was just a matter of "relaxation" and nothing "physical" and therefore "all in her head".
SUMMARY and REVIEWIn their website, the producers of the show describe the Spa Of Embarrassing Illnesses as
"A haven where socially stigmatised people, those who suffer from society’s most embarrassing and intimate body "illnesses" come to get help.."
So vaginismus is embarassing and an illness according to them.
Ok, first of all, vaginismus is not "an illness". It doesn't make you sick, it's not contageous and one can live a perfectly healthy life with it.
It is not a pathology causing health effects to one's body so it does not NEED a cure. A woman may WANT to be cured, but if she doesn't, nobody dies.
We try really hard to help women Un-pathologize and de-medicalize this condition, so calling it an illness and putting it in a TV show with that label is not something we applaud.
As for being embarassing, sure, it is and it will be as long as women are defined by their vaginas but vaginismus is not inherently embarassing unless someone starts prying into our sexual life.
In their website you can read the description of the girl who has vaginismus, Mudje, http://uktv.co.uk/style/item/aid/579558 . Then you can read a bit of what happens to her during the following 5 episodes (http://uktv.co.uk/style/stepbystep/aid/579823 ) until her successful solution.
For example, in episode 4, Mujde learns "an anger releasing technique" which later has her "questioning her relationship with her fiancé."
So if she was questioning her fiancee, maybe she had valid reasons at the beginning not to want to open up sexually to him ?
Many women don't stop and think about the doubts they have about their partners, though certain signs are there from the start, they prefer to ignore those feelings and may even call themselves "too picky", when they are actually just being smart, then some find themselves stuck in unhappy marriages or divorced or in domestic violence situations. It happens all the time..
So vaginismus was probably giving Mujde a chance to pause and THINK about whether or not her partner was right for her. So to call it an "illness" is just not fair on our smart vaginas.
Also, we are told how Mujde is only allowed to eat raw food in one episode and we learn that eliminating the food she was intolerant to helps her get rid of her anger.
We know that a vegetarian diet for instance seems to make people less prone to anger, but does food really have anything to do with vaginismus ?
Especially if anger has to do with a partner's negative behaviour, it would be hard to prove if it was eliminating food that got rid of her anger, or her partner changing his old ways, or her understanding of why she was angry and therefore dealing with it.
That show is based on the assumptions that certain "small illnesses" such as vag. are 50% to do with an emotional attachment and 50% to do with poor diet.
Since vaginismus isn't an illness though, all that assumption doesn't quite hold.
However, a better diet can certainly help and Mujde kindly contacted us to clarify a few things about that point. As she said to us by email:
"All my life I had these stomach cramps and always felt tired, groggy, moody and angry and we did a food intolerance test and found out I was intolerant to Wheat, Gluten ,Yeast, Dairy, Eggs, Corn Maize and these foods actually enhanced my anger......so cutting them out - made me be a happier person so everything connected....."
"I am not saying by changing your food you will cure a problem as such - but it will make you feel clearer and make you feel different and try to establish what's going on."
And we agree on that. For sure it can't harm women with vaginismus (and women without it) to stop eating food that's bad for their bodies (and start, for instance, a vegetarian diet) but we think it was misleading to say there is a connection between diet and vaginismus, it could make it sound too easy to cure and there is no scientific article proving this theory, especially considering that most women with primary vaginismus are able to pin down one or more causes which could have closed down their vagina and they are rarely just physical.
In their website you can also find a factsheet on Vaginismus, which is a gread idea, but when it talks about Vag. Treatments, that is what it says:
"A psychosexual therapist will advise a therapy program where the patient undertakes vaginal dilation exercises and becomes progressively more intimate with her partner. A successful conclusion of the program is pain-free intercourse."
Mmmhh... a psychosexual therapist ? In all cases ? They don't seem to allow space for any other approach, which we find misleading. Also, especially for secondary vaginismus, psychosexual therapy seems to be ineffective cause vaginismus in those cases is very much a physical problem often due to giving birth, hormones, dryness etc.. But most of all, if the successful conclusion of solving vaginismus was pain-free intercourse, then single girls wanting to be able to finally have a pap-test would never know whether to bother starting or whether they are cured or not..
