Many thanks to Victor Yrigoyen for the illustrations. Check out his website and Instagram.
“For many, the psychological impact of vaginismus can be even more agonizing than the physical pain. The stigma of “virginity,” combined with the lacking mention of vaginismus in public dialogue, society’s insistence that “men need sex,” and the social pressure on women to have children by a certain age, can all contribute to a dramatic decrease in the person’s self-esteem. As a result, some individuals with vaginismus may develop depression, or anxiety about sex. For many, the inability to have sex, or fear of sex, can lead to the repeated downfall of relationships; others resist dating altogether to avoid later disappointment.”
–Leah de Roy, Vaginismus: The “Myth” of Sexual Disorders
OK, You Can Put It In Now
I was seventeen the first time I tried having intercourse.
I was hopelessly in love with my boyfriend, who never pressured me into anything, but with whom the chemistry was so strong that my vaginal lubricant would drip down my legs when we started making out.
The first time he touched my vulva I got so turned on I hyperventilated. We had to stop and wait for my hands to stop tingling and my blood pressure to come back up.
I’d never considered having penetrative sex before. Not even with my previous boyfriend. I was very clear in my head that I wasn’t ready, and I never felt like I owed him anything. He obviously wanted to, but was decent enough to take no for an answer, and didn’t push me further.
This time it was different.
I just knew I was ready. I knew I wanted to.
We’d already had numerous non-penetrative sex sessions, and orgasms where easy to find for both of us.
For me, a 17-year-old sort of late bloomer who had never masturbated and was just discovering orgasms, penises, and crazy, head-over-heels romantic love, penetration simply seemed like the natural next step. This time I knew I was ready, my body was asking for it.
His penis was so beautiful I even changed my mind about dicks being gross—that’s probably just called growing up.
So when we finally decided to “have sex” (I’m using quotes because in fact, all the other stuff we were doing before was also sex)*, I had no expectations other than it being pretty awesome. We didn’t plan it down to the specifics, we didn’t light up candles, we didn’t care if it was particularly romantic, we just wanted to enjoy each other.
We were in love.
I didn’t grow up in a religious environment; I didn’t have any ideological guilt associated to sex, nor did I think it made me less worthy to “lose my virginity”. I wasn’t even thinking about what that expression meant. That’s how above it all I felt. I was just excited.
*Like, have you ever wondered why we only equate sex with intercourse (i.e. penis in vagina penetration), and none of the other stuff you can do with one or multiple partners (masturbation, cunnilingus, felatio, anal penetration, etc.) is considered sex by most people? Because the former is how you make babies. And guess what patriarchy cares about. Not women’s pleasure, that’s for sure.
I wasn’t close with my mom as a teenager, and my older sister, eight-and-a-half years my senior, had been living abroad since I was nine. We were close, but not so close that she was my confidant on these matters. So, I basically had no one more experienced than me to talk about sex with.
Imagine my surprise when, after kissing and touching each other for a while, when I knew I was wet and very turned on, I asked my boyfriend to put on a condom and penetrate me, and it was as if somebody was tearing my vagina open.
I knew first-time sex could be painful, but this pain was piercing, as if I was literally being torn apart.
At the same time, his penis simply couldn’t go in. There was no way in.
It was as if a solid brick wall had been erected (yes) in my vaginal opening. It was as if there was no vaginal opening. But the pain was very real. My legs immediately, reflexively closed. All arousal had disappeared.
We kept trying. That night, and others.
We held on to the hope that this would just be a very painful first time, that we’d push through and eventually have happy, pain-free intercourse.
But it didn’t get better.
The more we tried, the more my body would seem to respond instinctively to the memory of the previous painful attempts.
Each time it took less for my legs to close shut and my arousal to vanish. I eventually stopped wanting to have sex altogether.
All The Doctors
I went to the gynaecologist, hoping she’d tell me what was wrong with me and how to fix it: maybe my vagina was too small? Maybe there was some kind of physical abnormality that could be operated, and I’d be able to have sex with my boyfriend, like a normal person. I sat across from her in front of her desk and explained the situation, she nodded and smiled, then said, “OK, let’s take a look and see what’s going on.
“Now, since you’re a virgin, I can’t use a speculum, so I’m just going to insert my pinky finger.”
I remember her putting on her black disposable gloves and lathering some lubricant on her pinky before approaching my vagina.
