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Deconstructing Catholic shame and reclaiming intimate selfhood

Vaginismus is more than a pelvic tensing

Illustration by @rosa_illustration_

When I first experienced discord within my body, I was trying to put a tampon in. Instead of my body responding to the simple instructions on the box, I sensed it clamp down. If I pressed on, splitting in half felt inevitable. 

Sharing my experience aged 13, I was told this was normal – some girls just were not made for tampons. This hot-take essentialism, from a medical professional nonetheless, initiated a wondering if my body would ever allow me to feel the things others did. 

Where medical stigma silences, consequences spiral

Years of sanitary towels and skipped swimming lessons later, the issue returned when I tried to get a pap smear, a medical check-up that, in many but not all countries, utilises a speculum. The GP eventually surrendered their efforts, producing a cotton swab, noting that a touch of vaginismus is relatively common and nothing to worry about.

As an anxious person, I love medical check-ups. Receiving healthy blood results, I am elated. So, not being able to check the wellbeing of my cervix – at a parallel time to the Irish CervicalCheck failure, when 208 Irish women received incorrect smear test results from unapproved laboratories outsourced by the Health Service Executive (HSE), allowing time for abnormal cells to multiply and cervical cancers to develop, terrified me. 

Yet, I did not pursue a formal diagnosis or referral to a gynaecologist/psychosexual therapist. Why? Well, for many years, at this point, my lived experience of health professionals had been a disparaging one. Pursuing help for anxiety was a demeaning, fruitless process wherein I received few resources and endless resilience narratives. To my mind, it seemed short-sighted – if not fantastical – that vaginismus, so frequently stigmatised as purely sexual, would be better received.

So, I ignored my body and the interrelated traumas it was holding, and to have sex, I abused substances. 

I would shy away from claiming it was a solution. For the time, however, still not having deconstructed the many treacherous, misogynistic narratives I had internalised over the years, it allowed me to have sex. Until late 2022, when, due to a range of triggers, sex became unbearable. 

Eventually, I began to speak to my therapist and find representation and information. I worked towards understanding the multi-dynamic trauma sources impacting my bodily reaction that, in reality, was not a dysfunction but a more than reasonable response to years of self-neglect. I realised that the idea that I was to blame for all this was baseless.

What is vaginismus?

Vaginismus, most frequently described as an involuntary tensing of the pelvic muscles, can occur during any penetrative activity, be it sexual, medical or functional. It’s a tightening that may be psychological in its triggers or a purely physical experience. In 2013, it was formally re-categorised as Genito-Pelvic Pain/Penetration Disorder (GPPPD). If it is entirely unimaginable to you, think of the last cramp you had in your calf muscle. It is not the pain which mirrors vaginismus, but the seemingly uncontrollable tensing, as though your muscle has suddenly claimed a wrenching, localised autonomy. 

Prior to reading, your experience of vaginismus may be via the scant representations of it in popular media. Recently, the topic gained attention through Lily Iglehart (Tanya Reynolds) from Sex Education, who, from the self-deified oracle that is Otis, learned the name of her experience, and utilised standard medical dilators. 

While there are official, medically prescribable dilators, like those favoured by Lily, a dilator can be a sex toy, finger, strap, tampon, or even a penis – to dilate is to be able to receive the penetration at hand. Medical dilators differ, being smaller and purchasable in sets with varying sizes. In cases where vaginismus is predominantly a physical reaction rather than psychosexual, they’re particularly important. 

How little I related to the enthusiasm and curiosity of Lily amplified my feelings of inadequacy. I am not excited by vaginismus. And, after years of having my gendered body so overly medicalised and stigmatised, I find dilators repellent. 

Before writing this article, I was, at best, miffed by vaginismus. At worst? Self-flagellating, destructive, ashamed. Those feelings are not ideal, but they are real. We are not obliged to be happy about vaginismus. Nor do we need to be sad. Whatever we feel, whenever we feel it is correct. Experiences of vaginismus are heterogeneous, as our representation should similarly be. 

