It wasn’t until she tried to make love to her boyfriend for the first time two years ago that Sarah realised she had a problem.
Just as the couple were about to have intercourse, Sarah — a 27-year-old virgin at the time — found herself terrified of being penetrated. “I suddenly became very frightened and tensed up,” says Sarah, now 29, and a designer from Surrey. “It was a completely involuntary reaction. However much I tried to relax and however much my boyfriend tried to help, I couldn’t control it.”
Sarah did not realise she was suffering from vaginismus, a condition affecting 1 to 2 per cent of women. Sufferers’ fear of penetration causes the muscles around the vagina to suddenly spasm and contract. Although Sarah’s boyfriend had not had this problem with his previous girlfriends, he was patient and the issue brought the couple closer together. But after six months without any improvement, their relationship was becoming strained.
Sarah’s GP referred them to Relate, the relationship counsellors, where a sex therapist gave her exercises to become comfortable with her body. But after a year of treatment nothing had changed. “The discussions with Relate were helping but they were not solving the problem; it was so fixed in my head that there was no way round it,” she says. With the couple increasingly desperate, Relate suggested they try hypnotherapy. A friend put them in touch with an experienced hypnotherapist and psychologist specialising in sexual disorders.
From the initial assessment, the hypnotherapist felt Sarah’s vaginismus had several causes: poor sex education, ignorance of her body, and a fear of having her hymen broken. Each painful attempt at intercourse reinforced her anxiety. After an assessment, Sarah was introduced into a state of deep relaxation. It was decided to use a technique known as progressive muscle relaxation, with emphasis on the pelvic muscles. The next step was to replace her negative beliefs about sex with positive ones.
While under hypnosis, Sarah was asked to imagine feeling confident and calm about various sexual scenarios: first, touching herself, being touched by her boyfriend, and finally, having intercourse with him. With each scenario, Sarah was given statements to repeat to herself so that when carrying out the actions, she would have the positive feelings — a technique called post-hypnotic suggestion.
A vital component was to practice self-hypnosis at home to maximise the effect. Sarah was asked to do this, and she also had to masturbate.
The hour-long sessions were held fortnightly over four months. After the seventh session Sarah’s boyfriend attended. The boyfriends expected Sarah to get turned on like his previous girlfriends, and this put pressure on her. He was assured that there was no need to worry or hurry.
The following weekend, the couple had a hotel break in Stratford-on-Avon. The first evening they were finally able to go all the way. At first, Sarah didn’t realise they had achieved penetration: “I know it sounds mad,” she says. “But I just hadn’t known what to expect.” One year on, the couple are still impressed. “It is not until you try hypnotherapy that you realise how powerful it is,” Sarah says. “Fortunately we have never had a repeat of the situation. But, like all couples, sometimes one of us doesn’t fancy sex and the other one does!” The couple believe the problem strengthened their relationship. “Not many couples go through such intimate and complicated things,” says Sarah. “We had to decide to stick with each other and then work through it.”
The Times November 4th 2006
some details are not reported and names changed for privacy