Symbolism, archetypes and stereotypes: What experts have said about vaginismus

07/21/2010 at 7:03 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 6 Comments
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While browsing for interesting (and often outrageous) coverage of sexual dysfunction via Google Books, I’ve occasionally stumbled across experts (doctors, sexologists, laypersons, etc.) interpretations of vaginismus and the women who live with it. I’d like to present some of my findings to you now. Full disclosure: I haven’t been able to finish every book I’d like you to look at today.  But on the other hand, I’m not doing a full book review today either and I am not certain what context, if any, could redeem the following passages.

One of the points Dr. Leonore Tiefer made in Sex is Not a Natural Act (yes we’re returning to this title again) is that we need to look at sex symbolically. Sex has meaning beyond the obvious that we can see and feel, and to understand sex and sexual problems, we need to figure out the meaning behind it. Consider some of the following quotes with emphasis added by me (thanks to Kindle’s word search feature:)

“It’s the symbolic investment that makes sex ecstatic” (location 1215).
“The first [story about doing the 'Viagra tango,' as she puts it] is about how Viagra the pill, but more importantly, Viagra the symbol, may affect the sexual conduct and experience of women and men in many parts of the world” (location 1315).
“[Orgasm is] just a reflex. It’s the symbolism that makes it feel so good” (location 1195; available online.)

And it goes on like that at a few more points throughout the book. We need to look at the symbolism of sex, phalluses, the Viagra family of sexual medicine, etc. We need to pull the curtain back and understand the why behind a woman’s libido crash. Some contemporary examples of where understanding sex and symbolism would be helpful are with the very expression “Sex symbol” and with sexual imagery used in advertisements.

There’s just one potential problem: Some so-called experts on women’s sexuality have already done that – looked at sex, women, women’s sexuality and sexual problems symbolically – and the results haven’t been pretty. Sometimes the ugly things people say about FSD and the women who have it doesn’t come from hack journalists and misogynist comments on message boards. Sometimes – often times – it comes from the professional sphere and trickles down.

Let’s focus on vaginismus as an example. Vaginismus, if you didn’t already know, can be described as an uncontrollable spasm of the pelvic floor and vaginal muscles, usually during sexual activity. It’s most obvious when attempting penetrative activity, like sexual intercourse, but it may also occur with a dildo, tampon use, or during gynecological exams. The spasm may be strong enough to completely prevent an object from entering the vagina, or it may be possible to insert something, but with pain. As such, it can be the cause of dyspareunia (painful sex.) Vaginismus is often recognized as a sexual dysfunction, however, some sexologists question the validity of sexual dysfunction broadly as a diagnosis at all and vaginismus in particular. For some folks like me, vaginismus a chronic problem connected to medical issues, other times it’s situational.  Some folks say it’s purely psychological and can be treated without physical intervention, others say there’s a physical component and that it can be addressed physically.
Vaginismus does not necessarily require any treatment at all, but when folks with vaginismus do seek assistance to address it, that assistance may come in the form of talk therapy with a counselor or sex therapist, dilator use, learning how to kegel, or more extreme medical intervention such as botox injections (not for cosmetic purposes) or physical therapy.

And some sexologists have described vaginismus symbolically.

One of the first, if not the first, books to deal with vaginismus exclusively is 1962’s Virgin Wives: A Study of Unconsummated Marriages, by  Leonard J. Friedman. It’s out of print now, but you may still be able to find a used copy online or through your library. I first came across this title while slogging through Linda Valin’s When a Woman’s Body Says No to Sex: Understanding and Overcoming Vaginismus, a book about vaginismus, from the perspective of someone who has personal experience with it. Valins acknowledged Friedman’s contributions to her own book, but alas Google Books does not offer me the complete text of Virgin Wives or a preview version to pursue at my leisure.

However, because authors like Valins have referenced Friedman’s work, we can get a pretty good feel for what he thought about women with vaginismus. Valins is a big fan of his, so it probably isn’t all bad – but I found the following disturbing.

