A gentle blossom of blood comes away on the toilet paper. Standing up stings a little, like my skin is raw and torn. I curse my drunken self for her lack of care, for her over-enthusiasm and empty assurances and willingness to push through her boundaries. And then I curse my current self, because I realise we’re the same person. Not just because we’re both still drunk, but because I know I’d do exactly the same thing when I’m sober.
“Yeah, it hurts a little, but you can keep going!”
No, I’m not on my period, and no, I didn’t just lose my virginity. This is what it’s like for me almost every single time I have sex, and it’s bullshit. I have a condition called vaginismus, which is a word that basically means my vaginal muscles contract and sex hurts me – a lot. It’s a shitty word because it doesn’t explain why these misbehaving pelvic muscles of mine do what they do, and therefore doesn’t imply how I can fix it. It’s a shitty word, but I take it because it’s the closest thing I can get to a reason for why this happens. And I’ve been searching for a reason for a really long time.
I couldn’t use tampons when I first I got my period. I’d stand awkwardly with one leg on the toilet for an hour at a time, trying to ease it inside myself. I’d coat it in Vaseline, try applicators, try no applicator, searched endlessly for the smallest possible tampon but nothing worked. I was reassured millions of times that it would get easier after I had sex for the first time.
But I didn’t get to “lose my virginity” in one fell swoop. There was no definable before and after – it happened painfully over dozens of occasions. I was fifteen when I first tried to have sex. It didn’t work the first time, and it didn’t work the time after, or even ten times after that. I thought maybe I was just being a crybaby, because it’s supposed to hurt your first time, right? But there was this niggling doubt in my head. Even as I apologised to my partner, promised myself I would toughen up next time, I thought… surely, my vagina isn’t supposed to snap shut like vice. It’s not supposed to be like pressing against a brick wall, or feel like I’m being ripped open upon the slightest pressure. Surely I’m not exaggerating.
I kept putting up with it until I was 17. I tried hundreds of times and it hurt almost every single time, to varying degrees. Eventually I tentatively started googling. I spent a lot of time reading feminist stuff online about owing your sexuality and your body. I wanted to be like all those powerful, sensual women whose writing and art I taped around my room and read late into the night. I wanted to act on this problem from a place of self-love and improvement. But I let myself down, because when I was spurred to act, it was mostly out of guilt rather than love.
I felt like I’d emotionally manipulated my partner, and trapped him in a relationship from which he could not receive sexual satisfaction. I felt like he just kept having sex with me because he didn’t want me to feel bad or unfuckable or something. Every time we tried to be intimate felt like an enormous gamble – would it end in a big wave of relief, or would we just further widen the growing space between us? Would we fall asleep holding each other, or on opposite sides of the bed trying not to cry too loudly? I was sick of the cloud that surrounded sex in my brain, and feeling like I’d be filled with regret and anxiety no matter what choice I made.
I started researching tentatively, and came across the word ‘vaginismus.’ It sounded vaguely right, so I wrote it down on a piece of paper along with all my symptoms and vivid dot-points of where and how and when I was hurting. I took it to my doctor and she listened patiently with sympathetic eyes and a practical, detached approach that was reassuring. She seemed so clipped and organised with her questions that I felt like it was routine. She spoke like there was a diagnosis and solution waiting at the end of the appointment, like a clean stretch of road after a bunch of roadworks. Not quite at the destination yet, but it’s smoother sailing and you don’t have to pay as much attention.
She wanted to have a look and see if it was a physical obstruction or abnormality. I came back the next week in my school uniform, and pulled my tights down around my knees and lay on the bed. Cold gloved fingers, a speculum and fifteen painful minutes later, she told me “everything seemed physically normal.” I guess I should’ve been relieved, but I cried on the bus home into my school bag. Maybe it was ungrateful of me and I should have been happy that I was at least born healthy. But I just felt like having no definable problem also meant to definable solution. I felt even more lost than I had before going to the doctors. It was like one of the comforting possible explanations I’d listed down for myself had been eliminated, and I was getting closer to being left without an answer.
She gave me a referral to a physio – a little piece of paper crammed with unintelligible scrawl, except for the word dyspareunia, which seemed like an overly polite word for what I was experiencing. It sounded like the word for a little bothersome niggle, or something neurotic or imagined. It sounded unimportant, and I was in my final year of school – I had bigger fish to fry than my misbehaving vagina. I was busy with assignments and constantly stressed. I tricked myself into thinking I could just ignore this problem and it would go away. I guess the logic was “if I stop thinking of it as a problem, then it can’t affect my mental health.” Fat chance, basically.
I ended up at that physio six months later, despite Year 12 paling in comparison to juggling two jobs and uni. Turns out no matter how busy you are, you can’t just ignore your libido and crippling self-doubt forever – you’ll completely ruin any semblance of physical trust and intimacy that you had in your relationship. Although I was kind of a very repressed emotional wreck about everything at this point, My physiotherapist was very kind and reassuring – and a women’s health specialist, so I felt pretty safe. But no matter how lovely your doctor is, being fingered by a stranger for thirty minutes is pretty invasive. The appointments were exhausting, and I’d leave early to get to them so I could sit in the car and psych myself up for 20 minutes beforehand.
