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.
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.”
Madsen says that although she has no trouble speaking up or finding the right words now, that wasn’t always the case.
I did have trouble finding the words to describe what and how I was feeling after I gave birth to my son, (Jack, now 19), she says. “I didn’t know what was going on with me then, and when I did broach the subject in an apologetic tone, no one seemed to have any answers. I had to learn to be my own advocate and how to speak up for myself.
Madsen told me about her postpartum depression and the toll it took on her life when I first interviewed her in 2007. Back then, as the spokesperson for the pharmaceutical company behind Botox, she garnered attention by admitting she used Botox and breaking the Hollywood code of silence.
Sweet and sassy
For that first talk, I met her in her suite at the W Hotel in Manhattan. After rounds of interviews, she was eager to sink into one of the chaises on the terrace, take in the Manhattan skyline and sip a Margarita. By the time I arrived, she’d swapped her heels for a pair of cozy slippers that, contrary to all known rules of fashion, actually complemented her simple black dress.
In the interest of full disclosure, I admit that before our conversation, I was a fan of Madsen, the actor. After we spoke, I was a fan of Madsen, the person. She was both earthy and down to earth, exuded genuine warmth, answered questions with refreshing candor, and wonder of wonders turned out to be a film star without attitude.
Madsen, who was 46 at that time, told me how she had turned her life around after being sidelined by postpartum depression and the demise of her relationship with Jack’s father.
I was so tired and so terribly depressed, she said. I was living in a fog. I couldn’t think properly. Sometimes I felt that I wasn’t thinking at all. My brain was just like a wet sponge. As often happens in depression, Madsen became increasingly inactive, and beset with aches, pains, and severe migraines. She gained weight and her self-esteem took a hit, all of which made her depression worse.
Thanks to the encouragement and support of friends, she eventually learned that the cause of her problem was partly physical. After her son’s birth, her hormone levels had dropped below that of a woman in menopause, she said.
Hormone replacement therapy regulated her estrogen levels. She started exercising regularly and revamped her diet. Her body perked up; her spirit followed. She made a conscious decision to live with intention, she said.
As her health improved, her Madsen’s confidence blossomed, and it’s that kind of confidence that she hopes to instill in women through her participation in Finding the Words.
“We’re all going to experience this, Madsen says now. If we live long and healthy lives we’re going to live many years in post-menopause. There are many different treatments for dyspareunia and VVA. Let’s be informed and get the treatment we deserve. There’s no reason to suffer in silence.”
Tips for finding the words
Practice the conversation with your doctor by role-playing with a friend.
Write down your symptoms, questions, and concerns before you see your doctor so you won’t forget and you’ll feel more comfortable.