I can’t recall if she gave me a heads up or if she just went ahead and inserted it, but I remember the cold, aseptic room, and again that piercing pain, as if her finger was stabbing me. She asked me to breath and relax, but all I could do was contract and cry uncomfortable noises. She kept her pinky inside of me and said “relax, I’m not doing anything, I’m not moving my finger. Just breathe. ” But I couldn’t relax. It hurt too much. I just couldn’t.
I got dressed and she explained that my vagina was perfectly normal.
What I was experiencing was psychological. “It usually comes from fear of pain, fear of pregnancy or previous trauma”. I couldn’t think how any of those would apply to me. I can’t remember what she said after that. I think I was in shock.
I asked her what “the solution” was, or something to that effect, and she probably suggested I go to therapy.
I just remember leaving and feeling like all my hopes had been crushed. There was no surgery, there was no fix. I’d been given a sort of lukewarm sentence… of what though?
I just knew I was broken. That was the only diagnosis.
I’d gone from being this loopy head-in-the-clouds teenager with no concrete interest in sex and zero masturbation experience, to being a girl with a high sex drive who masturbated often and was able to have multiple orgasms, to then being the hopeless, involuntary virgin who couldn’t shake off her old, useless, stigmatized hymen.
By the way, the hymen, as most of us understand it, isn’t a real thing. (Watch the video, you’ll see what I mean.)
If, before this, I was perpetually horny, all of a sudden I was never in the mood for sexual intimacy with my boyfriend.
I still loved him, but he’d become more like a best friend. I just didn’t want to kiss or touch him. Months went by before I could understand what I was feeling, whether I was going through a temporary slump or I simply didn’t want him anymore.
I finally realized our sexual relationship had been completely eroded. It was a skeleton, only left standing because of his own, uncorrupted desire for me.
We broke up.
I spent my teens being ashamed of my condition and not talking about it with anyone.
Over the years, I went to a handful of different doctors who gave me each exactly zero useful information about what I was going through.
One delivered to me with a big smile the happy news that what I had was only psychological—that word again; another tried giving me anesthesia shots around my vulva hoping that it would ease the tension in my pelvic area so he could examine me properly—spoiler alert: it didn’t work; yet another one suggested, seeing my short, slicked back, light blue hair, that perhaps I was a lesbian, which would explain my repulsion for penises entering my vagina.
Sure. That’s what was wrong.
At the same time, I was afraid, and I wasn’t ready to face the problem practically: it took me years to start my own research about it.
I think I was secretly hoping it would just evaporate. It didn’t (duh). But eventually, as I started studying my own brain and understanding my psyche, things started slowly evolving. One finger could go in without pain, then two, until it actually felt good, not just uncomfortable. But then if I tried actual penile-vaginal intercourse, it was a no go.
A few months later, it all happened by chance, almost. I was hooking up with a guy, and we weren’t trying to “get it in” or anything. We were just enjoying each other. He was sort of massaging my vulva with his penis, and it felt good.
I wasn’t expecting anything else to happen, which is why I was very surprised when he said, “I’m inside.”
Granted, his was not the largest penis, but it was a penis. Any penis was better than no penis, at this point.
For the first time in my life, I had someone’s dick inside of me and was actually enjoying the feeling. After that, I went to the bathroom and cried with happiness.
I was 25 years old.
Well, At Least It Works?
Having finally gone through with the actual penetration (I wasn’t broken after all!) I thought things would only go exponentially better, but then I realized that healing is not a linear path. It depended on my mood, my hormones, my level of arousal, the context, the person I was with, his penis, our chemistry—or lack thereof. There were many more frustrating times after that, but with each one I learned something about my vaginismus, and I built on it.
I realized that the less pressure there was on me performing (i.e. being penetrated), the higher the possibility of it actually happening.
At some point, I was lucky enough to date a guy who was completely OK with me not wanting to try penetration right away, who was loving and understanding.
We also had great sexual chemistry, and were eventually able to have penetrative sex that I truly enjoyed.
What I discovered with him was a pull on my part towards rougher sex. I couldn’t explain it at first, but I realized that the further away I was from controlling my own body—something my mind wants to do all the time—the more pleasure I could experience. One day I asked him to grab my arms while I was face down on the bed—I wanted to feel powerless, unable to control the situation, to take my hands off the wheel.
There was a release, a freedom that came from that. Something shifted.
What was different?
This is too broad to get into it in now, but I do want to point out that since this is mainly a condition of the mind (even though the muscular reflexes have been memorized by your body and do need some help from you in being re-educated), playing with the idea of control might help loosen yours.
