Inspired by the upcoming performance of The Vagina Monologues at CMC, this will be the first in a series of Forum articles by women at CMC about women and sexuality. If you’re interested in contributing an article on these topics, contact us at [email protected]
Let’s talk about sex, baby.
There’s a scene in 30 Rock where Tina Fey’s character tells another character that after an event with her boyfriend, her lady parts shut down. “It’s like Fort Knox down there,” she says, describing the impossibility of penetration after seeing a poster related to her childhood. While this scene is hilarious, it also points to something that we, as a community, don’t really talk about: pain during sex for women.
It may come as a surprise to some of you, but sex can hurt. No, I’m not talking about BDSM; I’m talking about what happens when women’s vaginas actually shut down. Some of you will probably close this article, thinking that it’s not relevant to you, but hear me out: I have vaginismus. Ever heard of it? Probably not.
When I was seventeen, I tried to have sex with my longterm boyfriend. We loved each other and were extremely comfortable together, both physically and emotionally. I wasn’t nervous about having penetrative sex for the first time; I was excited to lose my virginity with someone I loved. We were excitedly on my basement couch, and then… nothing. He couldn’t enter me, and I was in excruciating pain. The summer went on, with my boyfriend and I finding ourselves incapable of doing what we thought everyone else on Earth could do.
Finally, I broke down to my mother, who took me to a gynecologist, who told me that I needed a hymenectomy, because I had a thick hymenal ring (which means that even after the hymen is broken, the flesh where the hymen was attached is thickened and makes penetration difficult). I waited almost a year, got the operation, waited, and again tried to have penetrative sex. These attempts with my high school boyfriend were met by tears and heartbreak, as I realized all over again that the surgery hadn’t helped, and that I wasn’t cured as I had expected to be.
I went back to the gynecologist, who told me that I probably had something called vaginismus. I had heard a little about vaginismus and was terrified. At that time, last summer, what I knew about vaginismus was that it was a psychosomatic condition; I also thought that it meant I would never be able to have “normal” (penetrative) sex. I was scared. Terrified, actually, even though I had a lot of support from my family and boyfriend. I felt alone again, isolated from what I considered “normal” womanhood, thinking I was just built in a way that made me incapable of completing the one action that was human, that would make me feel like a woman.
When I got back to school in the fall, I started to read about vaginismus, in books like Seven Steps to Pain Free Sex and Private Pain—titles that produced extreme anxiety even as I ordered them on Amazon. Within five pages of whatever book I picked up first, I was sobbing with relief. These books are filled with testimony from other women who have experienced almost exactly what I have, written by men and women who understood what I was going through. I discovered that I wasn’t alone, and that thousands upon thousands of women also feel isolated and incapable.
I also learned that I was lucky; my gynecologist, though not an expert, knew what vaginismus was and didn’t tell me things like “it’s all in your head,” or “take a Xanax before trying to have sex.” I learned that there are treatment centers that treat vaginismus as a physical problem and address it with physical therapy, rather than treating women with the condition as hysterical or suffering from severe anxiety. One can have vaginismus without having had a traumatic sexual event, like rape or childbirth (not that those are at all the same experience), and be like me, simply having the condition since childhood. I have what’s called primary vaginismus, which means that the condition didn’t stem from any particular event; thousands of other women suffer from the same condition and recover by basically doing physical therapy for their “lady parts.”
Sex shouldn’t hurt. I didn’t know that, for far too long, because we don’t talk about women experiencing pain during sex. Women experiencing pleasure during sex has only been considered important or worth talking about in our society since the Sexual Revolution of the early 1970s; it’s still considered normal for women to be in pain, especially the first few times they have penetrative sex—but it’s not normal. We shouldn’t be told that we’re just anxious, or need to relax or get drunk before we try to have heterosexual sex. We shouldn’t have to keep this a secret. We shouldn’t be afraid to talk about pain during sex with our friends, family, or doctors. We shouldn’t be ashamed to have vaginismus, or talk about vaginal pain. This should be something we talk about, and don’t feel alone experiencing.
I want to take a moment to explain why I wrote this article anonymously. I am not ashamed to have vaginismus, and I’m not afraid to talk about my vaginismus. I want as many women as possible across the Claremont Colleges to feel comfortable talking about sex and their comfort levels during sex. I want women to know that they shouldn’t be ashamed of having vaginismus or any other gynecological condition. That said, I felt like I needed to publish this anonymously because I’m scared to be the first one to talk about it publicly.
Before I started going out of my way to find out more about vaginismus, I didn’t really know what it was, and I certainly didn’t know that most women have pain during sex. One in every 500 women have vaginismus, and that’s only the women who have been officially diagnosed with the condition. Before I became an active member in the vaginismus community and started monitoring message boards for information or testimony from other women, I was convinced I was the only one experiencing this pain; that points to a huge problem in our society. I should’ve known about vaginismus or other vaginal pain conditions before I started researching it, I shouldn’t have felt alone and isolated with the condition, and I shouldn’t feel like I’m the only one at the 5Cs who’s talking about women having pain during penetrative sex, but because our society and our college community don’t talk about women’s sexuality or sexual organs without a fair bit of secrecy, I didn’t know any of that.
The 5C community has made great strides since I’ve been enrolled here in opening discussion about mental health, heteronormativity, and consent (not that we aren’t still struggling in all of those arenas), but we still don’t have a community in which women feel comfortable talking about their bodies, and in which women can talk about pain during sex without feel “abnormal” or isolated. I’m not scared of anyone finding out I have vaginismus and can’t have sex until I’m finished with physical therapy, but I also don’t want to be known as Vagina Girl, and I don’t necessarily want everyone to know about my personal medical problems. I wrote this article anonymously because opening a dialogue and a conversation about women’s sexuality shouldn’t mean I have to feel pressured to share something so personal, but it should mean that there is a space in our community and with our friends such that should someone want to share, they’re not afraid to. So let’s end the culture of silence about this, and let’s talk about sex.
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