Diane Shipley | Longreads | July 2019 | 17 minutes (4,293 words)
In November 1998, I had sex for the first and last time. I was 19, my boyfriend was 21, and we’d been together for 10 months, long-distance. I was at university in Lancaster, a small town in the north west of England, and he lived in Essex, in the south east. I had a week off from classes, so I spent six hours taking two trains to stay in the sporadically-tidied house he shared with friends from work. On Wednesday morning, I walked to the pharmacy down the street to buy condoms and KY Jelly, shaking slightly as I handed over the cash. That night, with Ally McBeal on TV in the background, we lay on his narrow twin bed, kissing and touching each other before we slipped under the covers. I worried it might hurt, or feel awkward, or be over quickly, but it was great. Afterward, we ate chocolates, drank Coke, and swore we’d have sex all the time from then on.
We tried. Later that night; the next day; a couple of months later, on vacation in Florida. Each time, it was as if my vagina had snapped shut and no matter how hard he pushed or how vividly I pictured a tulip’s petals unfurling, nothing could convince it to open. Eventually, we gave up and went back to the heavy petting and blowjobs we’d each enjoyed, respectively, before. We were best friends, we were in love, we both had orgasms. In theory, I knew that penis-in-vagina intercourse wasn’t the only way to define sex. But it seemed like the most important, and I felt like a failure for not being a “proper” girlfriend; for being unfuckable.
It didn’t make sense. I’d had sex once, why couldn’t I do it again? We broke up after five years and the answer seemed obvious then: Deep down, I always knew we weren’t right for each other, so my body had stopped us from getting too close. That was plausible. But if I’d been honest with myself, I would have admitted that it wasn’t about him, that my having sex in the first place was the aberration, not the fact that I hadn’t had it since.
It didn’t make sense. I’d had sex once, why couldn’t I do it again?
The first time he slid his hand between my legs, I kept my knees together, not certain it was what I wanted. Then I remembered my favorite teen magazine, Just Seventeen, always said being fingered didn’t feel good for most girls in the beginning. I might as well go along with it, I thought, letting him ease my thighs apart. It didn’t hurt, but it was uncomfortable, probably because I was so tense. A few months later, though, I had my first orgasm, panting and laughing in the front seat of his car. That made me think I might want to have “real” sex one day. I knew it might not be perfect, but I assumed it would rid me of my hang-ups, dissipate the shame I felt about my body; make me normal. It didn’t.
The truth is, I’ve been frigid for as long as I can remember. Sure, that hasn’t been a psychiatric diagnosis since 1980, and even when it was, its definition was fluid — used to refer to women who couldn’t have, didn’t want, or didn’t orgasm from vaginal sex. Now it’s an insult, used to imply a woman is sexually repressed and uptight about her body. But that’s exactly what I am. I can’t face my vagina; I never have been able to. It’s squelchy and icky and I don’t want to touch it, look at it, or think about it. I’d quite like it if it didn’t exist.
When I was about 10, my friend Gemma and I were combing our wet hair in the swimming pool locker room when she met my eyes in the mirror, pointed to the sanitary protection machine to my left, and asked, “What are you going to use?” I hadn’t thought about it, but I knew what I’d seen in the bathroom at home.
“Tampax, I guess.” I caught a small knot with my comb and gave an exaggerated gasp, hoping to change the subject. Gemma walked over to the machine and tapped a dark blue logo.
“I’ll use Lil-Lets,” she said. “No applicator.” I nodded as if I knew what she meant. The thought of using any tampon made me want to cry, but I assumed that when I was old enough to need one, I’d feel ready. I never did. I daren’t even try; I only ever wore pads. In high school, when my best friend had a pool party for her birthday, I didn’t go because I had my period. I whispered the news in English class the day before and she frowned and whispered back, “Couldn’t you just wear a tampon?” I shook my head. I didn’t know how to explain that I just couldn’t.
I’m not sure when I started to feel this way. Was it when I was 4 and my mom stayed in hospital overnight for a minor gynecological procedure? My parents didn’t tell me what was happening, and I would have been too young to understand if they had, but I must have picked up on their fear and embarrassment because as soon as my mom drove away, I ran to my room, hid under my chest of drawers, and curled into a ball.
