When I had penetrative sex for the first time, I experienced what many women do: pain. First a sharp one, then a dull soreness that stayed with me for days. Two days after the incident, I was still bleeding and consumed by fear. Would I have to experience this pain all over again the next time I had sex?
That day, I asked my mom to book my first appointment with a gynecologist. “It hurts to put tampons in,” I explained, and then insisted that I was suddenly too old for her to accompany me into the doctor’s office. She was kind enough to believe my lie.
I was nervous and tragically uninformed about the ins and outs of a gynecological exam—so much so that when the nurse told me to take off my clothes and change into the provided gown, I actually started disrobing in front of her. By the time the doctor came in, I had sweat through the thin gown, leaving wet marks on the paper that covered the examination chair.
I explained to the doctor that I was in pain both during and after losing my virginity, and that I was scared to try again. “Was he big?” she asked, as if we were friends gushing over brunch. I told her I didn’t have a point of reference.
When she got between my legs to examine me, she inhaled sharply. “What is it?” I asked, propping myself up on my forearms. She poked my vagina with one gloved finger. “You had sex with this? Ouchie.” At that point, I considered asking her to surgically reconstruct the damn thing. “What’s wrong with it?” I asked. “It just seems like it would hurt,” she said without further explanation.
I was so sore that the doctor did not try to continue the examination. She then announced her prescription: numbing cream.
I pulled out the notes application on my phone to keep track of her instructions, since we agreed she wouldn’t upload them to the online patient portal where my mom could see. “You’ll rub the cream on before you have sex, wait 10 minutes, and then make sure you take it all off with a washcloth or something,” she explained. “Is it dangerous to leave it on longer?” I asked. She laughed, “No sweetie, you just don’t want it to get on his penis, or he won’t be able to feel anything.” I dutifully typed “don’t get on dick” in my notes app. Little did I know, my doctor would go on to upload all the details of my appointment to the patient portal.
Unsurprisingly, the idea of rubbing medical-grade numbing ointment on what I was convinced was a defective vagina did not arouse me. I left the appointment dreading sex even more than I did before. Worse—I lost hope that it could improve. I placed so much trust in this doctor, the most knowledgeable source I could think of, that I was convinced there was nowhere left to turn.
In retrospect, my vagina was probably irritated from having penetrative sex for the first time without using lubricant. My gynecologist’s words (“You had sex with this?”) were likely in reaction to the inflammation she saw, not to some inherent defect in my genitals. But since none of this was made clear to me, I found myself googling vaginoplasties on the ride home from the doctor’s office. Thankfully, I didn’t have the guts to ask my mom to book that appointment.
I resented my first gynecologist for years for prescribing me a numbing cream because I believed (and still do) that I deserved to feel good during sex. I couldn’t imagine a world in which a man would be told to have numb, pleasureless sex a couple times before getting to the good stuff.
However, I feel guilty sharing this story because I am aware of the fact that the situation could have been much, much worse. Women’s pain is consistently dismissed by medical professionals, and I very well could have been told “it gets better” and sent on my way. Comparatively, I was given an aggressive treatment plan. I later learned that the numbing cream I was prescribed is commonly used by people who suffer from chronic conditions that make penetrative sex unbearably painful, such as vaginismus. People with vaginismus usually seek a prescription for a strong numbing cream after trying various lubricants, over-the-counter creams, and dilators to no avail.
I now understand that, for many, the alternative to numb sex may be excruciatingly painful sex. I wonder if the doctor thought she was sparing me months—possibly even years—of painful attempts at intercourse. Perhaps she wanted to save me the trouble of trying various lubricants, over-the-counter creams, and dilators. Maybe she saw a woman in pain and believed her.
Still, my doctor did not explain what the medication she prescribed was commonly used for, nor did she outline any alternative treatment options. She failed to make me feel comfortable at a time when I felt broken and strange. Finally, she broke doctor-patient confidentiality—a serious mistake that, at best, could have made things awkward with my family and, at worst, could have jeopardized my safety. I changed gynecologists and I have no regrets.
Given the lack of proper sex education and the stigma surrounding sex, doctors are often on the front line of defense against sexual discomfort and misinformation, making it all the more important that they handle the subject with care. Accompanying examinations and prescriptions with reassurances and explanations is a crucial step towards demystifying sex. Nobody should have to suffer through painful sex in the hopes of one day experiencing pleasurable sex. But the reality is that many women do. Doctors need to assure patients that their bodies aren’t defective, without normalizing their pain.