My body is not yours to theocratise: what happens when education and religion refute division?

Although I share a name with a significant protagonist (in my mind, the only protagonist) of Sex Education, that just about marks the extent of our environmental correlations. While Sex Education’s Moordale Secondary School allowed a realisation of selfhood and autonomy, this was absent in my single-sex Catholic school. In rural Ireland in the 2010s, sensuality was perceived not as self-connection, but as attention-seeking that necessitated belittlement and policing. Ah, purity culture.

This environment, fostered by the continued (albeit lessened) intensive presence of Catholicism in Ireland, is, for Diarmiad Ferriter, a cause in the hindering of effective, inclusive sex education in state schools. Near all Irish public schools – the most common educational path in Ireland – are Catholic-aligned. This means that most will celebrate all major Catholic holidays, may receive clerical visits at whim, and have some clerical involvement on educational boards. 

Similarly, such schools observe the associated Catholic-coded social values. For women or those socialised as girls these are: heterosexuality, male deference and traditional, conservative femininity. More or less what we presently call the male gaze, but on acid. These narratives led me to a fear which I consider is quite reasonable: that my body would be perceived. That I would be cast in a narrative, hierarchy or morality system that limited my humanity to how I was dressed, for how much I weighed, for what make-up I did or didn’t wear, or for how my body was shaped.

My adolescent psychological development failed to disenfranchise these social dynamics as meaningless because, at the time of my education and upbringing, they weren’t. 

For Dr Maria McEvoy, a psychology academic focusing on vaginismus, vaginismus is, in part, a bodily protective response to a family, society or culture that does not support the autonomy and sexuality of women. She posits that psychically-invasive events, like that described above, through their assertion that our bodies are “shameful vessels” may produce protective physiological responses. To align with Dr McEvoy is to understand that vaginismus, which, pragmatically, we perceive as a dysfunction, is, in actuality, a very reasonable psychosexual response.

It has been eight years since I was in secondary school, so one would hope such educational environments have meaningfully changed. Yet, when I read about a priest in my local area recently swarming a politician’s office with protestors, objecting to her implementation of LGBTQ+ inclusive Social Personal and Health Education, it’s a hard hope to maintain. 

feelnorma: forward-facing intimacy education 

However, there are emerging resources tackling the gap in intimate health awareness left by education systems. feelnorma is one of these. A web-based psychosexual health platform, feelnorma facilitates meaningful and directive aid through workshops led by qualified sex therapists, a newsletter, and articles, all aiming to facilitate professional intimate health advice.


I came across feelnorma when listening to a GROWING UP with Keelin Moncrieff podcast episode with feelnorma founder Gráinne Byrne. Their chat was so easeful and destigmatising it felt like a reassuring hug. 

Fortunately, I also had the opportunity to chat with Gráinne. “My story is probably one of the more common ones,” she tells me. “At the time, I was in university, in a loving relationship with someone I trusted. When I wanted to try penetrative sex and found I couldn’t, it really impacted my mental health. Aside from that, I also wanted to do cervical smear tests and just be able to relax in my own body.”

When Gráinne reached out to GPs, she was met with tired tropes, that she needed to relax, or perhaps, just have a glass of wine beforehand. “It was probably my eighth appointment before I received a referral letter for the gynaecologist,” she says. Here, Gráinne finally received a diagnosis, with follow-up resources consisting of the phone number of Ireland’s singular psychosexual therapist. Considering standard GP consultation in Ireland will generally cost between 50 and 70 euros, with increased specialising corresponding to increased cost, fervently pursuing a diagnosis is not a privilege every individual may have. 

After experiencing such difficulty, Gráinne, motivated to aid those in similar circumstances, began gathering the necessary knowledge and contact base to form the platform bridging the knowledge and accessibility gap in intimate health. 

