When Angela*, 25, was a teenager, she thought something was seriously wrong with her. No matter how hard she and her boyfriend tried, he just couldn't get it in. "Whenever we went to have sex, I suddenly felt panicky," she says. "It was as though I was completely closed over." Five boyfriends later and still unable to have sex, she was diagnosed with vaginismus - the involuntary contraction of vaginal muscles that prevents penetration. Sexologist and clinical counsellor Tanya Koens says vaginismus is often caused by fear of sex. "Being anxious and thinking, 'This thing isn't going to fit' can make all the pelvic muscles clench and make it really difficult for the penis to push past."
Angela spent her teenage years convinced she would remain a virgin for life. "I felt such relief when I found out I have vaginimus and that my problem was in my min, not my body," she says. "I ended up meeting an understanding guy and we took it really slow. After about a year we finally had sex - I was so excited!"
Panic room There has been very little clinical research into the frequency of sexual phobias, but erotophobia, the fear of sexual love or sexual questions, is believed to be the most common. Other sex-related phobias include:
• Medorthophobia: fear of an erect penis
• Heterophobia: fear of the opposite sex
• Tocophobia: fear of pregnancy
• Gymnophobia: fear of nudity
• Anuptaphobia: fear of staying single
Phobia or freak-out? Plenty of twentysomethings would tell you they're scared of getting pregnant or staying single, but Dr Janet Hall, a sex therapist, clinical psychologist and author, says these feelings become a phobia when they impact on your daily life. "No amount of rational explanation can overcome the fear," she explains. "The reaction is socially inappropriate and it causes real-life conflicts."
Koens says phobias tend to arise from a traumatic experience, like sexual assault, or a from a lack of knowledge about sex. "When you get extreme anxiety symptoms, we are in the phobia part of the deal," she says. "It's heart-pumping breathlessness, a feeling of dread, sweating and feeling sick."
Paying the price of silence Unsurprisingly, sexual phobias can have a huge effect on intimacy. "If there is not much talking about the situation, partners worry and doubt the strength of the relationship," Koens says. Be open with your partner about you feelings if you're suffering constant anxiety attacks, contact a psychologist or sex therapist. "If you don't get the information, it grows into a huge proportions in your head," Koens says. But rest assured, phobia suffers can be cured. "They might have to work hard at managing 'warpy' thoughts," Koen says. "Basic anxiety treatments can help people manage thoughts when they pop into their head."