The Sassy Show in conversation with the co-founder of The Vaginismus Network, Lisa Mackenzie
Penetrative sex is something that saturates the narrative of intimacy. It’s what we see in the majority of films and pornography, it’s what we’re taught about in school, and on the most part, it’s expected that sexual relationships are dependent on such an act. Besides from the fact that there are, quite literally, hundreds of other ways to give and receive pleasure, for many people, penetration is not as easy as mainstream media makes it out to be. In medical terms, vaginismus is the involuntary tightening of muscles around the vagina whenever penetration is attempted. However, like most things, it’s far more complex than that. For some people, having a strict religious upbringing, inheriting shame around sex - particularly before marriage - or experiences of sexual trauma can all be possible factors contributing to vaginismus.
Co-founder of The Vaginismus Network, Lisa Mackenzie, has spent the last 4 years digging deeper into this conversation by openly discussing her own experience of having vaginismus. Lisa spent the majority of her life struggling in silence as her body refused to allow for penetration, confused and isolated by the way her body was responding. A pivotal moment came when she met fellow vaginismus buddy, Kat Wilson. Having connected over their conditions, Kat and Lisa were able to empathise with one another and, instead of feeling shame, they felt relief. From this moment, they set out on a mission to build a supportive network for people with vaginismus. In the space of a year, Lisa and Kat had created The Vaginismus Network, an initiative formed to educate, connect, support, and empower people living with the condition. We got in touch with Lisa to hear more about her story and the wonderful work that The Vaginismus Network is achieving by connecting people from all around the world.
When looking at the heart-warming honesty Lisa Mackenzie displays online, it’s easy to imagine she has always been comfortable talking about vaginismus. But the reality couldn’t be more different. From the limited sexual education she received at school, to the void of conversations about sex, pleasure and the body at home, Lisa was left with little knowledge to identify what was happening in her genitalia. This became apparent at the age of 17 when Lisa met her first boyfriend. It was during this relationship that she found penetration to be mostly impossible.
Instead of being able to talk about it, they spent eight years together, avoiding the conversation. “It was this huge elephant in the room and it made the bedroom an incredibly difficult place to be.” Feeling the pressure to perform led Lisa to focus on her partner’s sexual satisfaction rather than determining what felt right and good on her own terms. “It felt very much about pleasing him. We weren’t able to have penetrative sex and I felt this desire to overcompensate in other ways in order to prove my worth.” In these moments Lisa explains how “I felt I had to just shut up and go through the motions because I was the one with the issue”. Working to maintain a level of intimacy, Lisa explains how “even when I did enjoy the sex life we had, it always felt undermined because we couldn’t achieve this gold standard of sex that everyone else was supposedly having. I never felt good enough. Had we been able to communicate about it, it could have been so different.”
Despite being in a relationship, my partner and I weren’t addressing the issue and I lived that period of my life feeling isolated and ashamed. I didn’t have the words or the courage to describe what was happening to anyone else who might have been able to support me. Essentially, I felt broken.
After this relationship came to an end, Lisa found herself burying her head in the sand, not knowing how to talk about the issue with anyone else. “I did google the symptoms over the years, but everything I found just made me feel worse as a young and already confused woman.” A turning point arrived after a night out when Lisa went on a mission to pursue a man, determined to prove that the difficulties with penetration were only linked to her first relationship. Upon meeting a guy and going home with him, she recalls how “I literally handed myself to him on a plate, I was at his mercy and he tried to penetrate me – but couldn’t. I remember him rolling off me and muttering “that’s never happened to me before”, then leaving the room. It was at that point that I completely sank as I realised what I had always known deep down: that it wasn’t just an issue with my ex-partner, but with me.” This pivotal moment was what led Lisa to find a therapist and slowly unpick her diagnosis.
So much of the time we will do something we don’t enjoy because we don’t want to offend
By going to therapy, Lisa started the process of working through the limitations that accompanied her condition of vaginismus. “I was in my late twenties when I first started psychosexual therapy and I went through a stage of hating myself and my body, I started grieving this life I could have had”. Thinking of the years that she had stayed stuck in silence, Lisa recalls how “I felt I had wasted my late teens and all of my twenties when I could have been finding out about myself sexually, enjoying sexual experiences, having fun.” Recognising these feelings was complex, and came with the challenge of reconnecting with herself. “I felt I had ignored my instinct and that made me not trust myself and what I was feeling.” However, with time, Lisa allowed herself to work through these thoughts and start focusing on a brighter future of understanding her condition. Lisa then found she was ready to take the next step and start using dilators. These are phallus shaped tubes that come in a gradient of sizes and are used to gradually get the vagina used to penetration.