Then they discuss the emotional effects of vaginismus and add:
"When a couple's sex life is disrupted or stopped altogether, it's understandable that distress and relationship problems occur."
Why would it be understandable? There are couples who do not have intercourse and live perfectly fulfilled relationships, there are men who are not bothered by lack of intercourse, there are many women without vaginismus with their partners who do not have or cannot have sex for many diverse reasons and are totally fine with it. we heard lots of them but these cool partners never seem to be acknowledged for some weird reason.. some of us are a bit sick of seeing the myth spread that without sex a loving relationship cannot survive. It is misleading, shallow, untrue and hurtful.
They finish saying that "Vaginismus arouses strong emotions so the support and love of a partner are essential in treating the condition."
According to this sentence, single girls would be stuck with vaginismus forever and so would women with abusive partners, right? Wrong of course...
Thankfully vaginismus can be self-treated and a woman possessing enough self-love and/or having loving people around her, a friend, a mother, a support group, can totally treat it even without a partner or a loving partner. To say that a partner, and a loving one, is ESSENTIAL, is misleading, although we certainly agree that IF a partner is going to help, it'd better be a loving one..
UK, BBC (Baby Cow Productions), Sitcoms, colour, 2000
Starring: Julia Davis, Rob Brydon
Watch the appalling bit where Vag. is mentioned here on YouTube
Episode: "An English Squeak":
"The apparently bucolic aristo-existence of Peter and Flick is shadowed by an ailment on her part that makes physical intimacy impossible. Still reeling from the death of her true love Geoffrey, Flick has little time for the downtrodden, childish and possibly mentally handicapped Peter. However, he waits on his reluctant wife hand and foot, nursing her through her struggle with an imaginary illness. "
So they make her look like a tight frigid woman, he is as per usual the kind, patient, pathetic husband who puts up with things and vaginismus would be an imaginary illness!?!?!?
The preview for this show showed a woman patient complaining that her "hoo ha" was broken. (hoo ha presumably being a slang term for vulva). The patient was also quoted saying something about being afraid she'd be a virgin her whole life. So of course it got our antennae raised..and yes, it was about vaginismus.
So after watching it carefully, these are our considerations about how vag. was portrayed and the messages it sent out: good and bad.
* Over all, it was great publicity. It is a popular show and they said vaginismus more than once, and vulvar vestibulitis too! And they said them without snickering or giggling or making fun of the conditions.
* The pelvic exam was so realistic, it was great.
* They treated the patient with respect. The gyno stopped the pelvic exam when it hurt and didn't make the woman feel silly or childish.
* The husband was pretty cool about it. (at the start at least) and they showed the couple to be a loving one, even WITH vaginismus, which was good.
* They had the alternative doctor say that the couple could take it slow going through the treatment process, because after all, they wouldn't die if they didn't have i/c.
* Vaginismus was evidently poorly researched. They showed a famous gynecologist who had to go look into books about it (As if medical books actually covered vaginismus in any depth or gave the whole view of the problem...)
* They had to make the couple desperate to solve the problem, for dramatic effect. They had the husband start out saying sex was no big deal and he didn't care if they had it or not, which was a good idea to introduce, but later on had both of them admit they really, really wanted to have sex.
Then this wasn't challenged of course..
Nobody asked them why.. It is taken for granted that men will really, really want to have penetrative sex. So it possibly made a lot of women feel really bad about their supportive partners because they'll now doubt they really mean that they can do without intercourse and not care about lack of penetration in the relationship. Great.. Just what society wants, to keep making money out of this stereotyped image of men as sex-starved creatured, unable to truly love another human being without getting something physical out of them..
* There was just a moment when the surgeon wanted to do surgery on the patient, and we almost trembled there.. Surgery for vaginismus ?
