What Does Religion Have to Do with Vaginismus?
Sex is a normal part of human life, but also, perhaps, the most difficult and complicated subject to talk about. Sexual topics can make or break societal norms. It can strengthen or stress personal harmony and, at the very least, it makes everyone uncomfortable! All around, it is an emotionally charged subject and makes it very difficult to have a neutral discussion. Another emotionally charged topic is– faith, religion, or religious values of people. It is extremely challenging to discuss either of those two topics without creating some unease – and yet here we are, talking about both of those topics at the same time!
As we discuss this delicate aspect of health, please allow yourself room to disagree with my words, and the curiosity to challenge your belief system. It is not my intention to question or course-correct sociocultural norms; but simply encouraging you to take a look at the facts with the lens of curiosity while respecting individuality.
Why Are We Talking About It?
As much as we don’t like to talk about it… painful sex is a far more common problem than we would like to admit. 20% of American women, that is 1 in 5 women, experience painful sex in the US (Hill & Taylor, 2021). That number is 48.3% in Ghana (Ibine, Sefakor Ametepe, Okere, & Anto-Ocrah, 2020) and as high as 55.55% in Asian-Indian women (Mishra, Nanda, Vyas, Aggarwal, Choudhary, & Saini, 2016)! Research shows us that painful sex is more common in women who identify as religious or were raised in a religious family (Azim, Happel-Parkins, Moses, & Haardoerfer, 2021). While religion or faith does not directly cause painful sex, it can lead to sex guilt and shame. Sex guilt is often strongly related to painful sex.
Let’s Talk About Sex!
Do you remember who taught you to ride a bicycle? How about who taught you about your first period? Now moving on to a bit more hush-hush conversations: who taught you about sex?
If we are being real, most of our global knowledge about sex is limited to penis-in-vagina intercourse, and the source of knowledge is often friends who claim to have “done it.” It comes from sneaky peeks at pornopedia that you were able to get your hands on. And, at best, you were given an awkward (and often minimal) sex-ed class about “the stuff.”
Sexuality is a lot more than who you have sex with. It is as much about emotional needs as it is about physical attraction. Needless to say, it is very personal and heavily influenced by everything and everyone around you! Unknowingly, we build on it from a very young age. The messages that we see, hear, or believe start to slowly shape our sexual story over time. If childhood messages were full of negative beliefs around female sexual pleasure or full of shame and taboo the results are often adults who struggle with making peace with those deep-seated narratives. The brain shuts down to the idea of pleasure and experiences pain instead as the brain perceives sex to be a threat to your “good girl” status (Atallah, Johnson-Agbakwu, Rosenbaum, Abdo, Byers, Graham, Nobre, Wylie, & Brotto, 2016).
Sex Starts Above the Neck, Not Between the Legs!
Sexual desire is the emotional need for intimate pleasure. It often starts in the mind, and it is rightfully controlled by other things that live in our mind. Here is a handy list of things that are not SEXY and yet control how you feel about sex:
- Relationship with your body
- Relationship with your partner
- Cultural norms..what is acceptable in your culture?
- Family values
- Religious values
- Trust issues
- Stress at work or at home
- Lack of knowledge about sex or your body
What Is Your Factory Setting?
Our beliefs, values, and experiences decide our mind’s factory setting… Our default mode. You received it that way from your grownups, even though you didn’t program it voluntarily. It was put in place by those who made you. In our case, we were “made” by the humans who raised us, people we were friends with, and groups we socialized with as children and young adults. Some of us keep using our iPhones on factory settings, unaware that it’s affecting our user experience. Others figure out how to customize the settings to your needs and change the values we want to live by.
How Can Religion Affect Sexuality?
While every religion has its unique value system, one can observe common threads across the world. Different languages and different stories, but very similar rules of what is acceptable “good” behavior and what is not. There seems to be a persistent message around shame and guilt, and a taboo related to female sexuality. As a result, most religions/cultures make rules for women so they become “good girls.”
Most religions consider having premarital sex wrong. Religions consider sex for anything other than baby-making as a temptation, and you “should” feel shame and guilt for doing it! If children receive this message from a very young age as they grow up around religion and religious messaging, their brain may associate sex as doing something dirty, and create emotions of guilt or shame with desires of sexual pleasure.
Hollywood Example of Religion + Sex
Anyone who watches the Netflix show Jane the Virgin will see this at play! In the show, Jane is the lead character, growing up in an all-female household – born out of wedlock to her teenage mom and living under the roof of her religious, church-going, Christian Abuela (grandmother). The grandmother, in her unique and dramatic way – reminiscent of a Spanish soap opera, creates a lasting impression on young Jane about virginity and its importance for a young girl with faith. The grandmother, who is Jane’s hero, shows Jane that losing her virginity before marriage (before God’s approval) is like ruining a flower. She demonstrates this by crushing and crumpling the petals of a rose. You cannot un-crush and un-crumple a flower.
The show references several points in Jane’s life where she reflects on the irreversible damage of crushing a delicate flower. This symbol in the grandmother’s religion of the irreversible damage to your integrity by engaging in premarital sex. Jane has a crushed flower framed in her room as a constant reminder to uphold her “good-girl” status, as a constant pressure to live up to the “purity” status.
Of course, in the show, it is portrayed funny. Jane goes on to have sex (only after marriage), and does not need a pelvic PT for vaginismus. But in real life, I meet a lot of Janes in my clinic, dealing with penetrative pain and yes they can have a happy ending but it takes some work and some pelvic PT to get there!!
So if you or someone you know has been dealing with the challenging intersection of painful sex and faith, Lets chat! Or, you can check out these two resources:
Whether you’re seeking answers or know someone who could benefit from this information, our Vaginismus Resource Kit is a must-have.
Painful sex isn’t something you have to live with, it simply means your mind and body are asking for help and with this book, help is on the way!