Having sex for the first time is always nerve-wrecking. As a young girl, I remember having high hopes for my first time, thinking it would be all fireworks. I also had my fears, of course. Visions of excruciating pain and pools of blood flashed in my mind. And what if he thinks I'm fat? Or have I shaved enough? The prospects of losing my virginity wasn't the most exciting time of my life. Throw vaginismus into the mix and you're in for one hell of a ride. No pun intended.
Genitals and Starbucks
Despite having it since I became sexually active at 17, I didn't know exactly what Vaginismus was until I started university at the age of 19. Nor had I heard of anyone else who had it. I thought I was alone with this silent torment that no one else understood.
It was the Autumn of 2016, the first time I ever saw the leaves fall in Bristol and felt the fresh excitement and nervousness of living away from my mum. I was sat in Starbucks with my close friend, Alys, when I first really heard about the condition. Alys and I had been close since secondary school and both ended up going to the same university. I don't know why, but Starbucks always seemed to be our favoured place to discuss genitals and sex. The grinding of coffee beans, clinking of cups and the smell of cinnamon... and two young adults talking about vaginas.
Alys was telling me about how she took photos of her friend for a photography project who had a condition which made penetration extremely painful. She described how it felt like she was "too tight" and sexual intercourse was nearly impossible for her.
"She dresses in 'slutty' clothing, but she actually struggles to have sex because of this condition,” said Alys. "I took portraits of her and explained in my proposal that I wanted to show there was more going on inside. Everyone was really interested - they had never heard of this condition before."
"I didn't even know this was a thing and I think I have it,” I said. "What is it called?"
My heart dropped and rooted itself in the ground tougher than a tree. I couldn't believe that someone else was experiencing the same pain I was. Someone else was struggling to have sex and the thing that was causing all the pain had a name to it. A list of questions, longer than the things I had originally thought were wrong with me, had formed. The need to know more itched all over my body. I knew I needed to do some research, which was proved very difficult when you didn't know how to spell or pronounce what you were researching.
Vaginismus (which, as it turns out, is pronounced exactly as it's spelt) is where the vaginal muscles tighten whenever penetration is attempted, causing it to be painful and sometimes impossible. A person who experiences this has no control over it. It's their body's natural response to fear and anxiety, mostly the fear that pain will be caused. This can either be sexual penetration, tampon insertation or medical examination.
There's no known direct cause for it but it can be linked to past sexual abuse, past painful intercourse, a bad first-time experience, a past painful examination, a belief that sex is shameful, or other emotional factors. However, so many people have never heard of Vaginismus and so many women experience it without even knowing what it is. Hell, I was experiencing it and didn't have a clue what was wrong with me. This is because we cringe and pull our faces back in disgust at the topic of sex education and because of this, women aren't getting the vital information they need. This was vital information that I wish I knew when I had my first sexual experiences.
Fitting in is Hard to do
One day my best friend (we’ll call her Helena) and I were shopping in Superdrug. We met in college and have been inseparable since and Superdrug seemed to have become our second home as our obsession of makeup grew. We walked over to the health section of the store and started looking at the condoms and other sexual health products. Something that, back in school, would make us cover our mouths as we sniggered with our faces burning a bright red. At the age of 17, this of course wasn't the case. This was around the time that I had my first real relationship.
Within two weeks of seeing my then boyfriend, we became sexually involved but we didn't properly have sex until we were about 8 months into the relationship. Not because we didn't want to or because we didn't try, but because we found it physically impossible. A feeling that made me want to scream until my lungs were raw had taken over any love or excitement that I was originally feeling - I didn't understand why it wasn't working.
"You're abnormal,” I said to myself.
This was worsened by hearing my friends talk about their amazing sex lives when we were sat together during our free periods at college or shopping in town. With my face burning red, I just nodded along and pretended I knew how they felt. Inside, I was constantly beating myself up because I didn't get why it wasn't working for me. There seemed to be no logical reason for it. So, instead of opening up to the people I trusted... I lied.
"So, have you had sex now?" I asked, as I watched Helena carefully examine each box of condoms Superdrug had to offer.
