I have been listening to bad stories about sex my entire life.
There’s the childhood sex education that said sex was meant to be nice - but to my young ears it simply sounded confusing.
There were the teen mag sealed sections full of horror stories about all the things that could - and would - go wrong when you had sex. Bleeding noses and falling off beds and “losing your virginity” is agonisingly painful and actually extremely unpleasant.
Later there was pop culture telling me sex was always ecstatic and effortless. You and your partner always come, at the same time, and it’s all very beautiful and cinematic.
Later again there were the droll elder millennial blogs saying sex is boring, actually, it’s a bit of a burden, you do it because your partner wants to and you don’t get anything out of it.
None of these stories instilled any hope for the future. And none of them helped me when I was diagnosed with what is effectively female sexual dysfunction.
When I was 26 I confided in my doctor that I had never learned to use tampons in 12 years of menstruation. She gave me a referral for a gynaecologist that I kept in my car for 10 months until I finally mustered up the courage to face my fear something was very wrong with my vagina.
And I was right.
On a hot summer’s day in February 2019, sobbing and writhing in pain in a gynaecologist’s chair, I was diagnosed with vaginismus. Vaginismus is a pelvic pain condition where the vaginal muscles spasm and contract to prevent potential pain caused by penetration. It starts in the mind with a conscious or unconscious fear of being hurt - and the body responds to protect you. When you try to penetrate spasming pelvic floor muscles it feels like a white hot knife in your vagina.
Obviously, that means no tampons, no touching, and definitely no sex.
I was scared no-one would want me if I couldn’t have penetrative sex. I was scared I would never feel fulfilled. I was scared that passionate, effortless rom com sex would always be out of reach - that I would never feel the connection and intimacy I deeply desired. I was scared that even if I did have sex it would be as boring and uninspiring as some people said. I felt hopeless and incredibly alone.
But in my recovery I have learned to rewrite all the shallow and tragic tales about what is possible in pelvic pain, and in sex.
I had the kind of support in my recovery most people with vaginismus could only dream of. By some extraordinary stroke of fate, my doctor, my sex therapist and my pelvic floor physiotherapist all had and recovered from vaginismus. No-one ever told me it was all in my head. No-one told me to have a glass of wine and relax. I was believed. I was supported. And they gave me a reason to hope.
My sex therapist helped me address past medical trauma that provoked my vaginismus and my fears of a sexless future. She helped me embrace my sexuality - the sensual, sexual, romantic person I truly felt I was even if I had a traumatised vagina - and gave me confidence to pursue self-pleasure which ultimately helped me to heal. My pelvic floor physiotherapist helped me move through dilator therapy - using plastic and silicone medical dildos, if you like, which gradually increase in size to stretch out the tight and traumatised pelvic floor muscles. And my doctor set me on the right path - she ensured I would not stay alone in silence and never deal with the excruciating pain I was experiencing. These women - my angels - walked with me and helped me claim my life back so that I could write a new story.
And this is my new story.
In May 2019 I couldn’t even insert a q-tip into my vagina. In October 2019 - six months after my first pelvic floor physiotherapy appointment - I achieved the vaginismus recovery benchmark by successfully inserting the largest dilator. In medical terms it means I am technically capable of penetrative sex. (I am yet to find out - but I am really excited to someday.)
I learned that solo sex - or self pleasure, or masturbation - are not dirty words. It is not a lesser substitute for partnered sex. It is its own experience and its own joy. I have a treasure chest full of vibrators, dildos and wands and I am not afraid of my own body anymore. I am not in pain, mostly. I am not stumbling blindly in the dark wondering where pleasure comes from and how I can attain it. I know myself. I love myself. I enjoy myself in a way that has freed me from so much fear, pain and shame.
I am not afraid to pursue what I want. I have told some men I’ve dated about my condition and made it clear I am waiting until marriage for sex - partly because of my faith and partly because I know my sexual debut will have a new and different significance against the backdrop of my past pelvic pain. I want someone who understands how momentous penetrative sex will be for me. I want someone who supports my solo sex practice. I want someone who is willing to work with me if I experience pain in the future - to be compassionate, and supportive, and to love me just the same. Discovering that resolve makes it easy to walk away from partners where my desires for intimacy and my boundaries are not understood or respected.
For a long time I felt extremely broken and entirely alone. I used to think my vaginismus made me less human. Less desirable. Less capable of experiencing a world full of passion and intimacy and connection. But I know now that’s not true. And I hope you know that’s not true for you either. Penetrative sex is not the only path to connection. Pain doesn’t have to be final. The right partners adore you and respect you as you are. There is healing available. There is hope. The story might not look like you imagined but I promise you it does not end with pelvic and sexual pain. There’s so much more to discover beyond the shallow narratives about sex and romance we hear - there is bliss, and affection, and healing, and comfort, and connection to be found in the pain and beyond it. That’s my hope. And that’s my story.