It could have been five years later, when I realized I’d grown breasts and underarm hair without wanting to. Or a few months after that, when the school nurse ushered the girls in my class into the tiny, cramped music room for a talk about how our bodies were “about to change.” My T-shirt stuck to my back with sweat as we crowded together on the fuzzy brown carpet. Through the window, I saw boys running toward the soccer field, arms raised in joy at this unexpected free time. The nurse reached over my head and snapped the curtain shut.
“It’s better when it’s just us girls, isn’t it?” she asked, not giving us time to reply. She picked her way to the front of the room, unrolled a screen from the ceiling, and switched on a video projector. There may have been some introductory chatter I’ve since forgotten, but in my memory, the first thing that popped onto the screen, on the lower left side, was a short naked cartoon man.
Thanks to playground gossip and a talk from my mom about seeds and flowers, I knew the basics about sex: A man puts his sperm in a women’s vagina using his penis, and then a baby grows. What no one had told me about was erections. At first, the short naked cartoon man’s penis hung there, over his testicles (also a surprise). Then a woman with a posh English accent announced it had to get hard before he could have sex, and with a cheery slide-rule bloooooooop! it sprung up to a 90-degree angle.
For a second, I stopped breathing. My pulse pounded in my ears. Every hair on my body stood on end, one by one. I wanted to run home, crawl back under my chest of drawers, and howl until I threw up. I thought, Men have body parts that suddenly BECOME HARD so they can stick them inside women, and everyone’s OK with it? Everyone… likes it? After the video, the nurse handed out pink leaflets called something like, “You and Your Body,” and suggested we show them to our mothers that afternoon. I shoved mine under a pile of papers in my desk until I could throw it out without being seen.
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It’s not that I wasn’t curious about sex. My granddad once caught me humping a couch arm, and for a while, one of my friends and I pretended to “do it” whenever she came over, taking it in turns to be the man and thrusting into each other, fully-clothed. But I wasn’t interested in the messy reality, or in spending time with boys. The problem was, boys were disgusting. I was attracted to them, but I was scared of them, too. And not only because of the weird things their bodies could do.
I had been introduced to the idea that boys would be interested in me in a sexual way in first grade. One day in the playground, my mom’s friend’s son, who usually ignored me, waved me over.
“I’ve got something to show you,” he called.
I skipped up to him, flattered he’d noticed I was alive. But I’d barely said, “What is — ” when he and one of his friends grabbed my arms, pinned them behind me, and marched me to the sandbox, where they pushed me onto my back. A boy in the class above us was waiting, perched on a large rock, and the younger boys held me down and lifted my skirt, so he could look at my underwear. As I kicked and thrashed, trying to get away, my mom’s friend’s son bent to my ear and whispered, “He likes you.” It was a tiny violation, not something that should make a woman’s vagina clam up 12 years later. But it planted the idea that you couldn’t trust boys; that what you wanted didn’t matter to them.
I looked for evidence of boys’ grossness everywhere, and always found it. When I was 14, my first boyfriend dumped me because I didn’t want to have sex. The next summer, my friend Heather and I hung out with two brothers who lived at the end of my street. We sat on the curb outside their house for hours, talking and swapping gum. One day, smacking a strawberry Hubba Bubba, the older brother told us about the competitions they had with one of their friends when their parents were out.
“We each get a condom, go into a different room and see who can cum the most or the fastest.” Heather and I looked at each other, eyebrows raised.
“That’s horrible,” I said.
He laughed. “You’re no fun.”
The summer I graduated high school, my mom’s friend, a sociology lecturer, paid me to help her with a project about lads’ mags. She gave me a huge pile of magazines with names like Loaded, Nuts, and For Him Magazine, and I had to log each one’s contents: How many pages about sex, how many about sports, how many about music, etc. After weeks of flicking through orgy-hosting tips, pubic hair photo spreads, and pages of half-naked women accompanied by male writers’ commentary on what they’d like to stick where, I couldn’t imagine ever wanting to go near a boy again.