We don't get why they were going to do surgery when the doctors hadn't yet diagnosed the patient with Vulvar Vestibulitis. Yes, surgery IS an option for the vestibuiltis (Check out "Vestibulectomy") but not for vaginismus, unless they were referring to a hymenectomy but they could have mentioned problems with the hymen then..
* The problem was shown as being solved in one night, which is unrealistic, but probably necessary for tv plot purposes. But as long as people care more about tv plot purposes than the truth, then things won't ever go well on this planet..
*But the absolute worst thing was at the very end, when the couple had had i/c and the writers of the show had the counselor say "They just saved their marriage." Oh please! How overly dramatic can you get!?
So with that last comment, it will make some couples with vag feel like this is something that has to ruin a marriage if it's not solved. Again, perfect, the industry will know how to profit from that.
Of course it doesn't. It totally depends on the people involved.
* Another big flaw: they never mentioned dilators and that vaginismus can be self-treated! All they showed was some kind or other of doctor's interventions, nothing that the woman could do on her own. That is false, misleading and unhelpful.
But again, someone will gain from this of course so, what did we expect ? Free publicity for free treatments ? Not on American TV.
* Finally, they obviously never even considered the fact that vaginismus does not only stem from some biological, physical, vaginal problem which can be fixed with an injection, a mysterious cure, a surgery etc... MOST of the time it stems from social, personal, psychological, partner-related problems which they never bothered to explore or even hint at on that show. Again, we didn't expect any better but it needs to be stressed... They failed us and a lot of women too.
So overall, some of us were pleased with the sympathetic way the couple was treated but some of us are very disappointed with how they portrayed vaginismus itself and its cure, although we are all happy it WAS mentioned because it gave some women the chance to get to our website and forum and hear a different story and learn about self-treatment, so that's good enough. But there is still a lot more to be desired.. So we'll be watching out for the next good thing or maybe we'll have to create it ourselves..
Who knows ?
Vaginismus in Novels
Novel: Until I find you
Country: United States
Summary: Page 373
One of the female characters, Emma, has vaginismus.
The conversation between her and Jack, a male character goes something like this:
He asks her if the pain is in her mind (what a silly question...). She then begins to explain how vaginismus is a conditioned response, a spasm of the perineal muscles occurring if there was any stimulation of the area.
So knowing that it hurts her to have intercourse, he asks her if SHE wants to avoid penetration, as if there was any other option for the time being or as if she could help it or could CHOOSE..
At this stage Emma tells him that vaginismus is chronic."
That is FALSE.
"There's no treatment?" asks Jack.
She says that she tried a few things which never worked, such as hypnosis with a psychiatrist, and then finally she had tried systematic desensitization- or the Q-tip method, as her gynecologist had called it, and here she starts explaining the process and what it entails.
"Stop," Jack told her; he didn't want to know all the treatmens she'd tried.
"Has anything worked?" he asked Emma.
Wow. Such a sensitive guy, uh? So he only wants to know the result, basically if she can have sex at some stage ever or not. That's all that matters. And that's when we read some bad misconceptions about vag.
Emma tells Jack that the only thing that worked (and this didn't work every time) was the absolute cooperation of a partner.
Then she says she'll need to be on top.
To which the writer comments:
"It went without saying that such a willing partner was hard to find"...
What messages can readers get?
* That painful penetration with muscles clamping up is called Vaginismus. which is great so some of the women reading that book will have been in a position to go look something up about it.
* That vaginismus is a chronic condition. That is false.
* That the woman has to be on top when attempting sex and in full control.
True sometimes, but not necessary for everyone. Some women prefer the missionary position and don't like getting in control sexually or be so exposed at all.
* That a method that works is systematic desensitization. Yes, true, and it's great that it got mentioned in the book for sure.
At the same time, they describe it as an innovative method that a gynecologist obviously was in control of. Again, partly true, SOME gynecologists will know how to use this method and have specific experience with this, but it can also be done as a self-treatment and some gynaecologists have very little idea about it so it could be misleading for some women thinking their gynecologist will know better and disempowering to be told they'll need someone else to do it for them.