"Yes,” she replied, her cheeks turning a slight pink. "Have you?"
"Yeah, of course." Lies.
"It's about time, took you guys a while!"
"We just didn't want to rush into it." More lies. These were a mask for the deep, sinking fear that there was something wrong with me.
My boyfriend didn't make the situation any easier, in fact he made it a hell of a lot worse. He made me feel like I was diseased which added to the huge amount of pressure I was already putting on myself. He forced me to go to the doctors more times than I can count because he said I had an infection. Each time the doctors told me that I didn't have anything wrong with me. Not before going through a traumatising smear test which was so painful that I was in tears the whole time and crushing away all feeling in one of the doctor's hands. For the rest of the day, sharp pains were stabbing me at the pit of my stomach, which left me crying on the sofa, trying to grasp some sort of reason this was happening to me. Even a simple STD test felt like my insides were being slowly torn open by an oversized clamp. That was just a small swab that was the size of a cotton bud. But when I asked him to get one simple test, what was his response? "Oh, hell nah, I'm not going through that".
Eventually, I had a doctor inform me on what I really had. She told me that my vaginal muscles contract out of fear when anything goes near and that I could see a specialist who would help me gain some control and become more relaxed. At this point though, I no longer wanted to fix it. Sex was now tainted with the cold hand of fear and the suffocating force of pressure. I was in a loveless, abusive relationship with someone I had grown to resent because of all the strain he was putting on me. It got to the point where I was disgusted at the thought of having sex with him, so I stopped trying which, in his eyes, made me a horrible girlfriend. And he did all he could to get his own way in the end. A lot of my problems could have been avoided if I had just dumped his arse sooner, but in every aspect, I was crippled by fear. It's a fear that no one understands until they are put in that situation. I thought these problems would disappear after I got out of the relationship - but they didn't. They affected all my future sexual experiences because I learnt to feel fear and shame, and I never tried to fight that. Instead, I painted on a facade like the girl Alys had photographed back in 2016.
It's only in the last year that I've really been able to talk openly about my condition. Over a year after my first conversation about Vaginismus in Starbucks, I was talking to Helena about our awful ex-boyfriends (she was dating my then boyfriend's best friend during the time we were dating). Getting ready for a night out, listening to the 'Indie Party' playlist on Spotify whilst putting our makeup on, with a pile of possible outfits sitting on my bed, was when she bought up her own struggles with sex. Initially, I was shocked to hear this. I remember listening to her talk about all the sex she was having whilst I was silently beating myself up over the fact that I wasn't a "normal" person because I was still finding sex so painful. She went on to say how she did some of her own research and found a condition called Vaginismus and she was almost certain that she had it.
A strange feeling of happiness sprung me to my feet. In a weird way, I was excited because I was no longer alone and wasn't this strange outsider from all my friends. Someone else knew the struggle and it was someone I knew I could talk to openly about anything. Unfortunately, we had both been in similar situations. To put it in short: both of our boyfriends were assholes. "How did you get over it?" Beth asked. "I haven't,” I said. "I still can't use tampons and sex is still quite painful." However, over time it has gotten better for me and I do have regular sex now. This means the world to me because it has taken me so long to actually enjoy sex. I wouldn't have gotten to this point if I didn't feel like I could talk about it. I also feel like I've found the 'right' person, someone I have known for a long time and fully trust. However, the main reason why I think it has gotten better is because of one person: me.
Instead of putting pressure on myself, I chose to listen to my body and to stop caring about whether or not I was having sex. If my muscles tense up and things become painful then, sorry not sorry, it isn't happening. Whereas before I would feel uncomfortable with saying no, I now know that I'm with someone who respects that.
Not enough people know about Vaginismus, as well as basic sexual health knowledge, so there needs to be better sex education taught in schools. Sometimes this condition is mistaken for a physical problem with your vagina which in some cases has led to unneeded surgery. A conversation needs to be started about it. Talking and being more open and honest about it is what helps me through my journey of recovery. Although it's different for everyone, some might benefit from therapy or treatment. But we need to allow women to get to a place where they can start recovering.
Let's end the stigma around women's sexual health and make the world a safer and easier place for women.