Last week, I tweeted one of my findings regarding symbolism and vaginismus, from Google’s preview of 1987’s Sexuality and Birth Control in Community Work, by Elphis Christopher. Based on what I can see in Sexuality and Birth Control in Community Work, Friedman described three archetypes of women who tend toward developing vaginismus:

(1) ‘The Sleeping Beauty': this occurs where the woman denies her own sexuality and waits for the man to awaken her sexually. Unfortunately, she often chooses a ‘safe’ partner, i.e. a man who is uncertain of his own sexuality and may suffer from impotence. He is often praised as a ‘good,’ nice boyfriend because he did not attempt pre-marital intercourse.
(2) ‘Brunhilde': this refers to the woman who is always looking for a man strong enough to conquer her. She usually chooses as sexual partners men whom she despises.
(3) ‘Queen Bee': this refers to the woman who manages to get pregnant without allowing penetration so that she can claim the pregnancy for herself.

What… the… fuck…?

I have no reasoned, rational response to this. Do I need to explain the multiple layers of Wrong with this picture to you?

We got here, above all, the assumption of heterosexuality, and according to these personality types, if you have vaginismus you are likely to be:

1. a woman who refuses to own her own sexuality and instead waits for some guy to come along and give it to her. But for some reason the author decides that a man with basic human decency who did not coerce his partner into sex simply must be sexually insecure and possibly “Impotent” (as if there’s anything wrong with having erectile dysfunction.)
2. I don’t know wtf this is – Some kind of Viking archetype I think where a woman who doesn’t settle down with any ol’ jerk and who doesn’t take shit is asking too much. Or else if she’s got vaginismus, it means she must hate her partner.
3. I don’t know wtf this is either. I think term is dated because I had to look it up. I think this archetype is supposed to conjure up images of a bossy lady who, frustrated with vaginismus, gets pregnant the “Wrong” way – minus the ejaculation of a penis inside of her.

So, what the fuck, which one of these archtypes am I then? Anybody here identify with one of these three archetypes? Does anybody here appreciate being described like this? Does anybody here in a relationship appreciate having your partner described like this?

“Now wait, K,” you may be saying. “That paragraph starts out talking about non-consummation generally, and then the next paragraph is about vaginismus.” Fair enough, so let’s make an effort to double-check and make sure that we’re talking about the same thing. Here’s a website that mentions the three archetypes of women who are prone to vaginismus, and it says:

Friedman (1962) describes three types of women inclined to vaginismus:
* the sleeping beauty (father-type relationship with partner and various feelings of guilt)
* the Brunhilde (the woman perceives sex as a battle between the sexes, and the male dominance has to be opposed)
* the queen bee (the woman perceives sex as dirty and sinful, she is afraid of pain in coitus and, in principle, she wants to get pregnant)

Again, what… the… fuck…?

Still don’t believe your eyes? I’ve got one more piece of evidence I can present, from the Science/Fiction of Sex: Feminist deconstruction and the vocabularies of heterosex. I’ve been picking it up and putting it down every once in awhile, browsing random passages – because every passage is so cerebral. This book is hard. Alas, unless you’ve got a copy of the book you won’t be able to read page 210 so let me fill you in. This is, as the title says, a feminist deconstruction of sex, so the author does not necessarily endorse what I’m about to show you.

Annie Potts references the work of Eve Adler, who submitted an article to the British Journal of Sexual Medicine in 1989. I have tried to access the journal article myself but have not yet been successful through my usual means. Adler described several archetypes of women with vaginismus, including one of particular interest to Potts:

Less commonly seen today is the primary vaginismic patient, Sleeping Beauty; an emotionally immature woman awaiting a sexual awakening without taking responsibility for it. These ‘good girls’ have often been brought up to believe that sex is bad or dirty; she had to save herself for marriage! This type can appear quite ‘little-girl-like,’ pristine, clean an tidy and very controlled generally; or she may look quite sexy, enjoy sex play and experience orgasm with clitoral stimulation. Her partner is often ‘a gentleman’ in every sense: an unassertive, gentle, literally non-pushy man who may well have hidden anxieties about his own sexual abilities (Adler 1989 in Potts 2002)

What… the… fuck… What is the meaning of this bullshit?!

“Emotionally immature?” “Little-girl-like?” “Unassertive?” This is in print, people! This is how women with vaginismus and their partners have been described. In books and journal articles. What about descriptions like “Creative and resourceful?” Or “Resilient?” How about some of that?

