TMI: Vaginismus, Me, and Why We Need to Talk Abut Female Sexual Dysfunction
So, in August of this year, the FDA approved the “little pink pill”- basically, female Viagra. And it got me to thinking: with Viagra for dudes being so readily available and such a common, shrug-worthy part of society, the way we treat women’s sexual dysfunction is pretty embarrassing. You know how I know that? Because, for three years, I suffered from a type of Female Sexual Dysfunction (FSD), and no-one seemed to have a god-damn clue what to do with me.
You whisper the words “vaginismus” in front of any woman who’s suffered from it, and you can see that look of haunted horror that passes across their face. Vaginismus is a condition where your vagina essentially boards itself shut, sticks up “closed for business” signs, and leaves you unable to enjoy sex without massive amounts of pain-or, in my case and in the case of many other sufferers, unable to have sex at all. Muscle spasms make it painful or impossible to get anything in there, whether it’s a tampon, an erection, or the cotton swab of a very nice lady who just wants to figure out what the fuck is going on with me. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
My vaginismus made itself known when I was first dating my high school sweetheart, and what I was feeling seemed to go above and beyond the usual kind of painful-first-penetrative-sex experiences that I’d been conditioned to expect. But I didn’t think much of it until, two years later, I was still unable to get so much as a finger inside myself without crippling pain. Neither me or my then-boyfriend could figure out what was going on, and we both spent months in silence, assuming that I would just never be able to put out and that we’d just have to deal with that shit as it was. In a culture that values sex so highly, especially at the age I was at, there was no way in hell I was telling anyone else that the crunchy sound of a condom wrapper made me flinch.
I couldn’t tell you what the tipping point was, but I eventually found myself, face burning, eyes on the ground, in my school nurse’s office, explaining to her what was happening and borderline begging her for an answer to the problem. Was I frigid? Was I actually gay? Was I just broken in some profound and unfixable way? She nodded sympathetically, then referred me to another doctor, to whom I said much the same thing before being referred to another doctor to whom…yeah, you get the idea. I remember vividly how uncomfortable the people-medical professionals- I discussed this problem with became, and how keen they seemed to palm me off on someone else. It’s not even as if vaginismus is the most uncommon affliction in the world- it’s hard to pinpoint exact numbers, but somewhere in the realm of one in five hundred women suffer from it and it’s even more common amongst women 16-24, which was an age group I fell into. Yet no-one could even give me a name, and I was getting increasingly frantic, assuming that I would never have sex, never have a family, never get one of those Mooncups I’d been hearing so much about.
Eventually, I got referred to a sexual health clinic, and made an appointment. I sat in the waiting room, surrounded by glum-looking folks who looked as if they were waiting on bad news about that herpes test. I found myself confronted with the aforementioned sympathetic lady, pretty much the first who didn’t seem like she was hoping I’d stop talking about my vagina right about now. That appointment marked the first time a woman touched my nether regions, but it’s not an experience I remember fondly- naked from the waist down, trying not to cry from the pain of the cotton swab she had inside me. I cried all the way home, and prayed that this time I might get an answer.
I was visiting a friend’s house a few days later when I got a phone call from the clinic, and they spelled out the name of what they thought I had over the phone. That was it: they just told me what it was. After more than two years, I finally had something to work from, even if that was the last time I ever heard from the clinic. I was out in the wilderness again, and as I began to look up information about my dysfunction, things felt almost as bad as before. Websites recommended dilators, basically small plastic dildos of varying sizes meant to acclimatise your vagina to the intrusion of other accoutrements. Even looking at the weird, almost always pink, almost always weirdly bullet-shaped collections sold in neat packages of eBay, was enough to make me cringe with pain. I resolved that I’d just have to be really, really good at all the other sex stuff and chuck in any chance to have a fulfilling sexual relationship with a man. I clung to my boyfriend, convinced than no other man would ever want a woman who he could barely touch.
Then we split up, and I was faced with the reality of entering a dating world where the ability to have sex is usually assumed. With the leftovers of my student loan, I finally ordered those dilators from online, and spent a tense Christmas break in my childhood bedroom with lots of wine and heavy breathing as I tried to manoeuvre those bastards into me. And eventually, things started to change. Maybe it was a new partner, maybe it was the dilators, maybe it was just sheer bloody-mindedness, but I did it: I was finally able to have painless sex, hell, even to enjoy it. And that’s awesome, but it doesn’t mean that I’ve forgotten what it was like to suffer from vaginismus, and wonder how other women who suffer from FSD are being treated.
It might sound like I’m pretty angry about a lot of this, and that’s precisely right. I had a pretty common medical condition whose resolution usually needs a wide variety of different approaches, sometimes including emotional and physical therapy. I never got that. I was never even offered that. Even though it’s long behind me now, you try shaking two and a half years of being convinced that you were frigid and no person who ever want to form a relationship with you because you couldn’t have sex- that shit will mess with you, and still does to this day. If I’d been a man who couldn’t get it up, there would have been myriad options to help me with what I was going through, and at least I would have known that my experiences were common and not exclusive to me. But no- we’re not teaching people about it, we’re not talking about it, and we’re leaving the scores of women who suffer from vaginismus and other sexual dysfunctions out in the cold. My experiences, luckily, are not universal for women who tried to get help, but they’re not unusual either-and, even if we have got a little pink pill to boost our libidos, we’re failing to address the myriad other sexual dysfunctions that might well cause that lack of desire to get down.
So, I want to address this last paragraph to women who are suffering or have suffered from FSD: firstly, it gets better. Even if you think you’re crazy or broken, even if no-one seems to have a clue what’s wrong with you, it can get better, and you deserve to have it taken seriously. Secondly, when you’re ready, talk about it. Talk about it with your friends, your family, write about it, write it in the sky from the engines of a light aircraft. Because every time a woman is dismissed or shut down on the subject of FSD, it blocks an opportunity to educate and hopefully normalise these strikingly common problems, making them less stigmatizing and therefore easier to seek treatment for. Because we deserve better than this.