I picked up the pen my doctor dropped underneath the table. “Thank you, it’s a bit harder to bend over these days.” I smiled, not being able to imagine what it would be like to be eight months pregnant—I suddenly felt a little more grateful for my copper IUD.
She led me behind the blue cotton curtains and I lay down for my annual pap smear.
Six months earlier, sex had started to feel different. It was a slow progression. I tried to brush it off, thinking there wasn’t enough foreplay or that I was too tired. It didn’t feel like something serious. While usually I err on the side of caution (or some would say I was approaching the diagnostic criteria of hypochondria), I didn’t think anything of my symptoms at the time.
I off-handedly brought the pain up to my doctor, when she commented that my muscles were unusually tight as she took out the speculum. Concerned, she faxed the local radiology clinic for me to have a pelvic ultrasound.
“Well, the good news is that I’ve reviewed your ultrasound and there isn’t anything concerning.”
“That’s a relief I guess. Is it just in my head?”
“Your body is having an involuntary contraction that tightens your vagina and surrounding muscles, it’s called vaginismus.”
“What can I do?”
“Pelvic physiotherapy will help you a lot, women who are pregnant and preparing for birthing use it or people with bladder problems are also people who benefit from it. For now try using a lot of lubricant, going very slowly, and take ibuprofen before having penetrative sex.”
At first, I tried to brush it off. I laughed with my friends, telling them that my only problem was that “my p*ssy is literally too tight!”
After a while, the joke I kept repeating to myself and others lost its charm. It had gotten to the point where I couldn’t even fit my own finger inside myself. I couldn’t understand what was happening to my body.
In the past four months, I’ve spent approximately $900 on physiotherapy, cognitive behavioural therapy, lubricants, and pain medications. While I was lucky that my health care was covered by my private health insurance and provincial health insurance, I was racked with guilt for what feels like unnecessary costs. I didn’t need to be having penetrative sex.
Recalling the few sexual health classes I had taken in highschool, I felt broken, I couldn’t do the one thing I was biologically made for doing. Aside from the discomfort I felt when I had sex for the first time, I never had pain during sex before my vaginismus developed. I was scared this would last my whole life. There was a part of me that remained nervous almost every time I’m sexual with my partner; hyper-sensitive to every touch that got close to being too deep inside me.
After I was diagnosed, I immediately turned to the internet. It was divided into two sections; “vaginismus-has-made-me-miserable-forever” and “as-a-feminist-you-should-contact-911”.
Of the latter group, there were an overwhelming amount of pro-feminist, sex positive websites that instructed me pain should not be something I associate with sex. That there was something definitely wrong and I needed medical attention. That if a penis hurts, your partner sucks, you should dump him, and find a man who can actually please you. That it was medieval to say that pain in sex is okay and that women should merely put up with it. These responses are appropriate in many, many contexts–except, in mine.
Often, vaginismus starts from a fear of pain that inevitably prompts pain. None of these ‘resources’ really explained to me how to deal with associating physical pain with sex. I kept trying to push through it despite the protests of my physiotherapist and my partner.
I thought maybe I could get used to the feeling of being raw and sore but my pre-existing depression and anxiety only deepened. I cried nearly every night I shared with him, always insistent on my pleasure and comfort, he would just hold me until I drifted away into sleep. I would exhaust myself with the question- was it the expectation to perform sex just from greater societal pressures of femininty that made vaginismus feel so terrible? I desperately needed someone to tell me it was okay to still want penetrative sex, to want to accept pain in exchange for intimacy. Would I have believed anyone who said that? No, but it was something I couldn’t let go of.
When I began writing this article, my expected timeline for recovery was about to be complete. I wanted to be a success story. I couldn’t wait to write about my journey and to describe the complete joy I felt in overcoming vaginismus—but I haven’t. Progress can be slow. There are days that are much worse than others, both emotionally and physically, though when it comes to vaginismus, it’s difficult to delineate between the two.
Rationally, I know many people don’t engage in penetrative sex and there are a plethora of other forms. Plenty of women live with vaginismus. The external validation from my partner wasn’t enough for me to accept my body, and the change in our sexual lives. It’s something I have to do on my own. Because hating your body isn’t sustainable.
While I wish I had the closure that came along with ‘fixing’ vaginismus, I’ve come to realize that no one should ever make you feel as if you are having sex the wrong way, let alone yourself. This article isn’t meant to be a guide on how to cope, but an affirmation that your perceptions can be at odds with the normative values around you. And That Is Okay.