Stacey*, 27, and her partner of a year are just like any other couple except in the bedroom.
"I first noticed something was wrong when I was 17. Anthony*, my boyfriend, was older than me and I wanted to wait to have sex. But when we did try, it didn't happen easily. I panicked and said, 'I don't want to do it yet'. It wasn't the sole reason we broke up, but he wanted to do more than I was willing to.
After Anthony, I never had one-night stands. I went on dates, but I didn't want to get serious with someone unless I knew I could trust them. I was single for a couple of years before I met Brendan*. I trusted him, but when we tried to have sex it didn't work he couldn't get past a certain point without it hurting.
I would feel down, thinking I wasn't normal that I was the smallest or tightest girl in the world. Brendan got frustrated and had no interest in helping me through it. After we broke up, I still had it hanging over my head. I dated a few guys but when it got intimate, I'd freeze. I didn't know how to explain it to a guy because I didn't know myself.
Then I met Daniel*. We started dating just after I turned 26. When we tried to have sex, he could tell I was anxious. I made excuses like, 'I'm just a little bit tight down there'. Unlike past boyfriends, he said, 'How can I help?' That's when I realised I had to stop being so scared and ashamed and try to talk about it openly.
I went to my GP, thinking it was a physical thing, like a thick hymen or small vagina. I was so nervous lying on the table. She said, 'You're all fine down here' but explained that as soon as she put her hand there, my muscles had tensed up.
She sent me to a sex specialist and it was just like I was telling her I had a cold. She told me, 'I have five patients a day with this. It's so common but nobody speaks up about it.' That's when she gave it a name: vaginismus. She explained that my brain was sending the wrong signals to my muscles when something entered my vagina. My brain was saying 'danger' instead of 'pleasure'. My pubococcygeus muscle (PC muscle) was locking up and nothing could get past it.
She gave me exercises to do to get comfortable with myself. I do things with my fingers and breathing techniques. I also do pelvic floor exercises (the clench and release), so that when I do get to the point where I'm about to have sex, the muscle is working and active. I have to do it every day. Sometimes it feels like homework and I just don't want to do it. But I know I'm doing it for me and Daniel.
His point of view
The specialist wanted to talk to Daniel, so she could explain it from a medical perspective. She took the reins and said straight up: 'Have you ever been with someone who has a sexual dysfunction?' He learnt how the thoughts stopped my body and affected the physical side of things. She asked Daniel if he had told anyone about it; he said he had spoken to two friends. I had no idea. He explained that one was his best friend and the other was someone who had a girlfriend who had gone through a similar thing. I'm glad that he has spoken about it he needs to be able to vent, too.
I do put a lot of pressure on myself. I feel like I need to have sex with Daniel or he's going to walk away. But he's said that he loves me for more than just sex. There are exercises we do together and he decided we should stop calling them 'exercises' because it makes them feel like a chore so he calls them 'fun times' instead!
We're so attracted to each other, we want to rip each other's clothes off all the time and it sucks when we get to that point where we can't go any further. But Daniel tells me, 'It's okay, we'll work through it together.' He's so encouraging; he constantly tells me how much he loves me and that he is proud of me. And I know, just like Daniel says, that we can get through this together."
Vaginismus: the facts
What is it? "Vaginismus is a spasm of the muscles around the opening of the vagina," says gynaecologist and pelvic pain specialist Dr Susan Evans (drsusanevans.com).
What are the symptoms? "Your symptoms might not be the same as the next person's," Evans explains. "Those who have painful sex often also find using tampons painful and the ache after sex is sometimes worse the next day. It can also be hard to pass urine."
How can I fix it? "Find a women's pelvic physiotherapist who understands vaginismus. You might have to look around to find just the right person, but it's worth the effort. A few gynaecologists offer Botox to help the muscles relax and there are also pelvic muscle relaxation CDs available."
*Names have been changed.