* The book makes it sound like men are not interested in the details of treatments, but in the final result only.
"Jack just wanted to know what worked"
Not too sensitive an approach from a partner towards a woman who probably only has him to finally talk about all the troubling, emotionally tough treatments she's been through. Very unsympathetic male reactions..
* THE WORST BIT -
"The only thing that worked was the absolute cooperation of a partner. And such a willing partner was hard to find".
So the message is that if you are single or a nun, or a widow etc. etc. and you happen to have vaginismus, well tough luck! There is nothing you can do.
False of course.
But what's worse is how it says such willing partners are hard to find, making a woman with vaginismus reading this, feel pretty hopeless of course.
It may be true that such men are hard to find, but it would have been nice to see a sentence added to criticize these men who are not willing to help women with vaginismus. The writer seems to be very much on the side of the male partner who is putting up with this and hopes she has a clear working solution that will work everytime. Thankfully there ARE different men...
So overall, great to see vaginismus mentioned in a quite famous novel, not that great to see it described with so many misconceptions...
Do not keep reading if you don't want the ending to be spoiled... The woman dies from a heart attack while having sex with a young teen...!?? What is that? Her punishment for finally becoming sexual ?
All this romantic/erotic plot revolves around vaginismus and its solution during one passionate night; the novel is dedicated to the thousands of women suffering from it in silence.
In the plot you can read pretty detailed descriptions of the couple trying to solve vaginismus through systematic desensitization (dilating) and in one night, the heroine is cured.
Thankfully the writer on her website (http://www.lucymonroe.com/AbouttheBooksBIM.htm) stresses the fact that most women will not be able to fix vaginismus in one night only, that it will take a lot more, but she reassures them that it IS possible to solve this.
And that is good.
The problem is that she refers to vaginismus as a sexual dysfunction, and she quotes how 1 out of 3 women suffer from a sexual dysfunction. She must be referring to possibly the most misused and exploited scientific study ever, (Lauman 1999) which many quote without ever having read it.
In that study women were labelled sexually dysfunctional if they answered yes to just ONE question about their sex life, without any other questions to help understand where that problem came from. As we wrote in our page on the Pink Viagra commercialization:
* Reports of women admitting having sexual problems revealed an epidemic proportion of women (43%) who were deemed dysfunctional and ‘suffering’ from low sexual libido in particular. Despite being quoted in many studies as almost an undisputable fact, the “43%” figure, gathered by a controversial 1999 study, has in fact never been properly established and is recognized as misleading (Lauman 1999 criticized by Tiefer 2004, Bancroft 2002).
So, vaginismus in this novel is seen as a dysfunction that has to be fixed and within a sexual context.
The fact that the heroine has been blackmailed into marriage doesn't seem to matter...
So, the whole thing is a bit trivialized, but after all, that's what one would expect from an erotic/Harlequin novel.
But at least the word vaginismus is out there more and more and women will then be able to look for further resources.
The other positive is that she does mention self-treatment as a successful method so at least women won't be fooled into thinking they'll need thousands of dollars to treat this.
We wish she hadn't made women feel that they HAVE TO solve this in order to have their happy ending.
Women can be perfectly happy and even with vaginismus, and same thing for their marriage, but of course that's a point that takes more than a Harlequin romance to make.
Vaginismus in Songs
Song Title: Vaginismus
Band: Velvet Acid Christ
Album: Church of Acid
A siren of light bleaking out
And now it's time to pull away
Come into a freaky show
They push you, into the death now
We're in the death wish
Where it crawls into the walls
Into the death wish
Where it crawls through the walls
Let go, this, now far
No fun with a hole
Into the death wish
Death wish, death wish
What message can fans get?
The only reference to vaginismus seems to be the "No fun with a hole" sentence..
If anyone has any idea, let us know.
