Dead Vagina Syndrome And Scaring Women Out Of Sex

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Dirty Little Secrets

I didn’t even know that female masturbation was on the table until I was well into my teens. We were all aware of male masturbation by secondary school but female masturbation remained some sort of clandestine operation. If a teenage boy asked a girl if she’d ever masturbated, the kneejerk answer was always a disgusted “no!”. Even amongst our female friends, we very rarely spoke about it. We treated female masturbation with an air of secrecy, shame, and revulsion. I’m not sure if it’s part of getting older or destigmatisation (maybe a mixture of both) but this particular corner of secondary school theatre is laughable in hindsight.

In Britain, 95% of men and 71.2% of women have masturbated at least once in their lifetime, so it is no wonder that research surrounding masturbation is slowly starting to take hold. Many questions have unfolded around female masturbation in particular: is it healthy? Is it a good substitute for riskier sexual activity that could result in STIs, STDs, and unplanned pregnancy? Does female masturbation encourage a positive body image in young women? There is also the ever-growing presence of sex tech that has only led to more questions. Before, female masturbation was a safely guarded secret. Now, there have never been more public discussions about sexuality and the sexual experience. However, are all questions around sexuality as enlightening as we would like to think?

A Sexual Affliction

In recent years, ‘dead vagina syndrome’ has made headlines in tabloid newspapers. It is the idea that the overuse of sex toys (namely vibrators) can desensitise the clitoris, making it near impossible for women to achieve orgasm in the future (whether by themselves or with a partner). Furthermore, dead vagina syndrome warns that extreme overuse of vibrators may lead to permanent numbness in the sensitive parts of the vagina that are responsible for sexual pleasure.

This Cosmopolitan article tells the story of a woman who threw away her vibrator as she felt it stunted her sex life with her boyfriend. In short, it’s the age-old notion that you can overwork your genitals until they are simply numb to any stimuli, including sex toys and partnered sex. Given the limited academic research or medical basis surrounding dead vagina syndrome, do we need to worry about it?

According to Dr. Marsha K. Guess et al, a small study of 70 women aged 19-64 regularly used vibratory stimulation for almost four years and witnessed no adverse effects during their monthly interviews. She observed an overall improvement in sexual function and satisfaction according to several well-established indexes (including the Female Sexual Function Index). Even in a nationally representative study of the USA, Dr. Debra Herbenick et al found that only 0.6% of women who regularly use vibrators experience clitoral numbness for more than an hour.

There are many other factors that might play a role in sexual difficulty. A 2002 study revealed the most common reasons for female hyposexual desire disorder (losing your sex drive for more than six months) had nothing to do with sex toys. The leading factors behind female sexual dysfunction were conflicts with partners, poor knowledge of one’s own erogenous zones, and obstetric trauma. Considering the unlikelihood of suffering loss of sensation for more than an hour after using a vibrator, the overuse of sex toys is an improbable cause of sexual dysfunction. Sexual difficulty is more likely to be a result of psychological factors (anxiety, low self-esteem, even just not being in the mood) rather than what’s inside your bedside drawer.

The Real Issue

If dead vagina syndrome is not a major issue, why were we worried about it in the first place? Dead vagina syndrome is just one drop in an ocean of misinformation around female sexuality. Historically, the field of gynaecology and obstetrics often oversimplified how female sexuality works and the effects of different sexual activities. Furthermore, women could not formally participate in the medical field for centuries and did not seek medical advice—or were often dismissed when they did—as a result of gender norms surrounding modesty.

In Dr. Elinor Cleghorn’s book, Unwell Women, even gynaecological tools such as the speculum were held in contempt in a puritanical attempt to kerb women’s sexuality in the 19th century. From Ancient Greece to the 19th century, diagnoses of women’s ailments were attributed to the uterus and women’s sexual appetite, even when experiencing chronic pain and psychological anguish. When the practice of dissection opened up in Europe, the discovery of the clitoris brought with it the moral implication that women can experience sexual pleasure without the aid of their male partners.

The male heteronormative bias in our perceptions of sexual experience has been prevalent for thousands of years. Italian physician, Mateo Renaldo Colombo ‘discovered’ the clitoris as late as the 16th century. Female pleasure without male intervention is a relatively new concept in medical history; even today heterosexual women often sacrifice their own pleasure and comfort through prioritising their male partner’s pleasures. It’s no surprise that the hook of dead vagina syndrome is the notion that you are responsible for not achieving orgasm during sex with a male partner.

Picking Up Good Vibrations

Even if dead vagina syndrome was a significant issue, there is a substantial group of women who wouldn’t be particularly bothered if sex with men was ruined. The frequency of orgasm among lesbians and bisexual women is higher than that of heterosexual women. In particular, queer sex that does not conform to the narrow criteria of cisnormative and heteronormative sex does not grind to a halt at the use of vibrators.

Female masturbation and non-partnered sexual pleasure have consistently been under fire by moral posturing and the fear that sexual intercourse with men will be somehow ruined when women can experience sexual pleasure by themselves. In reality, knowledge of the erogenous zones in your own body can only enhance your sexual experience whether with a partner or by yourself. After centuries of fearmongering, women do not need any more misinformation to scare them out of taking sexual pleasure into their own hands.

Although there is no scientific evidence proving dead vagina syndrome to be a significant problem, it does also raise important points surrounding physical self-awareness. To put it simply: if your vibrator is causing discomfort, pain or loss of sensation down there, stop using it or switch it to a setting more attuned to your body! Consulting a trained professional is also a good idea when facing sex-related issues (even if just as a matter of perspective). When experiencing difficulty reaching orgasm, consider any other aspects of your life that might dampen your sex life. Diet, stress, sleeping patterns, and even your general state of mind are all factors that contribute to ease of reaching orgasm. Before locking your trusty vibrator away and becoming a reverse-celibate, take the time to adjust your sexual activity to your body’s sensitivity.

Words by Elizabeth Sorrell

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