Dislocating Ireland’s historical treatment of women is not progress, it is distortive disenfranchising 

Gráinne believes that Ireland suffers from a significant cultural hangover which is not without consequence. What Gráinne alludes to here is our dense history of institutionalised misogynistic abuse, from the operation of Mother and Baby Homes from 1935 until 1998. Imagine if workhouses and asylums had a very Catholic baby. If a woman became pregnant out of wedlock, was promiscuous, or neglected to uphold significant Catholic values, she would be sent to a Mother and Baby Home by her family or the Church, where she would live and work with the nuns. 

This attitude was also representative in our legal systems, with marital rape allowed until 1990, and divorce illegal until 1996. Let’s also not forget the Work After Marriage Law (implemented (1933-1973), which prohibited women from working in the public sector. This attitude is also present in recent history, with abortion being finally legalised in Ireland in 2018, a somewhat dystopian reimbursement of agency, the process of which bore witness to just how vessel-like so many people perceive womb-bearers to be. Or even in this year’s referendum, asking if Article 41.2, outlining a woman’s place in the home, should be removed from the constitution, to which 73.9% of the 44% turnout voted no.

As Gráinne notes, “There is a significant lack of funded intimate health services in Ireland. In other models like the Netherlands and Germany, people can access intimate health-focused professionals much more easily. Here, GPs are less equipped with psychosexual-centred training.” Emphatic in identifying that it is a structural issue at hand, Gráinne does not desire to blame GPs, educators, or gynaecologists who receive similarly minimal education on psychosexual narratives. While individualised professional competency can change a life, it is an impossible onus that they single-handedly transform a culture that remains to shroud those of marginalised genders in shame, theocratic tendencies and misogyny. 

While feelnorma’s work blazes a trail, paths fade without footfall. So, what might sustaining and advancing this progress look like? For Gráinne, it’s grassroots, research-based advocacy and aid. It’s education, comprehension and a move towards competence and compassion in all spheres: medical, psychological, cultural, political or otherwise. It involves protecting marginalised voices and ensuring we receive the basic human right of having our physical and mental health cared for. 

Qualifications and degrees signify knowledge and hard work, not omniscience. They do not grant anyone the right to decree the livability of a pain level you find unbearable. 

No rosaries at my bedside (or my pap smear)

These days, my experience of vaginismus is not a constant experience. Pap smears, while hardly thrilling, no longer requite impasse-status. While it remains triggerable, flaring up like a beacon, not allowing me to overlook the lack of enthusiastic consent that I, more often than I would like, fail to recognise, it is navigable in non-destructive, sensual ways. The external protection I had longed for manifested in my body. Before I had psychologically waded through two decades of conditioning, gaslighting and shaming, my body had decided what was okay, and damn, did she refuse to budge on business. 

At 25, I know this, and what should I do but love my body for its protective nature? Yet, less than a year ago, after being shamed by an ex-partner, I felt worthless, frustrated that my body wouldn’t just allow him to fuck me. He successfully made me feel that I wasn’t a real woman, that it wasn’t fair on him, that our relationship would never work if we couldn’t have sex. Yet, were it not for imploring like such, so regular, aggressive and indicative of general character and behaviour, my body would not have become triggered. My body wouldn’t have needed to protect me from what she, accurately, perceived as threatening. 

Chatting with visionaries like Gráinne and reading Dr McEvoy’s research feels like a sort of self-reintegration. Yes, we have the rights we once lacked, but are we being socialised any differently? Are young girls still learning they don’t have the right to determine their worth? Are grown men still marching about their supposed “safe spaces” dehumanising them? Do they have the resources to seek meaningful aid, whatever they may be experiencing? Or do blame, shame, and pointed-fingers still constitute children’s inaugural experiences of autonomy?

Children don’t need shame or policing; they need care and curiosity. They deserve to live in a society where we become women at 18, not when, as a family member once generously inferred, there is something to imagine beneath our clothes. They deserve to spend their 20s living a life they are bold enough to choose and create, rather than recovering from their upbringing. And, for those of us who can’t change the past, we deserve resources. Resources, like feelnorma, which are accessible, accredited and capable of relieving us of a multifaceted tension and trauma that should never have been ours to hold. 

What can you do?

Illustration by @rosa_illustration_
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