Don’t be too angry with Annie Potts for re-printing that passage above though; she analyzes it, though you may not agree with her analysis either…  It gets far out there when she starts talking about vaginismus as a form of political resistance against a phallocracy, and hey did you ever notice how phallic your fingers and a newborn baby are.

Let’s go a little deeper and focus on Sleeping Beauty since she keeps popping up re: vaginismus. The myth of Sleeping Beauty has been reinterpreted by various authors. According to one interpretation by Joan Gould, when Sleeping Beauty pricked her hand and fell into an enchanted sleep, the spindle that cut her represented a phallus and sexual maturity; the blood that came out of the injury represents menstruation. Sleeping Beauty was protected from spindles (sex and puberty) by her royal family up her 15th birthday – the age by which many girls reach menarche. The sudden appearance of sex and adulthood upon her (and Snow White, too, for that matter) was too much to bear all at once. The sleep she fell into was not necessarily a passive time; she spent the century mulling over impending adulthood and all the responsibilities that came with it. At a predetermined time, a prince came to wake her up and she was transformed into a woman ready to act as an adult. Usually we think of the awakening as romantic, stemming from a kiss but some versions have her shocked out of her sleep by rape or nursing her babies – conceived in sleep during rape, the perpetrator long gone (Gould, 86-126). Gould’s explanation of the myth of Sleeping Beauty, coincidentally, also addresses the myth of Brunhilde. However we cannot ignore the well-known 1959 Walt Disney version of Sleeping Beauty, in which Aurora was at last rescued from an evil witch’s spell by an active, handsome prince – who she was scheduled to be married to anyway. We need to think about that version too, especially since Disney’s Sleeping Beauty was released by the time Virgin Wives was printed.

Edit 7/22/10 – The boyfriend suggested I add more pictures to the blog. Here’s a picture of Disney’s Princess Aurora, Disney’s Sleeping Beauty.

Disney Aurora

Disney Princess Aurora

[Image description: A picture of Disney's Princess Aurora wearing an iconographic pink dress.]

Is this the true face of Vaginismus? What the hell does she have to do with vaginismus? You think of vaginismus, what’s the first thing you think of, Disney, right? No. (Via.)

But wait, there’s more! Last week, when I Tweeted a link to my findings about archetypes of women with vaginismus, @NevillePark responded back with a very good question:

Wow. Uh, dykes, genderqueers, masculine folk, trans guys, etc., can’t have vaginismus? NEWS TO ME #youreadthisstuffsowedonthaveto

Indeed, good point! Because Friedman was looking at unconsummated marriages back in the 1960s, the most likely scenario is that he wasn’t interested in anyone who wasn’t cis- and heterosexual. After all, marriage was then (and remains to this day in the US on a federal level) defined as a legal union between man and woman. I would love to get my hands on a copy of Virgin Wives just to confirm that he had no interest in queer sexuality and vaginismus.

Alas, I cannot offer a complete answer to the question @NevillePark raises. However, we can turn to another body of work for partial credit.

Last week on Google Books I found Sexual Salvation: Affirming Women’s Sexual Rights and Pleasures, a book about women and sex, with an interest in often marginalized groups of women. I’m surprised to report that it does have a Kindle e-book edition (though the Kindle version is out of my price range right now! $63?! For a sex therapy textbook!? That’s not on the budget!) Overall it sounds interesting and potentially valuable – the Amazon summary says the author spends time talking about feminism and marginalized groups of women, including seniors, disabled women, and sex workers. And I can see from looking at the indexes to Sexual Salvation and (once again for the millionth time,) Sex is not a Natural Act that the authors, Naomi B. McCormick and Dr. Leonore Tiefer, respectively, reference each others’ work. Hmm…

The discussion of vaginismus starts on about page 190, preceded by a discussion of dyspareunia (painful sex) and followed by a discussion of sexual dysfunction, especially in men, and then sex therapy.

There’s a lot we could talk about with this one section of the book, but for now let’s focus on the following:

Taught that the only “real sex” is sexual intercourse, heterosexual women are susceptible to two sexual problems that are largely unknown to lesbians, dyspareunia, painful coitus, and vaginismus, involuntary spasms of the vaginal musculature which prevent penetration. (McCormick, 190).

