Vulvodynia and autoethnography

Date of Award


Document Type



Edith Cowan University

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Writing)


School of Communications and Arts


Faculty of Education and Arts

First Supervisor

Associate Professor Jill Durey


The title of my thesis, Vulvodynia and Autoethnography, also describes its content: memoir that deals with chronic vulval pain and its place in society. The preface situates the thesis as a work of reflexive autoethnography and introduces vulvodynia (chronic vulval pain) as a condition of unexpected prevalence. An examination of possible reasons for the discrepancy between incidence and knowledge, introduced here, is a recurring theme in the text. The thesis is composed of creative and critical components that interweave and reflect upon each other. The first four chapters consist of chronological memoir, telling the story of the onset of my vulvodynia in 2000, and the derailment of my professional and personal lives. Two more life-narrative chapters are interspersed between the remainder. Weaving their way through the thesis are two chapter series: ‘Psychosomatic’ and ‘Nature of the Beast’. The Psychosomatic series explores the background to a common labelling of chronic genital pain in women (and men) as “psychosomatic” or “in the head”. The series examines the influence of the history of hysteria and psychoanalysis on medical attitudes toward such illnesses and demonstrates the incidence of vulval pain through recorded history. It suggests alternative readings of “psychosomatic” illness, looking at trauma theory and feminist body scholarship, among other fields, to expand possible interpretations of mind/body disorder. The Nature of the Beast series follows my journey through medicine, psychology, physiotherapy, alternative medicine and neuroscience as I try to understand and successfully treat my vulvodynia. The medical literature relating to vulvodynia is also surveyed, though this is secondary to the qualitative depiction of living with genital pain. Three interspersed chapters depict my wrestle with vulvodynia as it is reflected in, and prompted by, dreams and images. An exploration of such concepts as “virginity”, “teeth” (vagina dentata), and transforming the “mark” of vulval pain through the “mark” of writing, are contained within these chapters. They also contain a meditation on the matters this illness has forced me to confront, such as the place of sexuality and the possibility of meaning or faith in the context of debilitating pain. The thesis widens its scope to other women affected by vulval pain by telling the story of my appearance in a national magazine and the wave of response from over one hundred women. Some are represented through email and spoken comment. The voices of three women (aged around twenty-five, thirty-nine and eighty-eight) are duplicated through separate interview chapters. These chapters demonstrate the similarities, but also the significant differences, in our experience of vulval pain depending on age, lifestyle and individual coping styles. The whole body of research and writing forms an organic entity that arose and took shape, guided by unfolding life-events and inner processes

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