For me, introducing some forms of BDSM into my sex life has allowed me to, as it were, tone down the vagina micromanagement. “Good stress” as Naomi Wolf, author of the book Vagina, refers to “bondage and discipline, sadomasochistic play [and] submission fantasies” (when consensual, of course), is a wonderful way to distract the mind from everything that isn’t working (“Am I cold? My nose itches. What’s that smell? I think I heard the bell ring. Shit, I forgot to feed my cat!” playing ad infinitum) and into what is, into the present moment, into your senses.
As Emily Nagoski points out in her book Come As You Are, “If your partner spanks your butt while you’re in the middle of tying your toddler’s shoes, it’s annoying. But if your partner spanks your butt in the middle of sex, it can feel very, very sexy indeed. […] Sexual “submission” requires relaxing into trust […] and allowing your partner to take control.
In this explicitly erotic, highly trusting, and consensual context, your brain is open and receptive, ready to interpret any and all sensations as erotic.
And in a culture where women have to spend so much time with the brakes on, saying no, it’s no wonder we have fantasies about abandoning all control, relaxing into absolute trust […] and allowing ourselves to experience sensation.” (emphasis added)
After ending that relationship I spent 3 years willingly single. I needed to understand myself better, and I felt I couldn’t do that with a partner.
The next few years were confusing.
It’s hard for a single woman with vaginismus to find ways to experience her sexuality safely around others. So I sort of became celibate.
I spent a long time not even searching for sexual contact with others. That was quite freeing. But after a while it became its own cage. When I did want to engage with others again, I didn’t know how.
It was like I’d isolated myself for so long that I’d forgotten how to make contact.
I felt painfully related to Olivia Laing’s account of her period of extreme isolation living in New York city when I read The Lonely City (which I recommend, by the way.)
Coincidentally, I’d also moved to a new, huge city, and found it even harder to connect or feel close enough to someone to share my vaginismus. But I did, a couple of times, and my fears materialized. Men either ghosted me or said jokingly, after being sexually intimate with me, “We didn’t really have sex anyway.”
Sure, he was kidding, but it didn’t matter. I knew he meant it. We all do.
Finally, I sort of gave up.
I gave up on the idea of having any answers or fixing myself.
I started reading Nagoski’s book Come As You Are: The Surprising New Science That Will Transform Your Sex Life. Guess what. It did. The book isn’t about vaginismus or painful intercourse, although it mentions it in passing a couple of times. However, her outlook on self-acceptance made me question deeply my relationship with my sexuality, my body, my pleasure and my pain.
Although the book is mostly oriented towards getting cisgender women to understand and access their pleasure, and it does a great job at it, what changed me was towards the end of the book, right before the final conclusions.
There’s a section titled This is it. Nagoski says, “What if… this is a radical idea, but just go with me: what if you felt that way—“This is it”—about your sexual functioning? What if the sexuality you have right now is the sexuality you get? What if this is it? […] The day you were born, the world had a choice about what to teach you about your body. [T]he world taught you to feel critical of and dissatisfied with your sexuality and your body. You were taught to value and expect something from your sexuality that does not match what your sexuality actually is. You were told a story about what would happen in your sexual life, and that story was false. You were lied to.” And the final stroke: “It’s not how you feel. It’s how you feel about how you feel.”
Let me say that again: It’s not how you feel. It’s how you feel about how you feel.
She was right. I was choosing to be a victim of my condition. I was feeling guilty about feeling pain. But what if this was it for my sexuality? What if it never got better? Would I spend the rest of my life feeling sorry for myself, avoiding sexual intimacy out of fear of rejection?
How was this my fault? How was it my problem if men couldn’t deal with me not being able to receive vaginal penetration? Why should I feel bad about it at all?
So I decided to change my perspective: I took penetration off the table completely.
Instead of seeing it as a limitation, I embraced it as a choice. Instead of portraying myself as a victim to my situation, I decided to accept my body the way it was.
It changed everything.
Shall We Talk About It Now?
I’d never seen vaginismus openly portrayed in pop culture until I saw this episode of Netflix’s show Sex Education. I felt it was somehow revolutionary. I’m serious.
We don’t talk about vaginismus, nobody tells you what it is or how to treat it. Most doctors don’t really know much about it.
I guess female pleasure is not a priority: we are expected to be resilient to pain (to prepare for childbirth), but if intercourse is painful for women, that doesn’t seem to be an issue important enough for doctors to care about.