That December, though, over Christmas break, I reconnected with that boy I’d gone to high school with, who was two years older than me, the one who became my first (and only) serious boyfriend. I liked his long legs and shy smile and we spent New Year’s Eve in the pub with mutual friends, talking and holding hands. It might have been the mistletoe or the alcohol, but it felt like there was a spark between us, and the fact that we lived in different parts of the country meant we could take our relationship slowly.
A couple of years after we had sex, I thought I had a yeast infection, so my GP tried to do a pap smear. Lying on the exam table, cold and naked from the waist down, I told myself to stay calm. But when my doctor, a brusque blonde woman, pushed a speculum toward my vagina, I felt a hot, stinging pain and my pelvis shot into the air as I yelped like a wounded animal. I shuffled up the table, trying to escape, but she kept trying to penetrate me until I yelled, “STOP.” I had cystitis for three days afterward, the main symptom of which was the feeling of razor blades when I peed. That was the last time I mentioned my vagina to a doctor, or to anyone.
I diagnosed myself with vaginismus a few months later, after stumbling across an article online. An involuntary spasm of the muscles that surround the vagina, it makes it difficult or impossible to have sex. According to the internet, it affects two women in every thousand, almost exclusively straight cisgender women. Considering that I’d rather die than tell a doctor about it, I suspect others feel the same, and the real number is actually higher.
There are a lot of articles about vaginismus, all written in the same tone of barely-disguised relief, like the writer is thinking, I might be weird, but I’m not this weird. There’s usually one interviewee, and she’s almost always anonymous. What separates me from these women is that they’ve been through or are going through or are willing to think about going through exposure therapy. This involves inserting gradually larger dilators (hard, phallic objects) into the vagina over several weeks or months, to encourage it to accept a penis. Occasionally, a woman has internal physiotherapy instead, where a specialist massages the pelvic floor muscles so they’re less likely to tighten up, and more likely to accept a penis.
I couldn’t do that. Couldn’t squat in a gynecologist’s office as they watched me insert pieces of plastic in my vagina, or lie there while a physiotherapist pried apart my labia. Just the thought of it makes me hyperventilate, my face hot and prickly, like I might vomit. I don’t see how trying (and inevitably failing) to do something that horrifies me would make me any less disgusted by my body.
These articles usually have a paragraph toward the end where the interviewee talks about overcoming her vaginismus. A woman who was a virgin until her 40s told The Cut that she can now have penis-in-vagina sex, if she uses dilators for ten minutes beforehand, but that she doesn’t orgasm from it. Cosmopolitan UK interviewed another woman who said that after months of sex therapy, she was finally penetrated by her boyfriend, which “wasn’t an amazing sensation and didn’t feel overly comfortable.” When I read about these apparent successes, I’m not sorry my sex life never became so clinical, or so phallocentric.
Researchers don’t know what causes vaginismus, although men in the field in particular have worried about it for decades. In 1962, Leonard J. Friedman wrote the first book on the topic, Virgin Wives: A Study of Unconsummated Marriages, which a (male) reviewer for the British Journal of General Practice later called “replete with human tragedy.” Friedman divided women with the condition into three archetypes: Sleeping Beauty (passive and in need of rescue), Brunhilde (aggressive but wants to be conquered) and Queen Bee (desperate to have a baby without a man’s involvement). An obviously pre-feminist interpretation, you might think, based on one man’s limited notions of femininity and sexuality. But a 1989 article by Eve Adler in the British Journal of Sexual Medicine uncritically repeated Friedman’s ideas, and even in modern analyses, paternalistic thinking prevails.
According to a 2017 study, Fear of Vaginal Penetration in the Absence of Pain as a Separate Category of Female Sexual Dysfunction: A Conceptual Overview, when someone develops vaginismus after having penetrative sex, it’s more likely to be due to an infection or a hormone imbalance than a psychological issue. But I fit more neatly into the category of phobic patients, who “experience instant fulminating anxiety, often terror, with any approach to penetration.” (As much as I wanted to slip under those covers with my ex-boyfriend, it took almost a year, deep breathing, and a shot of vodka to get me there.)
