Chronic vulva pain is shrouded in stigma and silence, and until recently, the TV industry was perpetuating this through the glamorisation of perfect, vaginal penetrative sex on screen. Painful sex is typically romanticised in film and TV, where a girl’s ‘first time’ is expected to hurt. This pain of virginity is put on a pedestal, presenting her as vulnerable and subordinate to the man who usually knows what he’s doing and can therefore ‘ease’ her into it.
A UK study has found that 1 in 13 women experience pain during sex, so why has it only been presented on screen in terms of romanticised virginity?
Vaginismus Awareness Week seems like an important time to reflect on the way Netflix’s Sex Education shattered romanticised images of perfect sex by disrupting the painful silence around vaginal conditions in TV shows. Sex Education did this most notably through the plot line of the character Lily (Tanya Reynolds), whose experiences of vaginismus are portrayed so groundbreakingly in just the opening 2 minutes of Episode 8, Season 2; which aired in January this year.
When Ola slides her hand under Lily’s metallic silver miniskirt, Lily yelps “Ow!,” and explains “it’s not you, it’s me. I have something called vaginismus. My vagina’s like a Venus flytrap.”
Lily gives Ola a quick explanation of her condition, showing her a kit of five tampon-shaped dilators varying in different sizes that she’s supposed to insert into her vagina to get familiar with the sensation. Lily explains that so far, she can only use the smallest one, describing the sexual pressure she puts on herself. After Ola becomes more inquisitive, Lily reveals that she does masturbate despite her condition; “I just keep to the outside. For some reason, if I’m touching myself, then I’m okay” she says.
For many viewers, this was the first time they came across the term vaginismus, the condition which involves painful spasmodic contraction of the vagina in response to penetration.
Speaking exclusively to The Indiependent, actress Tanya Reynolds told us: “Since Sex Education Season 2 came out, I have had conversations with so many women who have experienced vaginismus without knowing what it was or that it even had a name before seeing the show. I’m glad the show and Lily’s storyline has drawn some attention to it.”
The frank and casual depiction of Lily’s vaginismus in Sex Education has been dubbed by fans as ground-breaking, for a variety of reasons but most notably bringing vaginismus into a plotline so seamlessly, in an informative yet casual way. Lily’s story not only normalised honest discussions amongst fans about vagina conditions but showed that vaginismus doesn’t mean the end to sexual pleasure, proven when Lily and Ola mutually masturbate together at the end of the scene. Lily’s preference of keeping “to the outside” reminds the audience that penetration isn’t the only avenue to an orgasm.
Earlier in the series, Otis (Asa Butterfield), a self-proclaimed teenage sex therapist, advises Lily that she needs to relax to overcome her vaginismus. Otis takes Lily to the top of a steep hill and tells her to ride her bike down it, so she can experience the adrenaline of giving up control.
Unfortunately for Otis – a character whose fatal flaw seems to be naivety – treating vaginismus is not that easy. Many women with vaginismus are told the myth that if they just relax, the pain will disappear. However, treating these conditions is far more complex.
Vaginismus treatment usually focuses on managing feelings around penetration, in a psychosexual sense, and includes exercises to gradually get you used to penetration; such as pelvic floor exercises or vaginal trainers, like Lily uses.
The potential causes of vaginismus can range from psychological to a physical muscular reaction, or a combination of the two – sometimes rooted in anxiety, past sexual trauma, negative emotions towards sex, as well as physical conditions including UTI’s and so on.
Sex Education opens the door for women living with vaginismus and other conditions to be able to speak openly about their symptoms, and for others to understand their experiences more directly.
Anyone with a vagina knows that it’s not always pretty and comfortable. Lily’s plotline also highlighted the need for the normalisation vaginal tribulations on screen to encourage further dialogue off screen.
The HBO series I May Destroy You, written and starred in by Michaela Coel, is another pioneering series which aired this year that unapologetically displays vaginal truths. In Episode 3, the character Arabella (Coel) has sex whilst on her period with the drug dealer she met earlier in the day, called Biagio (Marouane Zotti).
The audience sees the used sanitary towel and the huge blood clot which lands on the mattress, when Arabella takes off her underwear. Biagio, unflinchingly pulling the used tampon out of Arabella’s vagina, fascinated by the blood clot so much that he touches it, is an example of a male character who maturely accepts the natural processes of vagina’s and is curious to understand them.
The candid depiction of the period sex in I May Destroy You shocked many viewers who realised how absent the portrayal of period sex has been from TV and film – despite the average woman spending the equivalent of 10 years of their life menstruating – it’s surprising that the realities of periods and period sex have been concealed on screen for so long.
Sex Education and I May Destroy You refreshingly portray vaginas as a complex bodily organ, rather than a sexualised vortex for male penetration and desire. These shows have opened up the door for sex on screen, which rejects the overtly glamorised sex scenes typically portrayed in TV shows.
From fan’s reactions to both plotlines, it’s clear that viewers are in need of more on screen content which reflects the truths of vaginal sexual health – fans are asking for the boundaries to be pushed further. Reflecting these realities through film and TV is integral to encouraging honest discussions about sex and raising awareness of conditions, which seem so peculiar to those unfamiliar.
Words by Ellie Muir
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