She gave me exercises and recommendations, to practice controlling and relaxing my muscles consciously instead of just letting them seize up. On her recommendation, I bought some dilators to practice at home. That’s another whole experience to write about – trying to find some that didn’t look like surgical instruments proved to be incredibly challenging. I religiously washed them, practised with them, and washed them again every night, keeping them in my bedside table wrapped carefully in a microfibre towel. This and the regular appointments lulled me into the feeling that I was making decent progress. After a little while, my doctor left on maternity leave. She gave me a whole list of other women’s health specialists to go to, and recommended I keep up the practice at home. I felt confident and told her I was lucky, because I had a partner who was keen to work on it with me.
I guess maybe keen wasn’t the right choice of words in the end. He was certainly willing, but finding time and privacy between juggling our uni schedules, sports and work was basically impossible. After a few months of half-hearted attempts, my partner lost his job and fell into a mental slump. Intimacy plummeted to the bottom of our priorities. I started to feel like there was no point practising, even by myself, and the dilators lay unused in my drawer for months.
Shortly after, I went overseas to study for two months. My partner wanted to work on himself whilst I was away: looking for a job, prioritising his health and getting his shit together. He asked that I give him space and resources whilst I was away so that he could fulfil these goals. I was excited that he was trying to help himself, and I wanted to work on myself too. I had wanted to for months with his support, but he just didn’t have the mental space for it. So now, with physical space between us, I asked for an open relationship. I wanted to practice intimacy with others and learn to communicate and relax, so that I could come home more enthusiastic and kinder to myself.
He hated the suggestion, and took it to mean I didn’t think he was enough sexually. I think you’re supposed to deny that, to reassure your partner. But the reality of it was that he wasn’t at that time. I could see I wasn’t a priority to him. Not through any malice or intentional neglect, but simply through a lack of mental space and energy. And I wasn’t a priority to myself either.
I tried to bring it up gently and get used to talking about it, but he always pushed it away. Even the slightest thought of it or the most innocuous possible question made him sick and clam up. The gentle part of me understood and waited and softly, gently prodded him towards productive conversation. But another part of me was seething. How dare you demand exclusivity, when you clearly can’t provide for me at this time. I wanted him to be grateful I did not take that neglect personally, and was taking steps to work through it instead of abandoning it as a lost cause. I felt as if I was giving him the space he needed for self-improvement, but he was not doing the same for me.
He said I could “do whatever I wanted”, but also simultaneously said he “wasn’t fine with it”. I had no idea what that meant, really, so I just decided to do what I felt I needed. He didn’t want to hear about anything that happened. I guess that made sense at the time and I thought I could manage that. But it sort of bothered me that my progress had to come between us, in the form of words and experiences unsaid and un-shared. I know it’s ‘different,’ but it felt unfair that he could tell me about his progress in the gym, and looking for jobs, and eating better – but I couldn’t say a word about this whole new world I’d opened up for myself.
Casual sex has been a really weird world for me as someone with this condition. I haven’t been able to have penetrative sex with anybody so far. I’m not very good at ‘owning it,’ either. I apologise constantly and drunkenly make up lies, or exaggerate to make it more palatable to whoever’s in by bed. I don’t want them to think it’s just that I have shit pain tolerance, and am therefore pathetic. I don’t want them to think that I’m not turned on, and that they aren’t good enough. I want to impress them with my ability to ‘work past’ my condition, so say it’s fine when it’s not and let them force me and then it’s shit for everybody.
I think really I just want to impress myself with how much progress I’ve made. I want to reassure myself that I’m hurting my partner and damaging our trust for a reason, that I’m getting closer to some goal that will bring us closer together and make the fighting worth it. That’s how I end up in hostel bathrooms wincing as I drag cheap toilet paper over myself, my own piss stinging the tears I’ve allowed to blossom on my sex. I can’t blame anyone but myself for that burning pain, and I think that’s the worst part of it. But I feel like I can’t avoid it and have an obligation to keep facilitating it, in some bizarre, twisted way.
It sounds like it’s always horrible, but there are good parts too. Most people are kind even if they don’t really know what to do. They ask questions and are careful, and don’t show their disappointment. And generally I’m lucky I’ve been able to receive medical treatment for this at all. Hell, I’m lucky I even worry about it when some girls can’t go to school because of their periods or can’t access abortions. Who am I to complain about painful recreational sex?
But still, I wish I had a good end to this story with a well-defined resolution to the problem. I wish I could say I took control and practised every day and now I’m enjoying my sexuality to the fullest. I want to have an inspiring message for other girls who are feeling alone and confused like I did. But so far, that hasn’t happened and I don’t have anything motivational to say.
I’m barely 20, so the story is not anywhere near its conclusion. I can’t say I’m not hopeful that the watershed will come. But it feels really discouraging after years of interspersed, interrupted attempts to still have barely made any progress. It seems like heaps of my mates are always gallivanting around enjoying wild sexual exploits and having orgasms here, there and everywhere. Realistically they’re probably mostly just having mediocre hostel sex with gross backpackers who don’t shower. But society has tricked me into thinking I’m missing out on my sexual prime, and once I’m past 25 I’ve missed out forever.
I’m not broken, but it sure feels like I am sometimes. I don’t know how things are going to be with my partner when I get home. I’m leaving soon, and I’ve had heaps of sex and made no progress physically. But I guess if I’ve learned anything, it’s that I need to stop betraying myself – and maybe I need to stop thinking so much.
I flush the toilet and gingerly pull on my underwear. My exploit is waiting in my room. I slide into strange but warm arms and try to get some sleep. It’s not his fault and it’s not mine. Usually when I wake up I would say sorry, but today I will try to say thank you instead.