This year, Sh! marks Vaginismus Awareness Day with an online event providing support and advice to those living with painful sex and will give out dialator sets, donated to women on limited income, through our Pay it Forward scheme. To raise awareness about the impact of this condition, Sh! is gathering real-life stories to publish on the vaginismusawareness.com blog. The story below has been shared with us and the author has given us permission to share it with you.
Trigger Warning: Trauma
Please read the story with caution. You may find the content distressing or traumatic and if you do, please take a break and maybe call a friend, or engage in an activity that will help ground you. Love, Team Sh! xx
My Hypnotherapist explained it to me like this:
When your body says ‘no’ and you ignore it (and don’t beat yourself up about that, life confuses you sometimes), it starts making decisions for you, to protect you from that which it perceives to be threatening. It is hard wired for survival. It’s doing its job and you’re up against a good few million years of evolutionary instinct when you try to challenge that. The problems arise because sometimes it has to make decisions that it can’t fully communicate to your brain because your body doesn’t do ‘time’ or ‘why?’, it can only tell you how it feels ‘now’ and react accordingly. If your body is feeling traumatised, regardless of what your brain might perceive trauma to be, it feels that trauma ‘now’. And it can be in that ‘now’ for a really long time.
I didn’t realise I’d had Vaginismus since I was eighteen until I was thirty eight. I knew it wasn’t normal that I couldn’t use tampons, insert fingers, that there was literally no room in what I’d been taught (wrongly) was essentially: a hole. I also assumed that my lack of feeling pleasurable sensation inside my genitals, despite the direct contradiction that that seemed to come from everywhere, was just ‘how it is’. I instinctively, or rather, my body instinctively knew something wasn’t right. But I didn’t know how and who to talk to about this because of a single underlying factor that kept this condition firmly in place whilst crushing my budding sexuality, shame. So I just shut it down, ignored it, repressed it, because I didn’t have words for what ‘it’ even was. There was no mention in sex education about these kinds of ‘it’s’.
And once I figured all this out, I eventually felt liberated, relieved, ‘normal’, but that was only after I dealt with another toxic emotion that I couldn’t curb until I let it have its way, anger. I was so fucking angry that my body had shut me down at that crucial time in a young girl’s life when she wants to open up. I didn’t realise at the time the subtle and intricate ways your body tries to fight your corner, because it felt like it was fighting me. It wasn’t doing what I was told to expect by all those ‘other people who know how things work’. I didn’t realise that despite me becoming convinced it was the enemy, it was actually on my side.
At this point, if you haven’t already checked out my monologue (link below) which is from my solo show ‘No Entry’, have a look now, or if you’d rather just read on and I’ll give you the short version.
I was very insecure around boys when I was in my teens because I was an object of ridicule. I wasn’t ‘pretty’ or ‘hot’. I wasn’t displaying any sense of being sexual and wouldn’t have known how anyway. On this (what I now know to be superficial) level, I just didn’t count. So I threw myself at my older sister’s friend when I was eighteen ,who I knew to be up for anything, so I could at least start University with some sense of having ‘caught up’ because I had yet to do anything with anyone. Needless to say my first time wasn’t great. It rarely is right? Another myth we’re sold about virginity being somehow ‘precious’ and that when you ‘give it away’, it’s somehow changed you. If I’d have just had a bad first experience of sex, I don’t think my body’s reaction to feeling invaded without any ‘nice stuff’(like kisses and tingles and you know, feeling like you’re appreciated) happening to counteract it , would have escalated into full blown Vaginismus. What did it for me was my very sexually confident sister turning up, getting into bed with us, getting it on with him and both of them seemingly forgetting I was there. I forgot this happened until I saw him again at my sisters funeral about twenty years later and in all that time, I literally didn’t do anything intimate with anyone (no kisses, no touches, no ‘nice stuff’, nothing). Because then I had added to my anxiety about not counting, the trauma of someone I love basically reinforcing it and I felt worthless, inadequate and ugly. I stopped trying. I was scared of men who gave me the slightest whiff of sexual interest for reasons I couldn’t articulate, as much as I also craved to be intimate with people I was attracted to. It seemed like I repelled them with my vulnerability. But because I didn’t understand exactly why I felt so vulnerable, I took every rebuff personally, I fed the negative voice more food and the tightness got so tight I didn’t even feel it happening, because it numbed me. I was grasping with one half of me even as the other half was always on guard to push back. It was a subtle mundane kind of hell.
The trauma of losing my sister was catastrophic, I had a complete breakdown. The next year of my life was a complete right off. A constant state of nameless terror and feelings I could once again find no words for. Grief is not something that you can ever cure or put down, it’s with you in your body all the time, but after time, it becomes manageable, pliable. You can negotiate with it about how much you can stand to give in to it that day, or how much you just need to forget.