Vaginismus in online journalism
(Click on www.msnbc.msn.com to read the whole article)
As per usual, and this article is no exception, when vaginismus does hit the media, the rhetoric behind it is always giving readers the same negative messages:
1. vaginismus is a sexual dysfunction, needing doctors.
2. marriages without intercourse are not fully valid.
3. real sex is intercourse.
4. you'll need to pay for it. No free guides and insurance around.
5. You need to let a doctor help you.self help isn't mentioned. Neither are support groups.
6. psychiatrists are the experts who can speak about it, not women
Let's look at them one by one:
>> Sexploration: Married, but unconsummated
The word unconsummated is super sexist, old-fashioned and just plain wrong.
>> By Brian Alexander
A man, couldn't they find a woman who could talk about this? Really?
>> Dr. Domeena Renshaw, a psychiatry professor, has treated hundreds of unconsummated unions.
Why did they choose a psychiatrist as an expert ? The message is clear: this is a mental problem, a psychological PROBLEM, something is WRONG if you can't have intercourse. And you need a doctor. Don't rely on yourself woman. Plus. it's clear you need to TREAT it or you are unconsummated..
>>Educated guesses hover around 1 percent.
Educated guesses, that's a nice contradiction.. I wish he had mentioned his sources for that figure. It makes very little sense.
>> Anxiety builds up
The author says it's no wonder that the more failed attempts at sex, the more anxious the couple will become, but why should anxiety build up? In some relationships, vaginismus causes NO anxiety at all.
I have had no anxiety about it whatsoever with my current partner or other guys I've dated so why do they take it for granted that anxiety WILL build up if you can't have intercourse? The message again is powerfully negative. Not having intercourse is a tragedy and will make you very anxious until you solve it..
>> The female half of Renshaw's couple who had been married 23 years, for example, suffered from extreme vaginismus
Have you noticed how they (practitioners) have been trying harder and harder to say there's an "extreme" or "serious" type of vaginismus , when there is NO scientific evidence on which they can base that distinction and how it's clear it just makes women even more anxious about it and more willing to place themselves at the hands of an expert to treat this "extreme" type they have.... ? Very bad...
>>>"The main factor associated with an unconsummated marriage was the intense social pressure to accomplish hasty coitus with an unfamiliar woman (some men having had no social contact with their new bride)
>>> That sort of pressure could wilt any guy.
Wow, what an enlightened comment to make when talking about arranged marriages, which as we know far too well often end up in rape for the woman on her first wedding night/week (for those who remember the Indian girl who wrote to us here for help, terrified and in this exact situation..).
Amazing how his thought immediately went to the poor guy who can't keep it up and not to the terrified girl who's never seen this man before and have to let him enter her body after 12 hours from having seen him and after never having been touch with an intact hymen and no notion of the vagina functioning etc..
>>> According to Rosenbaum, "sometimes, even after the education has been provided, the anxiety reduced, and the sexual dysfunction has been treated..
the sexual dysfunction... of course she'd call it that and medicalize it. No talk of how in many cases vaginismus is a VERY functional response to preventing pain or troubles.
>>> The good news is that treatment usually works.
I know we all take for granted that's good news, but it really depends on the woman and the couple. For some it's not that good to be that open to certain partners.
>>> low price of just $1,400.
That's low ?? Funny how those kind-hearted doctors who both said that they do it for the happiness they get out of helping the couple, do NOT mention self.treatment once..... ....
SO typical... Yawn.
Click on any media you are interested in to read our reviews and get links to original texts
1. Strictly Confidential ITV 2005
2. Spa of Embarassing Illnesses UK TV 2006
3. Human Remains BBC 2000
4. Private Practice (USA- ABC ) 2007 Oct
In novels:1. "Until I find you" by John Irving 2005
2. "Blackmailed into Marriage" by Lucy Monroe (Harlequin novel)
On-line Journalism:1. "When the train never leaves the station" on MSNBC by Brian Alexander
In song lyrics:
1. 'Vaginismus' lyrics by Velvet Acid Christ