DCU’s study on vaginismus shows that the difficulty to define the reaction has major effects on research and treatment

Christine O'Mahony

Dr. Maria McEvoy from DCU’s School of Nursing has introduced a new study on vaginismus. Vaginismus is the experience of being unable to have penetrative sex and manifests as an involuntarily tightening of a woman’s pelvic muscles, preventing penetrative sex.

This is the first Irish study in 40 years to look at the psychosocial factors that contribute to vaginismus. There is very little research on women and couples who experience vaginismus.

The College View got in contact with Dr. Maria McEvoy about her study. She told us: “Irish couples were interviewed about their experiences of vaginismus, either past or present, in their relationship and their experiences of seeking help. Health care professionals who work with women and couples were also interviewed as part of the study. Vaginismus can be very isolating as it is difficult to talk about the problem to friends or family or sometimes even to doctors and many couples do not know where to turn to for help. 

She added that “the research seeks to start a conversation about vaginismus to raise public awareness of a condition that is all too common and very treatable but rarely spoken about. By asking couples to share their stories, it is hoped that there will be greater understanding and sensitivity towards couples who experience vaginismus and also a greater awareness of where to turn to for effective help”.

When asked about the causes and cure for vaginismus, McEvoy replied: “The reasons for the vaginal spasm will be different for each woman and couple. Because vaginismus manifests as a spasming of the vaginal muscles when intercourse is attempted, many medical practitioners will assume that the cause is physical. However, this is rarely the case; the spasm is more commonly related to other factors such as fear of actual or anticipated pain when attempting intercourse.

“Another common contributing factor are the messages from family about sexual behaviour that are often shaming and frightening in order to control the sexual behaviour of daughters.”.

A study by Ward and Ogden (1994) found that the second most prevalent reason given by women with vaginismus (after fear of pain) was being brought up to believe that sex is wrong. Vaginismus can be thought of as an automatic protective response because an association has been made between sexual intercourse and anxiety, pain or shame”.

When asked whether there was much feedback on her study, McEvoy said: “Since publishing the study, the numbers of people accessing my website has dramatically increased. I have also been interviewed by a journalist for a piece in the Independent that will be coming out shortly. I am delighted that I can raise awareness of vaginismus and the support services through my website as this information is not currently provided by the HSE or in primary care settings”.

Lastly, McEvoy said that if anyone wants to learn more or needs any support services, there is a website people can view: www.vaginismusresearchireland.com