S’s experience with vulvar vestibulitis – which makes penetrative sex painful – highlighted the phallocentric medical establishment and limited definitions of sex
For almost 10 years I have suffered from a form of vulvodynia (vulval pain) known as vulvar vestibulitis, which, although it has made perhaps two brief forays into the media in that time, seems generally unknown except to those who suffer from it. Briefly, it has no known definite cause or cure and the symptoms are simply excruciating spots of soreness just inside the entrance to the vagina (making sexual intercourse, in my case, utterly impossible). This physiological (not psychosomatic – more on that in a moment) condition has had a fairly devastating effect on my sexual identity, marital relationship and general well-being, but it has also brought some clarity to my thinking about female (and indeed male) sexuality, and the prevailing societal assumptions of most healthcare providers. Essentially I would argue that the attitudes of healthcare providers to this type of condition are often phallocentric and negligent of female care. In my case I firmly believe my condition could have been treated successfully, had it been diagnosed immediately, treated as a serious condition and free from the obsessive focus on penetrative sexuality.
My first reaction when this problem started was utter terror and shame and fear, because I had no idea what the hell was wrong with me. I was 19 and only a few months into a still developing sexual relationship with my (now) husband and – despite having had very good sex education in terms of contraception and sexually transmitted diseases – was totally clueless about any of the other myriad problems that affect women in their sexual health. Why are students not offered this kind of information as part of our education system? It’s almost as though as long as you are pregnancy and disease free, nothing else – such as enjoyment or comfort – matters. I worry that we fail spectacularly to provide young men and women with the knowledge and understanding of sexual issues that most of them will encounter. Indeed, of the many, many GPs that I saw, hardly any of them seemed aware of vulvar vestibulitis, and I ended up educating them! If healthcare professionals take so little interest in women’s sexual health (and this is not a rare condition by any means), what does this say about society’s priorities?