Fair warning: the following post is about sex and is somewhat explicit.
I can remember only one time in high school that I tried to wear a tampon. I grabbed one of my mom’s, sat on the toilet, and tried to put it in. It wouldn’t go. I remember it just felt tight and uncomfortable. Confused and slightly embarrassed (what girl doesn’t even know how to wear a tampon?), I gave up and went back to wearing pads.
That was the beginning of my story of vaginismus, although it would be a long time before I learned that word. The definition of vaginismus is “vaginal tightness causing discomfort, burning, pain, penetration problems, or complete inability to have intercourse.” It can cause extremely uncomfortable sex and can also interfere with pelvic exams or (as I learned) wearing tampons.
Vaginismus put an incredible burden on my romantic and sexual life. It left me feeling guilty that I couldn’t have sex with my partner even when I wanted to. I felt like my own body was sabotaging me. I want to tell you my story of trying to have a sexual relationship with vaginismus. If you’re going through what I did, I want you to know that you’re not alone, and it can get better.
I was incredibly fortunate to have a respectful and caring partner who listened and took me very seriously when I said “Wait” or “It hurts.” He was also patient enough to work with me through the nearly three-year process before we actually had sex.*
(*I think it’s worth saying that the definition of “real sex” is weird and unclear. My partner and I certainly had a physical relationship during that time, but it consisted mostly of hand jobs. We tried to have PIV sex a number of times, but weren’t able to for more than two and a half years. The fact that I was brought up to view penetrative sex as “real sex” contributed to my anxiety and sense of inadequacy during that period.)
At first, I thought I just had to suffer through the pain. Losing your virginity is supposed to hurt, right? (Feminist news flash: No.) But it hurt too much for me to just bear it, and my partner was not comfortable penetrating me while I lay there with tears streaming down my cheeks. I felt miserable. I felt like I was letting my partner down (to his credit, he never ever told me this). I felt like I was at war with my own body. It’s hard to be a sex-positive feminist when all the enthusiastic consent in the world isn’t helping.
Eventually, I talked to a gynecologist about this when I went to get a pap smear. She suggested that I get a vaginal dilator–basically, a vibrator with interchangeable heads that vary in size from about half an inch to about two inches. You start with the smallest one, and when it is no longer uncomfortable, you move up to the next size.
The dilator helped, but it was a very slow process and I was impatient. (I just wanted to have sex! It wasn’t supposed to require a training regimen!) It was also easy to get discouraged and not use the dilator regularly; low self-esteem was a major contributing problem. My partner gently encouraged me to keep trying. We would lie in bed together and watch TV while I tried to get my lady-parts to cooperate.
Things slowly improved, and my partner and I tried PIV sex a couple of times only to decide it was too painful and we needed to wait longer. Finally, we succeeded. It was still uncomfortable, but when I saw a little red spot on the sheets, I was honestly overjoyed. (The blood freaked my partner out more than a little.) Since then, the sex has gotten better and better. I’ve learned what I need to do for my body to be comfortable and ready for sex.
Here are the take-aways I’ve learned from having vaginismus:
- This is a problem that other women have. I’m not alone, and it’s not my fault. I wish we would talk more about sexual dysfunction in feminist spaces because I was feeling so much shame and had no one to talk to.
- Knowledge is power. Sorry for the cliché, but it’s true. If you don’t know your problem has a name, you can’t possibly find healthy and meaningful solutions.
- Taking the time to use a dilator or other treatments can make a huge difference. It’s essentially training the body not to tighten up during penetration.
- Foreplay, foreplay, foreplay. Do you know what relaxes the pelvic floor, gets the blood flowing, and eases penetration? Arousal. The more time my partner and I spend on foreplay, the more comfortable I am when we get to the penetration itself. Plus, it’s really fun and gratifying for both of us.
- Being on top has helped for me because I have more control over the angle and rate of penetration. Often, my partner and I will start out with me-on-top and then move to other positions when I’m more relaxed and open.
Obviously, this is my story. I am not a doctor, and I can’t speak for anyone else’s medical conditions. I encourage you to read more. Or, better yet, talk to your own doctor about it. If you think you might suffer from vaginismus yourself, I know the impact it can have on your relationships, your sex life, and your self-image. The good news is, there are ways to deal with it, and it is possible to have a satisfying sex life with vaginismus.