All photos courtesy of the author
My high school boyfriend David* and I tried absolutely everything. Lube, red wine, scented candles, pot, Portishead’s Glory Box on repeat, breathing exercises, clitoral stimulation, vicodin, staring into each other’s eyes and repeating, “I love you, it’s OK.” None of it worked. I had a healthy teenage libido, meaning I was horny pretty much 24/7, but my body reacted to penetration like that of a decrepit elderly woman. I would be wet and excited and ready to have sex, but then my lil slip ‘n’ slide would close for the day, unannounced and without remorse.
Besides the defeating nature of not being able to perform coitus, the physical pain and labor was equally grueling. Trying to have sex felt like hot acid being funneled inside of my canal and emotionally manifesting into complete loneliness. It left me feeling isolated, inadequate, and, for lack of a better word, fucked.
I soon learned why it would always be hard to have sex: I had vaginismus, a psychosomatic disorder where the pelvic floor muscles involuntarily tighten when attempting penetration. Symptoms of both vaginismus and erectile dysfunction have been recorded for centuries. Men have been taking a pill to pop their peens for years, but the only two options available for vaginismus are therapy and dilators, both of which are subjective treatments with no given timeline for when penetration will be possible. Telling someone you have this affliction isn’t exactly the best icebreaker on a first date, and its venereal-disease-esque name doesn’t help matters.
The idea of any foreign object inside of me caused involuntarily spasms. I tried my first tampon when I was 15 and it took 45 minutes, two friends, and a hysterical panic attack until my friend Erica managed to pull it out of me on her bathroom floor.
“It was barely inside of her anyway and she was on the floor screaming!” Erica laughed as she retold the story to our friends and strangers for years to come. Although the story always invited unwelcome strangers to interrogate my vagina, she was the one who pulled a giant piece of bloody cotton out from inside of me. In a “balancing the universe” type of way, I guess we were even.
The author and her high school boyfriend at Disneyland
Although the disorder isn’t well documented, it’s actually one of the most common sexual dysfunctions among women. Doctors estimate that approximately 2 in 1000 women will experience vaginismus, but since most women are embarrassed of their built-in chastity belt, they’re afraid to ask for help. Some women actually never experience penetrative sex because of their feelings of sexual incompetence. For a few years I thought I would be one of them.
I’ve repressed most of my failed attempts, but one of the most prominent memories I can’t seem to bury occurred on the eve of my 18th birthday. David and I checked into a Disneyland hotel, and although we tried for two years prior, I hoped, like a backward Cinderella story, when the clock stroke 12 my impenetrable pumpkin would turn into a golden rimmed, open carriage. That hour and a half consisted of ten different positions, two panic attacks, and an icepack for my little storm trooper, but nothing changed. The following morning I was given an “It’s My Birthday!” pin, which inspired countless impromptu Happy Birthday songs from Disney characters.
I didn’t care about sex. I couldn’t care about sex. Virginity wasn’t anything sacred to me; instead, it was my biggest burden.
I had warning signs throughout my life before I realized my inability to “do it.” For instance, I never fingered myself. I still don’t. It always hurt whenever I attempted but I shrugged it off as something I “just wasn’t into.” However, I was sexually satisfied with myself in other ways. When I was eight I accidentally discovered the pleasures of rubbin’ and tuggin’ my blanket. The premiere of Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century was on the Disney Channel and I experienced my own definition of a supernova girl. I was so ecstatic about my new discovery that I called all of my friends and taught them my new trick. Yes, I was “that girl” at your daughter’s fourth grade sleepover party, and to the concerned mothers of Sherman Oaks, California, I’m sorry.
The only information I had on vaginismus in my time of need came from my therapist, WebMD, Wikipedia, Yahoo Answers, and, weirdly enough, my mother. Vaginismus is not genetic, but my mom had also experienced it. The affliction was so under-researched that her doctors, dumbfounded and ill-equipped, thought it would be best to sedate her with a general anesthetic and have a surrogate penis penetrate her. When she told me the story my vagina cringed like a raisin, not only because I had just listened to my mother describe being “penetrated,” but because it made me consider that I too might one day have to ask my gyno to drug me up and get me laid. But my mother came of age in Australia in the 80s—things were different back then.
“But how did you get over it?” I would constantly ask my mother, hoping for a different answer. Maybe something involving concrete steps and not a disembodied dick.
“I don’t know… I just did.”
Similar to my mom, I’m not certain how I overcame it. David and I broke up, our teen love unconsummated. I was 18 and expected to live my life without sex; without understanding what it means to “connect” and without having my own children. Unless I scouted boys with purity rings I considered myself undateable and in a sense, unlovable. However, it took one shitty comment from one shitty boyfriend to help me break down my vaginal walls of defeat and tame the beast.
Sean was my supervisor at work. He was 22 with a Bright Eyes tattoo and a promiscuous history. I was 18 with a Pavement ringtone and an empty black book. He knew about my condition, but most men I told assumed I was lying or took it as the ultimate conquest. At this point, I didn’t care about sex. I couldn’t care about sex. Virginity wasn’t anything sacred to me; instead, it was my biggest burden.
Although he repeatedly told me he didn’t care that we couldn’t have sex when we first started dating, he grew more frustrated as time passed. “We’re not in high school behind the bleachers,” he said with scorn after I offered him a pathetic handjob. He rolled over. I cried. David was a young boy when we dated and always remained understanding and patient, but Sean was older, experienced, and resentful.
The next day was Passover. Probably one of the least sexually arousing holidays, but after my Seder with my family, Sean nonchalantly asked if I wanted to “do it.” I pulled up my long skirt and kept my shirt on, thinking I could make a run for it after another failed attempt, but it happened. It actually happened. It was the most anticlimactic but life-affirming experience I’ve had to date. It was never how I envisioned it: 7 PM with my family in the next room and “Bulls on Parade” (his choice) playing loudly after eating boiled eggs and horseradish, but it was everything to me. It wasn’t about him, or the time, or the fact that I lost my virginity while listening to Rage Against the Machine. It wasn’t anything else other than I finally felt sexually adequate—not for anyone else, but for myself.
I still have difficulty depending on the situation, but most of the time it works. Even in the throes of the act itself, sex can be painful and uncomfortable no matter how much lube and foreplay is involved. Although my mom emotionally supported me throughout the years, there are only so many times a teenage daughter can cry to her mother about not being able to fuck. If vaginismus were something discussed publicly without the fear of shame or judgment, I would have felt less like an anomaly of a woman and a burden of a girlfriend. I would have felt safer and more secure in my disability. No woman, at any age, should fear her vagina.
By Jamie Manelis for Vice