“Are you okay?”
“Yeah, are you okay?”
“Okay, keep going. It’s okay, I promise.”
It was hardly the lustful, passionate exchange I had imagined would accompany my ‘first time’ (an archaic concept that needs to be erased from our collective conscious). But it was the exchange I needed.
Since I was diagnosed with vaginismus, my partner and I had endured several unsuccessful attempts at penetrative sex, which often culminated in me curled up in a ball of self-loathing while my ever-patient partner held me and assured me that it would be okay.
After months of physiotherapy, sexual counselling and a great deal of patience and perseverance, that was the night when I was first able to have comfortable, penetrative sex with my partner.
As my partner and I began to drift off to sleep afterwards, our legs entwined, I felt both calm and overwhelmed. I had conquered a demon that had been haunting me since adolescence, when tales of classmates sharing lustful moments in the bushes at weekend parties began to taunt me and my anxiety around intimacy and sex.
I felt a rush of relief at never having to go to the doctor about this issue again, a surge of excitement at telling my friends and a delicious thrill at the thought of being able to engage in conversations and exchanges of sex tips among my friends.
But as soon as I woke up the next morning, a new anxiety began to creep in. What if last night had been a fluke? What if this freedom was temporary? What if my vaginismus returned, and I would have to relearn how to have sex? The thought was terrifying.
To prove myself wrong, and soothe my anxiety, I decided that the best thing to do was to have sex again. I needed reassurance that it wasn’t a fluke, that it hadn’t been a dream, that I hadn’t ‘closed up’ again overnight.
And so, despite being tired, anxious and not particularly aroused, I had sex with my partner once he woke up. It wasn’t about pleasure for me; it was about prevention. It wasn’t driven by excitement or love; it was driven by fear and anxiety.
My ‘desire’ to have sex regularly began to feel like a compulsion, a chore, something akin to exercise or laundry; a not always enjoyable but nonetheless necessary task. I tracked how many times I did it per week and patted myself on the back every time I successfully completed my ‘workout’. Each session was evidence that I was okay, and my condition had not, and would not, return.
Further fuelling this compulsion was the underlying thought that I needed to make up for ‘lost time’, for all those years that I had so desperately wanted what I could not have. Now I could have it, so I had to have lots of it. Use it or lose it, as they say. And who knew when it might be taken away again?
After months of denial, I finally let myself acknowledge that perhaps my anxiety around sex hadn’t completely vanished; instead, it had taken a different shape, one that was easy to convince myself was merely the result of a high sex drive. It is ironic that while objectively my sex life seemed healthy and ‘normal’, there were still demons to fight and battles to conquer.
While in therapy, my counsellor often spoke of healthy sexuality in terms of freedom and choice. I always assumed that once I conquered vaginismus, I would be able to inhabit this space of freedom and choice. It turned out that it wasn’t that simple, but maybe that is a good thing.
It reminds me that each time I choose to have sex, I need to check in with myself: is this driven by fear, anxiety, pressure or expectation? Or is this driven by passion, joy, excitement and love?
It is a choice I am lucky to be able to make, thanks to my physiotherapist, counsellor, beautiful partner and myself; I had to learn to strike the right balance between patience and perseverance, between pushing myself and punishing myself.
It is a choice I have grown more aware of since acknowledging my anxiety. And it is a choice I now endeavour to make more consciously: to have sex that is absent of fear and anxiety, and instead rich with joy, love and excitement.
Sarah is a sociology graduate living in Melbourne. She is fascinated with issues of sexuality, gender and identity. Her current aspirations include pursuing a Masters degree and attending more live music gigs.
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The ‘good’ and ‘bad’ feminist: Coming to terms with my kinks
Gender affirming sex: Paying for sex as a non-binary person
Sex and sterilisation for women with disabilities
Navigating intimacy and post-coital dysphoria
How to talk about sex with your parents