Well there’s an answer. This leaves room for the possibility of lesbians to experience painful sex and vaginismus, but according to McCormick, that’s almost unheard of. (An unfortunate side effect of establishing profiles of ‘typical’ patients for diagnosis of problems though, is that if you don’t fit the profile, you may have to work even harder to get a caretaker to take your complaints seriously.) She does, however, go on to describe situations in which a lesbian may find herself in a heterosexual relationship and experiencing vaginismus, and some pages later, she describes a lesbian couple coping with cancer and sexual problems including genital pain. Meanwhile, the Vaginismus Awareness Network goes on to address two myths about vaginismus and sexual orientation (Emphasis mine):

A woman MAY be a lesbian if she has vaginismus, just like she may be a lesbian even if she was able to have painfree intercourse with a man.

This myth seems to spread from the belief that lesbians won’t have penetrative sex. Though that may be true for some of them, others will use strap-ons etc and have ‘intercourse’ too. So clearly vaginismus has little to do with one’s sexual orientation since so many heterosexual women in love with their partners have it. It has more to do with lack of knowledge of one’s private parts, lack of information on their PC muscles, lack of sexual education and lack of kindness…

You know, I don’t always agree with the VAN. I have the sexual education I need to understand my own anatomy and how to do a kegel, and my partner is kind to me, yet somehow I still have vaginismus. Maybe we shouldn’t paint all women with vaginismus as one big homogeneous group. But compared to the other Freudian analyses described above, even I prefer this. I’m very uncomfortable by the way women with vaginismus have been described in literature like what I’ve shown you today. For how long were these archetypes and stereotypes repeated and used in clinical settings? To what extent do the myths and stereotypes about women with vaginismus still exist, and what effect do they have now?

6 Comments »

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  1. That “Intimate Medicine” site is… weird. I expected it to be, well, actually medical. It comes off as some sort of… I can’t tell, like some weird soft-pornish combination of Cosmopolitan and Maxim, with the sex tips and disembodied cleavages. But like you said, the problem is that a lot of people just don’t consider the source– a lot of people seem to just read something somewhere, online, in a book, whatever, and assume it’s credible if it’s presented in a certain way.

    Personally, my inclination would be to write off that whole paragraph about the “three archetypes” of women as a relic of old BS Freudian beliefs about women, that has very little to do with any reason why the vast majority of women who have vaginismus have it. At least, I’d write it off. The fact that people are still taking it seriously and reporting it as some kind of very scientific statistical finding is disturbing.

    One thing I’ve found, reading through disability studies (from a social model of disability perspective), is that the arrogance of non-disabled people, in treating disability as metaphor, can be really staggering. It’s not just the “little” ableist assumptions that get worked into our heads through words like “lame” and “retarded” used as insults, although those definitely reinforce it. Or the way disability gets used “artistically” in fiction as a metaphor, how the image of disability has traditionally been used to depict characters either as evil or as childlike innocents. It’s that… there’s also this massive power imbalance inherent in the way people talk “academically” about the things our bodies and minds do, as if we just existed in this detached vacuum somewhere far away from them. Somewhere where we’d never see them writing about us or be capable of objecting to our bodies, experiences, words, actions and perceptions being used as metaphors, without input from us.

    But also it’s telling us what our experience has been, telling us what our disabilities supposedly represent even to ourselves. Which is the epitome of privileged arrogance, thinking you know a marginalized person’s experience better than they do. And it seems like many of the feminists who crusade about “omg, FSD isn’t real” are more than happy to point this out when it extends to ‘splaining about women’s experiences in general, but then… don’t hesitate to push it onto the experiences of women with disabilities, if they decide they don’t have to respect someone’s reported experience.

    And viewing disability limitations as representing something metaphorical to the people who experience them, something to be psychoanalyzed instead of respected, has resulted in some awful things being done to people. Like… I’ve read some things by people with physical disabilities like CP and muscular dystrophy who were told by doctors and physical therapists that “you can’t walk because you don’t want to walk, you want to be helpless and a child forever” or “you want to spite your parents by not walking.” Some older studies on CFS/ME were on people who were told that their minds were unconsciously manufacturing their symptoms because they wanted to get out of a hectic work life, and called it “yuppie flu.” It happens with purely neurological things, also; it used to be widely believed that autism was symbolic of “withdrawing into yourself” due to child abuse or neglect. So it’s… nasty but also in some ways unsurprising that people would try to interpret vaginismus along the same lines.

