By Becca Taurisano
Photos by Maureen Tricase/Capture Your Moments
Katie Flaherty wants to remove the stigma around women’s sexual health and, through her organization, Shine with Courage, she hopes to do just that.
A survivor of trauma in her childhood, Flaherty became passionate about sexual health issues and disorders when she was diagnosed with vaginismus, a condition in which involuntary muscle spasms in the vaginal wall prevent vaginal penetration and make sexual intercourse and routine pelvic exams very painful. Vaginismus is difficult to diagnose and many women are not even aware it is happening.
“Women like me compare ourselves to other women,” Flaherty said, “we think we are not normal, we have issues and other women don’t.”
It was Flaherty’s husband who first found the term vaginismus by Googling her symptoms and they later found a doctor who could help her. Dr. Peter Pacik in New Hampshire, now retired, specialized in the treatment of vaginismus through a combination of Botox and at-home dilator therapy. Flaherty and her husband traveled to New Hampshire for treatment.
The real work, however, began when she returned home and had to continue dilating. Flaherty said the treatment for vaginismus is a lifelong process, not a quick cure.
“It can feel like you are the only one on earth with vaginismus,” Flaherty said.
She wants women to know that they are not alone and they should not have to suffer in silence.
“Society is not sure how to accept this topic [of women’s sexual health],” said Flaherty, “Shame is the biggest factor in my life and a lot of other women’s lives.”
Flaherty’s mission is to break the shame associated with women’s sexual health and disorders. Flaherty’s organization, Shine with Courage, founded in March 2019, mirrors an organization called Lady Sparrow started by Elaine Hoffman. Shine with Courage has taken over the programs Lady Sparrow began and the organization seeks to help women suffering from sexual disorders through empowerment, education, connection, and relief through treatment. Flaherty wants all women facing sexual health issues to be able to receive the necessary Botox treatments, physical therapy, and the emotional support they need.
Shine with Courage holds a panel discussion called Lady Talk with doctors, massage therapists, physical therapists, chiropractors, and women who have been personally affected by sexual health disorders. The organization offers mentorship programs pairing mentors with survivors of trauma and sexual health disorders. Often mentees are lacking resources to be treated and have been traumatized, but the mentorship relationship helps build trust and lets survivors know that they are not alone.
Another program Shine with Courage offers is the Period Pop-Up to celebrate young girls moving into puberty and educate them on what to expect during this time in their lives. The point of the event is to take the stigma away from talking about periods and what happens to girls’ bodies during puberty.
It has not been an easy road for Flaherty. She and her husband have almost divorced during the 13 years they have been together because of the intimacy issues vaginismus can cause.
“Every marriage is different,” Flaherty said, “and when you are dealing with vaginismus, it is 10 times worse with understanding each other and what we need. We have been through a lot.”
Flaherty has attempted suicide more than once, but said she now knows Shine with Courage is the reason she is still here.
“Every woman is worthy, beautiful and regardless of your flaws, you are perfect. Your imperfections are you. You should accept them and love them for what they are, because that’s you,” she said. “Without my imperfections and without my trauma and tragedy, I would not be the same person. Any woman reading this should know that they are worthy and I’m here for them. There is always an out to trauma. There is always another person like you.”
Flaherty began competing in pageants in 2018 and currently holds the title of Mrs. Onondaga County. Her pageant platform focuses on women’s sexual health. Flaherty is competing again in May 2020 and looks forward to sharing her platform with the public again.
“If there is anything I have learned about pageants, is it has nothing to do with outside looks or your gown, it has a lot to do with changing you and how you perceive the world,” said Flaherty.
Flaherty is looking to grow her organization and welcomes anyone who wishes to partner with her to reach out to Shine with Courage. While women’s health is her priority at the moment, Flaherty would eventually like to help men who have experienced trauma, as well. If you or someone you know suffers from sexual health disorders, please visit shinewithcourage.org or call (315) 944-0308.