There were fairy lights twisted around the bedhead and he was gently kissing my neck. When I imagined this moment, I had always felt a twist of fear in my gut. But any apprehension about my body, my stretch marks, my wobbly thighs had faded as we kissed each other greedily, our hands moving to new parts of our bodies. It’s meant to hurt. I kept repeating this mantra, reaching for a reason why I felt like my vagina was being stabbed.
After a few more unsuccessful attempts at sex, and a few tearful conversations, I finally saw my doctor and was given a diagnosis of vaginismus. Basically, my vagina was cock-blocking me?! Not what I expected.
There are two types of vaginismus; primary, where a woman has never had pain-free sex, and secondary, where the condition develops after some type of trauma. Involuntary contractions in the pelvic floor muscles surrounding the vagina make penetrative sex very painful, although the severity varies from woman to woman. According to Jean Hailes, it can be caused by endometriosis, traumatic sexual experiences, or emotional responses. In my case, any kind of penetration is painful. I’ve never been able to insert a tampon and trying to have sex felt like my boyfriend’s penis was hitting a brick wall concealed in my vagina. Fun stuff.
There’s no quick fix, and no surgical or medical intervention because there’s nothing physically abnormal about the vagina. Depending on the triggers and severity, there are a number of treatment options from physiotherapy exercises to relaxation and breathing techniques. Before trying to have sex with my current partner, the closest I’d ever come to intercourse was that one time I tried to use a tampon. I’ve spoken to my GP, my psychologist and a specialist physiotherapist about my vaginismus. The conclusion we’ve come to is that it was caused by a combination of tighter than average muscles and my generalised anxiety, which for many years was exacerbated by even the thought of a romantic relationship.
Penetrative sex isn’t the only way to have fun in the bedroom (believe me, we know), but it feels like my body has betrayed me and my desires.
The weirdest thing for me is that now, I really want to have sex with my partner. I feel safe with him and there’s absolutely nothing causing me anxiety about our intimacy. Even on those very first nights we tried, I felt comfortable. We’d gradually moved from making out on the couch like a couple of teenagers (we’re in our twenties) to ‘hand stuff’ in bed and I was no longer panicking about him touching my wobbly, stretch-marked stomach. Yet my body feels like it’s totally disconnected, creating a physical barrier when all I want to do is enjoy sex.
Which is where the emotional pain of vaginismus rears its ugly head. I’m lucky to have a partner who is incredibly supportive and has been throughout the entire process. But that doesn’t stop my brain twisting my frustration at this condition into shame and doubt. I hear my friends talking about sex, see them celebrating their pleasure and I want to join in instead of staying quiet.
Penetrative sex isn’t the only way to have fun in the bedroom (believe me, we know), but it feels like my body has betrayed me and my desires. I always thought anxiety would be my biggest barrier to sex (that, and actually finding someone to have sex with) and I’m frustrated and disappointed my body won’t cooperate. And honestly, I’m ashamed. Which is exactly why I wanted to share my experience. About 60% of Australian women report one or more sexual problems which prevent them in some way from experiencing sex the way they want to. I love the sex positive movement and the way I now see people talk about sex online, but sometimes I feel like I can’t take part because I can’t have “normal” sex. And yes, I realise that’s just rubbish but brains can be tricky little buggers. Also, more than half of Australian women are experiencing painful sex, so I’m absolutely not alone.
So what’s happening to me? Well, we’ve been dealing with this a year already and we’ve still not had penetrative sex. But we’ve made headway. In our bedroom, we celebrate every milestone in millimetres and we’ve made great progress. With the help of a specialist physio I’m using vaginal dilators to help stretch the muscles but it’s slow going. As my physio put it, my muscles have been training themselves for over 20 years, so stretching them to fit a penis isn’t going to happen overnight.
If you experience any pain while having sex, even if it’s not the total cock-block of vaginismus, speak to your doctor. We all deserve to enjoy sex and staying quiet only allows the stigma to prosper.
Michelle Gately is an Australian journalist, blogger and podcaster. When she’s not busy reporting for a regional newspaper she can be found with her nose in a book, walking her pug Percy, or taking Instagram photos. She caught the travel bug with her first trip to England in 2017 and hopes to make the classic Aussie rite of passage with a move to the UK soon. You can read her bookish lifestyle blog at theunfinishedbookshelf.com and follow her on Twitter @unfinished_book