It’s not that I wasn’t curious about sex. My granddad once caught me humping a couch arm, and for a while, one of my friends and I pretended to ‘do it’ whenever she came over…
The study’s authors note that some women with vaginismus “surprisingly” have “satisfying intimate relationships,” but they seem to consider male partners’ willingness to have non-penetrative sex an act of charity — an inadvisable one at that. They write, “Their admirable ‘gentlemanly’ understanding and behavior paradoxically contributes to the long-term stability of the condition, inasmuch as there is no demand for change.” That demand needn’t be aggressive: The website Vaginismus.com, which sells home treatment kits for $90.95 plus shipping, recommends that men give their partners “items of gratitude such as a massage, dinner out, or a small gift to spur them forward.” (When it comes to women’s anxiety about penetration, the answer is the same everywhere you look: Don’t feel like that.)
A couple of months after I lost my virginity, I left college and didn’t go back. I’d struggled with my stamina for over a year, since I had mono, and suddenly I couldn’t focus in lectures, needed to lie down for a half-hour after showering, and spent entire weekends sleeping but never felt rested. I moved home, where my doctor diagnosed me with myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS), a debilitating neurological illness with no known cure. It’s not clear if there’s a connection to vaginismus (other than the fact that both are poorly-understood and primarily affect women), but there’s an established link between exhaustion and a decreased interest in sex. At times, I’ve wished I was asexual, so I could draw a line through that part of my life for good. But I’m still attracted to men; I just don’t want to do anything about it.
I assumed that one day, I’d meet someone new and either he’d accept my vaginismus, or I’d be able to relax enough to have penetrative sex again, and somehow keep it going. But as time went on, I became less interested in a relationship, and on days when just bathing was a victory, it didn’t seem feasible. About three years into my singledom, I went to a friend’s house for dinner with a few of her family members, a rare social occasion. While we were eating, my friend’s mother asked me if I wanted a boyfriend. I flushed and focused on my plate, cutting a sugar snap pea into eighths.
“I haven’t got the energy,” I offered as a half-truth.
“Oh,” she said, with a shrug. “I didn’t know it took energy.”
I didn’t know how to explain that getting dressed and leaving the house that day was more than I’d done in a week, that I couldn’t be counted on to stay awake for longer than a couple of hours in the evening, or that figuratively and literally, I couldn’t be fucked.
Later, I took an online writing class where one of the assignments was to write about a part of your body you didn’t like. I opened a new message in an email account I rarely used, selected the tiniest font and typed a paragraph about my vagina. Then I logged out, opened Word, and wrote and submitted a thousand words about acne. A year ago, I read another article about a woman who got over her vaginismus — thanks to a new, more empathetic partner — and pecked out a short essay on my phone. I sent it to a newspaper that runs anonymous pieces about people’s sex lives.
When it was published, readers left over 500 comments, hundreds more than on pieces by a 54-year-old virgin and a man who spends up to 15 hours a day masturbating. I knew I shouldn’t, but I scrolled down and read some of them, most of which expressed sympathy for my ex. When the newspaper shared a link on Twitter, someone responded with a photo of a group of people laughing. I spent the rest of the day filled with the harsh, cold certainty that internet commenters were the only ones who saw my situation clearly, that they were right to find it funny or horrifying. Naively, I hadn’t realized that putting a penis in a vagina was so central to most people’s idea of a heterosexual relationship, or that having a heterosexual relationship was so central to their idea of a life.
It’s hard for me to relate. Even if my vagina had worked perfectly, I don’t know if I would have wanted to spend the last 20 years in and out of sexual relationships. Not everyone does: In 2015, a survey of 6,000 Brits found that 51% hadn’t had sex in the previous month and a large-scale U.S study found that 15.2% of men and 26.7% of women aged 18-89 hadn’t had sex in the past year. (For 8.7% of men and 17.5% of women, it had been five years or more.) That has to have been a choice at least some of the time. Not having sex is associated with poorer health, especially for women, said the researchers, but, “the purported detrimental impact of sexlessness on self-reported happiness levels was not evident.”
Because my ex and I were always long-distance, sexual activity never became an everyday part of my life. I didn’t have to adjust to the jarring juxtaposition of sexuality and domesticity, of cunnilingus and cleaning the bathroom. I enjoyed orgasms and the feelings of closeness afterward, but I didn’t know if they were worth the work: The leg-shaving and moisturizing beforehand, the half-hearted blowjobs I offered in return. It’s always seemed strange to me, the activities we’ve translated mutual attraction into, and the way it’s assumed every adult wants to do them. The idea that I could opt out of sex acts I didn’t like didn’t occur to me when I was younger, and wouldn’t have seemed compatible with a relationship if it had. Now sex is rarely on my mind, but that isn’t a tragedy. It’s a relief.
