Have you experienced painful sex? Raise your hand if the conversation below has ever happened to you.
“Well, it looks like everything is functioning OK down there.” “Um, OK…then why does it hurt so much?” “Well, you probably just need to relax.”
First signs of painful sex
I was 28 years old when the above exchange occurred and had not been to see a doctor for a pelvic exam for ten years. My first experience was in my first year of college at age 18. I went to the university nurse after having my period three times in one month. She wanted to do a pelvic exam. I was a virgin and a little apprehensive.
Then it hurt like hell and I couldn’t walk normal for two days.
I tried to put it behind me but being an adventurous person, I wanted to have sex and put virginity behind me. So I got drunk and it still hurt like hell, even though I was barely aware of it. During an especially amorous summer, I attempted to have sex with two different people but it just wasn’t possible. It was as if a trap door had taken over my vagina with the rules: “none shall pass.” I was in the mood. I had plenty of lubrication and both parties were more than ready to go. But then we just…couldn’t. What seemed so simple became a routine of painful sex.
Despite all the bad stories about college-age men, I remember a guy who comforted me as I cried in embarrassment, saying that it was really OK. Then he suggested we get pancakes in the morning. I still felt like an embarrassing failure who couldn’t do the one thing that came so easily to everyone. Everyone was having sex and enjoying it. For me, it just brought anxiety, pain and sobbing.
Trying to move on
I met someone new and at age 21, it was the first time I had a real relationship. Through a combination of alcohol and sex drive, we were even able to somehow have sex. Every time, it was painful. EVERY TIME. But then, a few months in, my trapdoor problem returned.
This time, it didn’t just affect me. Because of the anxiety of hurting me, performing and other emotional factors, my partner started experiencing erectile issues. While we wanted to have sex, the moments leading up to intercourse brought on increased anxiety for both of us. Essentially: it was a mess.
Attempts at help
After seven more years of this (SEVEN!) I finally took myself to get the pelvic exam I hadn’t had since I was 18. Everything went fine without any pain. I mentioned my painful sex problem to the Nurse Practitioner performing the exam and got the previously mentioned exchange.
“Well, you probably just need to relax.”
My Nurse Practitioner
I actually gave up at this point. I had already attempted every relaxation tactic imaginable, including speaking internally to my vagina to “just relax.” I decided that this is just how life would be now. But, as a testament to actually talking about your problems with your friends, I managed to mention this issue to a close friend. He had taken some psychology classes in the past and said it sounded like this condition called Vaginismus. So, what I’m telling you is that what a trained Nurse Practitioner did not see is what a 30-something non-college graduate did. I am forever grateful.
It turned out that my personal history of emotional and physical abuse had taken a toll on my system. At almost 30 years old, I started going to talk therapy. I started talking about my issues with trust. Of course, it seemed: I had such a hard time trusting someone, especially men, how did I expect my body, in its most vulnerable position, to allow entry? Sex, to me, was and still is about allowing yourself to be vulnerable and open to another person. It was about letting your defenses down and letting someone in. I had never really been able to do that in any of my relationships. So I went to work on opening up.
Years of therapy and a new relationship
Therapy is hard work and isn’t something you can dabble in. I had to face the ugliest parts of myself and my past and most importantly, learn to love myself (even just a little). This took YEARS. I would say that it’s still actually a work in process. There’s no “OK, I’m good now.”
One part that helped immensely was the new relationship I started with a woman. I warned her, like I warned any partner, that sex might not go so well but to not feel too bad about it. It wasn’t her, it was me. She was warm and comforting and there was no pressure. Then, for the first time in my life, I was able to feel vulnerable and safe at the same time. We could approach sex as playing and fun (with toys making it even more fun) rather than pressure and dread. My mind opened up and slowly, my body relaxed.
Painful sex and what you can do
Unfortunately, people like to say things like “it’s all in your head” as if it summarizes and simplifies the situation. Ever tell a 5-year old that the monsters they’re afraid of are all in their head? Not very effective.
He said “It’s all in your head” And I said “So’s everything” But he didn’t get it
Fiona Apple, “Paper Bag”
Yes, it’s in your head. But it’s real–VERY real. Painful sex and Vaginismus affects everything in your personal life. You feel ashamed, broken, joyless, embarrassed and wrong. Every potential sexual encounter brings you a mix of excitement and dread. Then it compounds upon itself. Then there are women who suffer from a combination of physiological AND physical issues. Unfortunately, too many women go to their doctors and aren’t heard, like I wasn’t. Fortunately, there are organizations like AASECT who are educating more health care providers in these nuances.
It may all be in your head, or it may be your body, too. But, you need to be heard and you need to keep asking and making it important. Ten years of what could have been wonderfully adventurous sexual activity was wasted for me. I shouldn’t have let that Nurse Practitioner stop me from asking again, or pressing the point. I shouldn’t have just said “OK” when she said I looked fine.
My point is: DON’T GIVE UP. Find a doctor who will hear you and listen. You don’t need to be alone on this. Sure, you could wait over 10 years until you somehow sort it out on your own (or don’t) but life is short. Sex and pleasure is a gift.