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An Open Letter to My Vagina: Sex, Pain, and Vaginismus

Overcoming the condition that makes sex as painful as the very first time, every single time.

av Madison Griffiths
2016 03 31, 12:00am

Mietta said I should give you a name this morning—"an identity," so to speak. She's my sex therapist, who's helping me learn to listen to you. Then there's Brooke, a physiotherapist, who affably giggles when I apologise on your behalf during our fortnightly examinations. We started off with one-third of a pointer finger, and quivering knees. You're somewhat agreeable now; although only on certain days.

We'll celebrate when this is over—dilators and all.

Is naming a vagina like naming a child? I can't recall ever stumbling across an article recounting "1001 of the Year's Favourite Vagina Names" during my Internet trawls. Just as I can't recall a time when you didn't aggressively, perhaps instinctively, ensure the gates were sealed to your unknown chamber. And yet, amidst your intent resistance, here I still am—maintaining a steady gaze, smiling at my frustrated lovers, "It's okay, just keep trying."

According to vaginismus.com (a domain name I'm sure would've been in high demand), vaginismus is a condition caused by the "involuntary tightening of the pelvic floor, especially the pubococcygeus (PC) muscle group." Essentially that means one may experience burning, stinging, and tightness during sex. For some it makes penetration impossible. Often during sex your breathing will halt and other body muscle groups (such as the legs or the lower back) spasm involuntarily. Tampons and gynaecological examinations are a no-go.

What makes vaginismus so unique is that it exists both in the mind and the body. The reaction isn't conscious. Much like blinking, the PC muscles have taught themselves to contract and "flinch" in ways to protect themselves against the anticipated threat. Left untreated, the condition worsens—the contractions have the opportunity to mature. And so they become "stronger" and last longer, with greater intensity. You're like my tiny, troublesome body-builder down there. An iron woman of sorts.

I never told my first love about you. I didn't tell anyone. As a woman amongst women, sex was never discussed in a way that suggested to me that it was physically pleasurable. Emotionally, perhaps. It was flattery, more than anything.

In retrospect, perhaps my first time was the best. I could justify the pain: I was merely losing my virginity, and it was my feminine duty to endure such affliction. He fumbled about my body in a drunken but polite fashion. But I remember jolting when he brazenly inserted the first finger. It was immediate. It was like an electrocution. Everything seized. It felt as if you were fastening yourself around the intrusion—like a painful, dry suction.

We kept at it for eighteen months; you, I, and him. And it's not as if I didn't enjoy the relationship. I loved the feeling of being loved. But I was always aware of your voice—shooting through me, occasionally bejeweling my body in goosebumps. I had to learn to ignore you. Every time my lower back seized, or my legs kicked out, I pretended it was intense pleasure. Because how do you tell somebody you care about and long for at 17 that his love feels like razor blades?

I'm sorry. I thought all cis-gendered, heterosexual women faked it. I thought we'd all subscribed to some hilarious, inside joke where, in a parallel universe, we'd laugh over coffee about how, as much as sex hurts, we all wanted it. Pain was just a price we had to pay.

Illustration by author.

I told my second boyfriend 18 months into our relationship. His reaction was exactly why I'd kept my secret for as long as I did: He was frustrated, confused, and robbed of empathy. I talked too much about it, he said. It was a disgusting topic, he chastised. "Oh!", he yelled sarcastically one night between my halted tears. "You have vaginismus?! Really? I had no idea."

I felt constant shame and rejection. It was as though my body was riddled with disease; a body he wanted nothing to do with unless it was fixed, and even then. My broken vagina became more than just that—I began feeling like a broken woman. My body not petite enough. My style not revealing enough. My voice: too loud and obnoxious. My hair: too thick, short and unruly. My fingernails weren't manicured and kept. If not an attractive woman; if not an attractive, heterosexual, penetrable cis-woman—then what?

When he went overseas, I made it my mission to be "fixed" in time to visit him. That's when I shyly introduced you to Mietta and Brooke. We were diligent, the four of us. I had so much incentive. I falsely envisaged how our relationship would change once I could have penetrative sex. We'd laugh more. We'd see more films. Naturally, that wasn't the case at all. We were reunited after two uncomfortable plane rides, and six months of my telling him penetrative sex wasn't an option until I felt truly comfortable. He insisted we try, and I said yes. Of course I said yes.

It was 16:00, but true to the Scandinavian climate, it was as dark as night. I didn't know what day it was. He looked different, and it had been so long. The attempt was brief. I asked for patience, but perhaps too much patience. He sourly noted that the process was "too medical," sighed, and stopped. Too medical for who?

My wearied, tempered eyes locked with his. It was as if you, my enraged; now suffering self, sent a furious wave through me. It wasn't an electrocution, no. But rather a motivating force. This was the last straw. Never again was I to let him dictate my worth based on a condition he exacerbated. I was done. I didn't see his empty, frustrated pupils, but instead envisioned my painful interactions with dilators, my screams as Brooke attempted to remove a small tampon after one overly ambitious appointment, pretending my spasms were pleasurable responses night after night for so many years. How difficult it was to function for days after sex: the redness, the rawness, the hurt. Too medical for who?

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Back in Melbourne, six months into my treatment, there are some weeks when you and I were ticking boxes I didn't even know existed. Then there are other weeks where you rejected me entirely. I understand that; I rejected you for so long as well.

I truly never meant to be unkind to you. It's just that sex is everywhere and nowhere at the same time. Sex is nothing like sex is. It is perplexing and discomforting. And rather than listening to you, I listened to the flustered giggling of a comrade of schoolgirls who—between porn, real-life, and poorly illustrated comics in sex ed books—discussed all things sex. Endlessly. At some point I started believing sex was meant to hurt; even if just for the first time.

There have been three since. One: a kind person, who laughed as I apologised for my body. My pelvis sighed a hot gulp of air: relief. There was nothing to fear. He won't hurt you. The second: captivating in every sense. I had met him that night. I was enthralled and forgot for a moment that I sported this ailment. So this is what sex is meant to feel like, I thought, as the morning sun began peeking through his windows.

The third was an eager admirer, who compassionately listened to the clinical description of my vaginismus, but when push came to shove, thought only to address his own pleasure. Sure, it hurt—it stung in all of those familiar, unprepared crevasses. But not like it used to. Never like it used to.

I named you Tori. Tori means winner; conqueror. Mietta thinks it's a fantastic name. I remember my mother telling me she was going to name me Tori, so it seemed fitting. It isn't too delicate. It doesn't remind me of petals and vanilla incense. You're not fragile. You're one tough lover, that's for sure. You are more than a throbbing, aching space to puncture, Tori.

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Tagged:
Sex
women's health
personal essay
Australia/NZ
vagina
Vice Blog
vaginismus