Vaginismus: My secret about sex
By: Rhonda Perky
I can still recall the first time I tried to insert a tampon. Locking myself in the bathroom, I pulled out the Carefree leaflet and carefully studied the instructions.
Was I supposed to push in and up or…? How far was far enough? What if I missed and pushed it into my urethra or it slipped up my bum? I exhaled and kept trying. I positioned the tip of the tampon, but when I pushed, it tipped lengthwise as though it was butting up against a wall. Now it was probably contaminated. I took another out of the packet and tried again. And again. Why wouldn’t it go in?
Over the next few years, I sporadically worked up the courage to try again, always with the same outcome. Friends would ask why I couldn’t go swimming. “Just use a tampon,” they said. I heard, What’s wrong with you? Eventually I stopped trying. It was easier to avoid the disappointment and tears.
At 16 my breasts and hips were underdeveloped where my older sisters’ were ample. When aroused everything down there would swell and get wet…wasn’t that something that happened to boys? Is that why I fantasised about women? Not as a lesbian, I pictured being a man with a woman. But I also liked boys. I dated boys.
My unspoken fear had a voice that whispered, “good girls don’t”, the flash of 11-year-old me cowering in my bedroom as down the hall my father belted my 16-year-old sister, calling her a slut when he caught her having sex. It was a reflection of the messages all around me, in books, movies and on TV: be desirable, be sexy, but if you have sex, you’re a slut. In Human Development class, the school chaplain taught that boys had needs and that good girls don’t give in to those needs. By omission, women had no desires of their own and no sexual response. I knew so little about my own body.
I didn’t want anyone to touch me down there in case they discovered my secret, so my boyfriend and I would grind our genitals through the fabric of our underwear and quietly whisper, “Did you…?” I couldn’t even say the word orgasm. Eventually we tried penetration. I thought I was ready. I knew I loved him and saw a future together. It wasn’t marriage but it looked enough like what a good girl might do that I thought I was okay with it. Whatever my head said, my body disagreed. It was like my attempts to use tampons all over again. We tried twice more in our 18 months together, but it was painful and humiliating.
We never talked about what happened and I carried my private shame through several relationships. My next boyfriend was able to insert his penis a short way inside me, but again, it was like hitting a wall. “I don’t think it’s in properly…” I said. “It doesn’t feel right.” I was thinking, I’m not right. I became an expert avoider, denying my fantasies, fears and desires that conflicted with how a woman was supposed to be. I was a virgin and a slut who had male longings trapped in a not-quite female body.
My next partner’s parents had provided good quality reading material as part of his sex education. When he tried to penetrate me and couldn’t, he said calmly, “It’s okay, this happens to some women.” He gave my experience a name: vaginismus, a condition that affects a surprising number of women, where the muscles of the vagina involuntarily contract and prevent penetration. I wept, this time with relief. I could stop being afraid of my own body. Over the next months, with my partner’s patient support, I was able to relax enough to allow full penetration.
Experts don’t know how many women suffer from vaginismus, but it is a well-documented condition. Some turn to therapists and medical professionals for help. Many struggle in isolation, or with ignorant, shaming partners. I was lucky; my boyfriend was sympathetic. He allowed me to take my time and helped me train my body to relax.
Penetration was the first step in a long journey for me to accept my confused sexuality. I had to unravel the conflicting beliefs I had internalised about sex, desire and gender, to re-evaluate and reframe the sex-negative messages that saturate our culture. It took longer still to acknowledge my attraction to men and women, to become comfortable with my body’s sexual response, and finally to reject other people’s notions of what is inherently “male” and “female” about sexuality. It is only in my late 30s that I can look back and understand I wasn’t a freak, only a girl who was kept ignorant and very confused.
Rhonda Perky is a writer, sexologist, clinical hypnotherapist and the editor of Perks Magazine. Her obsession with sex is only slightly less than her obsession with cats.
Image by Remy Dugoua