Actress Virginia Madsen wants to help women find the words to talk to their doctors about pain during sexual intercourse, a problem that affects nearly half of all post-menopausal women.
By Margaret Jaworski
Virginia Madsen isn’t a doctor. As far as we can tell, she’s never played one on TV or on the big screen. (Though she did voice the character of scientist Dr. Sarah Corwin in the animated series, Justice League). And at 52, she’s not yet post-menopausal, when women are most likely to experience vulvar and vaginal atrophy (VVA).
This chronic condition, characterized by thinning of the vaginal tissue, affects up to half of all post-menopausal women and causes symptoms such as vaginal dryness and irritation, both of which contribute to dyspareunia, the medical term for painful intercourse.
So why is a not-post-menopausal actress the face of an awareness campaign about VVA and dyspareunia?
Madsen is a paid spokesperson for Finding the Words, a campaign to educate women about VVA and dyspareunia and to encourage them to talk to their doctors about it. This campaign is funded by the maker of Osphena, a drug recently approved by the Food and Drug Administration for the treatment of dyspareunia.
So, yes, Virginia is getting paid to speak about VVA and dyspareunia but she’s not just a compensated mouthpiece for the drug company. She’s not pushing its drug; she’s nudging women to start a conversation about painful intercourse to help themselves stay healthy in every way, including sexually.
“I think sexual health is as important as any other aspect of our health,” she tells me says in a phone interview. And it helps that the 2004 Oscar nominee (for her role in Sideways) is at ease talking frankly about women’s sexual issues.
Up front, Madsen admits that she knew nothing about VVA and dyspareunia before she was approached by Shionogi, the maker of Osphena. As she did her research, she was surprised and saddened to learn that so many women suffer in silence because they either do not know that treatments are available or because they are too embarrassed to discuss the problem with their doctors, husbands, significant others, or closest friends.
“I think there’s also a stigma around the issue,” Madsen says. Women worry, does this mean I’m old? she says. Does it mean I’m not sexy anymore?”
Dyspareunia is a consequence of the changes that menopause triggers: declining estrogen levels and less pliable vaginal tissue. The aging process also can result in the vagina’s growing shorter and narrower. The result is friction and pain during intercourse.
You can imagine what this would do in a relationship if one person is having painful sex and can’t participate anymore in that kind of intimacy, Madsen says.
Along with her candor about sexuality, Madsen is forthright when asked about the power of celebrity to get people talking.
“If you put somebody out there like me who isn’t shy and doesn’t mind talking about it, perhaps that will jump-start the discussion and give women the confidence to have the conversation with their doctor,” she says. “It’s so important, because if that kind of intimacy is off the table, it takes a toll on the relationship.”