I do feel ashamed that my body doesn’t work as it’s supposed to, that I’m a 40-year-old woman who can’t have vaginal sex or insert a tampon. I don’t want to do either of those things, but it would be nice to have the choice. And I still haven’t had a successful pap smear or found a way to talk to a doctor about my horror of them. I know this test can detect cervical cancer in its earliest stages, and appreciate that the recent national “Don’t be a diva, it’s only a beaver” campaign designed to raise attendance rates was well-intentioned, if crude (“beaver” being Brit slang for “vagina”). But my fear and neuroticism are so entrenched that I’m unmoved by cajoling, provoking, or even the possibility of death.
Nothing I’ve read or written has brought me any closer to understanding why I’m like this. The majority of studies and articles about vaginismus focus more on how to enable women to have (if not necessarily enjoy) penis-in-vagina sex, rather than the physical, psychological, and cultural forces that might explain it.
The 2017 study concludes that vaginismus is rarely a response to sexual abuse or trauma. Instead, it develops “de novo” — from the beginning, or close to it. Perhaps my mom’s gynecological experiences scarred me by proxy. Perhaps I was introduced to the fact that I was a sexual being when I was too young to handle it, yet thanks to puberty, couldn’t escape it. Or perhaps I was born squeamish, with an excess of vagina-related angst. Whatever the reason, I know how my story is supposed to end. I’m supposed to say it’s an embarrassing problem, but I’ve overcome it with the help of doctors, dilators, and a husband, boyfriend or dildo. If I can’t say that, then I’m supposed to say working toward a “normal” sex life is my number one priority — and of course, I’m supposed to say this anonymously.
Even if my vagina had worked perfectly, I don’t know if I would have wanted to spend the last 20 years in and out of sexual relationships.
Some people do feel that way, and I’m not criticizing them. I’m criticizing the society that pathologizes them, the researchers who act like they’re defective, and the doctors who prioritize the needs of penises over the feelings of women. Women who don’t have vaginal sex are still in the DSM, only now their possible diagnoses include Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder and Inhibited Sexual Desire. Both are classified as types of sexual dysfunction, although it isn’t clear where the parameters of functionality end, or who gets to define them.
In my head, I sometimes make the case that vaginismus is a subconscious feminist protest against the pressures women face to be sexual. I’m not the only one to have this thought: In her 2002 book, The Science/Fiction of Sex: Feminist Deconstruction and the Vocabularies of Heterosex, gender and sexuality researcher Annie Potts argued that “so-called sexual dysfunctions such as ‘frigidity’ and ‘vaginismus’ may be reconstructed… as corporeal acts of defiance.” The idea that I’ve avoided diagnosis and treatment because I don’t see myself as flawed makes me feel powerful, like I’m more than the sum of my parts. But it’s not entirely accurate. The truth is, I haven’t seen a doctor about my condition because I’m a wimp. That might be why I haven’t had another boyfriend, too: I’m terrified of being hurt. Unlike women who seek help, however imperfect it may be, I’ve been unwilling to take a risk, or to even to say “vaginismus” out loud.
See a therapist, you might be thinking, and I do. But it’s possible I’ll never be less fucked up. I don’t know if I can talk or read or write my way toward feeling less grossed out by my body, more comfortable with the demands of a sexual relationship. I’m not even sure I want to, because success will be determined by the thing I want least: people sticking things in my vagina. Sometimes, I close my eyes and imagine sliding my untrembling feet into a gynecologist’s stirrups or plucking a turquoise box of tampons from the supermarket shelf and knowing I’ll use them. So many other women take these things in stride, but every muscle in my body tenses up. Snap out of it, I tell myself. Maybe one day I will.
* * *
Diane Shipley is a freelance writer
who has contributed to The Guardian, The Washington Post, and The
Rumpus, among others. She’s working on an essay collection about
living in a body gone rogue.
Editor: Sari Botton