Nagoski quotes Caroline Pukall, coauthor of When Sex Hurts: A Woman’s Guide to Banishing Sexual Pain on this matter: “She pointed out that some women tolerate pain with sex “just because they have this belief that, “I guess some pain is to be expected .” ”
“She went on, “There’s something about women bearing pain longer than they need to,” perhaps in other domains of their life, as well as in sex. They tolerate pain because they think that is their only option, that effective treatments aren’t available (they are!), or that the hassle of seeking treatment isn’t worth the potential benefit (it is!).
And medical professionals sometimes reinforce this tendency by not taking pain seriously or assuming that if there is no infection or injury, the pain is “all in her head.” ” And so you grow up feeling broken, malfunctioning, and assume it like a sexual death sentence.
If the people who are supposed to take care of your health and reproductive wellbeing don’t talk about it, why would you? Why would you think it’s OK to talk about it?
You don’t really know what it is that you have, there seems to be no apparent cure, you don’t even understand the root of the problem, but you’re expected to be able to have sex like everyone else around you.
So you do what patriarchy taught you: you feel shame.
You feel like an aberration. It becomes a secret.
You don’t want to tell your family or your friends. You wouldn’t even know how to explain it. When you do, people don’t really get it, you can see it in their faces, and the best they can do is brush it off saying things like, “Just keep trying, it always hurts in the beginning.” Because, again, pain is to be expected if you’re a woman, and we should bear it, as the cosmic punishment for being born with a vagina. Whether it is sexual pain, abuse from our partner, unwanted pregnancies: society simply expects us to put up with it.
Whenever you tell guys you’ve started dating about your vaginismus, they look at you as if you were an alien. This only makes you feel more broken and alone: nobody seems to understand that the pain and discomfort you feel are not something you can just “push through”. It’s as if at your vaginal gate there was a keeper who will not let anyone pass. A vaginal Gandalf, if you will.
It’s non-negotiable. Each time you try, everything shuts down.
It’s not just the pain: there is no way in. It’s as if, suddenly, there was no gate, no vagina, no space whatsoever.
“This Is It”
Marian Wright Edelman said, “You can’t be what you can’t see.” She was referring to being a black woman in a culture where women of color aren’t portrayed in positions of power or leadership, but in a way that statement could also be applied to other kinds of invisibility: if you don’t see people with your same struggles portrayed in the media, and nobody talks about them, it’s very hard to find your way, understand your body, come up with a solution.
It took me 13 years to come to terms with this condition, and I mostly did it alone.
But we don’t have to.
More women than we think suffer from painful intercourse, whether it starts with their first attempt at penetration or is triggered by an event later in life (in this case it wouldn’t be vaginismus precisely but a broader term to encompass all intercourse pain and its different causes: dyspareunia).
Visibility is the first and most powerful step in deconstructing toxic narratives. Let’s talk about this. Let’s share our stories. Let’s be seen.
Let’s re-educate our minds and our culture to understand that female pleasure does matter, independently of procreation, and that sex isn’t just penile-vaginal intercourse.
Foreplay is sex.
Virginity is a construct, the hymen is not as important as you thought, and you should always, always have some lube at hand—Oh, did I forget to mention? Lube makes life better.*
*Quoting (well, paraphrasing) again our beloved Emily Nagoski: even if you’ve done everything right (aka prolonged foreplay with the right partner) and you feel at the top of your arousal, your body might not create enough lubricant to sustain an extended session of intercourse, and that’s OK! Just buy some good lube, slather it on, and have fun! No shame.
So ask yourself: how are you feeling? And how do you feel about how you feel? Make a choice to let those feelings be OK. Whatever they are. It won’t change things with the snap of a finger.
But beginning that process is the most important thing you can do.
For you, and for other women as well.
Now that you know that there are many more of us out there, and that you can reach out and talk about it, remember that penetration is just one way of getting pleasure, and the fact that some people might think it’s the only way or the best way shouldn’t stop you from having lots and lots of delicious orgasms.
– Fiamma Aleotti (31 years old, Berlin, Germany)
If you’re still unclear about what vaginismus is, here are some interesting pieces on the topic:
My Body Won’t Let Me Have Sex
The Making of Tightly Wound
Vaginismus: The “Myth” of Sexual Disorders
And some recommended reads:
Come As You Are: The Surprising New Science that Will Transform Your Sex Life, Emily Nagoski
Becoming Cliterate: Why Orgasm Equality Matters—And How to Get It, Laurie Mintz
Wild Feminine: Finding Power, Spirit, & Joy in the Root of the Female Body, Tami Lynn Kent