    • I’d really like to dismiss the Sleeping Beauty, Brunhilde and Queen Bee archetypes as outdated stereotypes that no one would ever take seriously anymore. And chances are that if you were to go to a doctor with sexual problems, no or almost no doctors now would actually say something like, “You meet the profile for a Sleeping Beauty/You are an emotionally immature woman who wants someone to wake you up sexually.” I would be very surprised if anyone, other than maybe a dedicated psychoanalyst said something like that.

      But I’m not satisfied that the legacy these three models leave behind is gone. For example one of the arguments I saw cropping up during the flibanserin debacle was something like, “Women who would use this drug aren’t really taking control of their sexuality.” Okay flibanserin and vaginismus aren’t the same thing but, they both fall under the broad spectrum of FSD, and that control argument is clearly, literally, one of the oldest tricks in the book. And it’s used against women who have sexual problems, apparently whether they seek help or not. Got untreated vaginismus? Thinking about using flibanserin? Same answer: You must not want to take control of your sexuality.

      If this is the way that professionals have looked at sex symbolically in the past, then I don’t see how understanding the symbolism of sex and sexual problems improves our understanding of sex. This isn’t me! Now, instead of swallowing this symbolism as I found it, I gotta go through all these other steps to de-construct the existing symbols and point out everything that is wrong with them. Am I supposed to make new symbols in their place? Why would mine be any better than this?

      Personally I feel a lot more comfortable with “Sometimes a spasm is just a spasm,” taking it at face value. I’m sure that for a lot of patients, examining their relationship and sexual orientation is a great benefit in addressing sexual dysfunction. But I for one do better working with the here-and-now. I would be very uncomfortable and frustrated if I had to work with a therapist or other expert who, instead of helping me do what I want now, fixated on my personality as the reason for all my problems. Or if they said something like I have problems because I *think* I have problems. Problems which have no name and no shared experience with anyone else. I’ve seen CFS described dismissively as “Yuppie flu.”
      I had a doctor who said we need to treat the source of the problem to get it under control. Okay, great! …So where’s the source?

  2. Hiya, here via Feministe :)

    First, thank you so much for writing about vaginismus and other forms of FSD. It’s something that I barely knew existed before starting to read the posts here, and it’s been an education. I will continue to lurk and be informed.

    I only unlurked on this post because of the bizarre literary comparisons that Friedman et al. drag out – literature is my area, and fairytale and Old Norse are two things I’ve studied in depth, and I’m interested in (and a little scared by) the particular figures these researchers have chosen.

    You go into the Sleeping Beauty myth in more detail via Gould’s book, so I’ll leave that. The Brunhilde story is a doozy, though: she’s a shieldmaiden, a fighting woman who goes into battle armed and armoured, and is very good at what she does. Lives alone, in her own castle. Then she ends up in a magic sleep (IIRC, she disagrees with Odin and he curses her) from which the ‘hero’, Sigurd, wakes her. But he doesn’t actually wake her up until he’s removed her shieldmaiden’s gear – taken off her helmet and literally cut her mail-coat off her. Then they sleep together. Post-metaphorical-rape, she becomes a model of domestic womanhood. Yeah …

    Either Friedman et al. have misinterpreted the Brunhilde story badly, or they were seriously trying to suggest that women who suffered from vaginismus as a result of being raped or otherwise violated were really “looking for a man strong enough to conquer” them. Sounds like plain old victim-blaming from here.

    • Aaand then there’s that angle too :/ some women do develop vaginismus after rape, just like how some women do not. I’m less familiar with the Brunhilde story so thanks for contributing another possible angle.

  3. [...] saying about women with FSD: Broad, sweeping generalizations, without listening to them. It’s archetypes and stereotypes allover [...]

  4. [...] and occasional guest poster Flora picked up on the similarities between the way vaginismus and non-sexual, invisible chronic conditions were handled: Some older studies on CFS/ME were on people who were told that their minds were unconsciously [...]


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