On her therapist’s advice, Lisa visited Sh! Womenstore in East London, meeting with a staff member who familiarised Lisa with the options over a glass of prosecco. “It was such a positive experience and I always suggest others go to them to discuss dilation. I entered that shop feeling nervous and embarrassed, and left feeling so supported. I’m so thankful for that experience.” By the end of 2016, with this combination of therapy and dilation, Lisa was finally getting to grips with her vaginismus. Yet the silence and lack of knowledge surrounding the condition was becoming more and more evident. It was during this time that Lisa connected with Kat through her vaginismus blog. “We had both spent so long feeling alone with the condition and broken, that meeting Kat in person in 2017 was transformative. Communicating about it so freely with someone who had also lived the experience helped break down that stigma, I felt immediately lighter and better about myself, and a lot more positive about dealing with vaginismus.” Just hours after that first meeting, Lisa and Kat decided they wanted to create the same positive, unifying experience for other people who also felt isolated. They quickly set up The Vaginismus Network, and organically the project grew.
This condition is so much more common than people realise, and we felt so strongly that people should not be suffering alone with it.
The Vaginismus Network have now matched several hundreds of people worldwide who have reached out to them for a vaginismus ‘buddy’. By hosting events, virtually or in person, Lisa has seen the network expand and the confidence and progress of those who are connecting blossom and grow. She tells us how “it’s so powerful seeing the conversation become normalised, allowing people to take back control. At our in-person events, looking around the room and seeing these amazing, intelligent, funny, kind people connecting is just wonderful. It’s the complete opposite of the depressing stock images you see when you google vaginismus”.
By sharing people’s real-life stories on The Vaginismus Network’s blog, Lisa explains how “it’s another way of educating people about what vaginismus is and the plethora of ways in which it can impact a person’s life. It’s about showing a whole variety of experiences, not just mine and Kat’s, and allowing people to have their voice heard.” Part of their focus is also within the medical sphere “I would love to engage and connect with GP surgeries more. So, if someone is sitting in a waiting room, suffering in silence and sees a poster about vaginismus, it may help them take that first step. Some doctors are great, but of course, for every great experience, you then hear the classic story of someone being told by their GP to have a glass of wine and relax, that they are having too much sex or not enough sex, that they’ll simply grow out of it. Or they may be met with a blank face because the doctor doesn't know what vaginismus is.” Engaging with more doctors to raise awareness and push for a better understanding relating to the condition is a hugely important way of helping women reach a diagnosis.
I spent so long not talking about my vaginismus that I’m doing the complete opposite now. I guess it's my way of finally controlling it rather than it controlling me.
Recognising how conversations around intimacy and sexual consent are shifting, Lisa says she’s feeling positive about the way communication is changing “More and more, we are seeing people speaking out and addressing issues. There is still some way to go, of course, but it feels like such a different world to the one that I grew up in.” She reiterates that communication is key to tackling taboos around sex, bodies and self-pleasure, despite it feeling challenging at times. We asked Lisa to leave us with some advice on how to disclose the information of having vaginismus to potential sexual partners. “My advice to people when dating is do not undermine yourself or apologise for what you are going through. Keep it simple, don’t overcomplicate it by coming up with an elaborate explanation or excuse. I just say 'penetration has always been more difficult for me so penetrative sex will take a bit more time. However, it doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy a sex life in the meantime'. Have faith that there absolutely are people out there who will be supportive of you." As Lisa says, “vaginismus shouldn’t define anyone and if someone is worth your time and investment then they will understand that and show you the patience you deserve.” Amen to that!
Lisa is an active reminder that the more we can be honest about our bodily experiences and sensations, the more we realise we are not on our own. If Lisa’s story resonates then be sure to check out The Vaginismus Network on their website or keep up to date with their events on IG @thevagnetwork. It is a community that will safely look after you with joyful support and guidance along the way.
Interview by Bethany Burgoyne
Illustrations via The Vaginismus Network Instagram by Hazel Mead