Not so with Vaginismus when you don’t understand what it is, why it’s there. It’s there all the time. You carry it around in every cell of a body you don’t feel connected to, in sync with, and because you can’t put down something that doesn’t feel like it’s supposed to be part of you, it saps a little more of your essence every day, until it feels like it’s not only part of you but the defining part. You normalize it. You figure, ‘this is just the way I am, numb, closed, tight’. I couldn’t make the connection between the cause and the effect because my brain had literally made me forget what my psyche couldn’t handle, up against my body’s sense of invasion; the distorted knowledge that I had somehow failed to measure up, be desirable, be sexy, worthy.
When I eventually got better after being on medication and having counselling, I finally figured out that grief was one thing, and the trauma of repressing my sexuality was another thing entirely. And in a way, this unconscious closing down followed by a violent blowing up has essentially been a positive thing, the making of me.
It made me determined to fix it, talk about it, it emboldened me to be brave and start talking about things I’d never told anyone. I decided I wanted to write a show about it in an effort to tackle something I needed to work through via the medium of what I love, what I’m good at; performing, creating, entertaining, showing off and prancing around on stage. It’s the only place I ever felt seen and worthy.
However, ‘fixing’ the problem hasn’t been an easy ride. Mainly because the language around Vaginismus is very much geared to this idea that it is something abnormal that needs to be cured. There is a lot of masculine doctrine projected on to a very feminine ‘condition’. There is nothing abnormal about your body saying ‘no’. You’re not born with abnormally tight vaginal muscles, your body has learned this because of something that has happened to it, to you, and that can be purely mental or purely physical but they will eventually start to feed each other, how can they not? It’s all you and there’s no escaping you. So the question is never ‘What’s wrong with you?’ The question should be why your body said ‘no’? I was horrified at how little this question is actually asked by the medical profession. I was very lucky to have a GP who, having seen me go through a full on break down, suggested psycho sexual therapy as well as dilators. When I talked to a female gynecology nurse her first question was ‘Have you considered surgery?’ Yeah I know right. That was her first question: a female gynecology nurse. WTF! I felt instantly enraged on behalf of any young girls who could have been me going to a health care professional with this worry about what the hell was happening to their bodies, having invasive surgery presented as the first solution. I realised I didn’t trust the medical professions default setting of going straight to the physical consequences of a psychological cause. Eventually all this confusing horribleness emboldened me to help myself my way. At the end of the day, no one knows what’s going on in your body better than you do, or rather, your body is keeping the score even if you’ve stopped counting.
Being a spiritual type, I went down the route of holistic care and this is ultimately what helped me the most in terms of helping my tight muscles unwind. I tried to give mind, body and soul a thorough healing with things like Hypnotherapy, Yin Yoga, and mindful masturbation. I re-educated myself about my anatomy and realised how my school sex education was utterly inadequate. I had (excuse the pun) a break through with a non invasive dilator you wear while you sleep, with the unfortunate name of a Vagi-wave (why would you call it that, seriously!). I spent a lot of time actively listening to my body, finally acknowledging that although I never asked for what prompted my Vaginismus, I had ignored the consequences for so long my body had to take some pretty drastic steps to make me listen to it. It, not all the negative thought processes I played over and again on a broken record I couldn’t fix or turn down. It had had to give me regular boughts of full on existential despair to make me realise it wasn’t as simple as ‘I can put a dildo up me finally, I’m cured’.
The phone call with the gyno nurse is what prompted me to make the kind of show that, had I watched when I was eighteen, would have given me an entirely different perspective on virginity, consensual pleasure, autonomy and how your body tries to take care of you. I wanted to be very candid about my personal life because I’ve finally got to that sweet stage in a budding feminist’s journey where you’re just done with shame, self censorship and worrying about if you’re over-sharing.
See the condition of Vaginismus is one thing, the condition of being perpetual single largely because of it is another. When I finally ‘cured’ myself, I naïvely expected that things would be different now, because I was different. But the situation didn’t change and as inspiring as women like Caitlin Moran, Deborah Frances White and Phoebe Waller Bridge have been for me on many levels in my journey, where is the female role model in the public sphere that I and women in my situation can totally relate to who says “I can’t have penetrative sex, I’ve never had a boyfriend and so fucking what? Does it make me any less kick ass, I think not”. I can’t find her, but I know she and many other women like us are out there. The problem is, they don’t want to be found, because they’re ashamed and I totally get it, so I’ve decided to step up so they can find me, so we can find each other. Which is why I’ve been very candid in the show about the fact that I was essentially a thirty eight year old virgin, who had kept the possibility any kind of intimacy at bay for so long I had just assumed no one would ever seek it with me anyway. This has been my single most invasive aspect of my experience with Vaginismus.
It’s never just about the Vaginismus, it’s about what it comes to represent to you metaphorically. I see it as a physical manifestation of the creeping dread that all this social conditioning has crippled me with about the fact that I have being perpetually single all my life. Since I’ve felt desire I’ve turned it in on myself cause it was never reciprocated and though I know now I may have been subconsciously going for the unobtainable people on purpose, because I didn’t know that consciously I took all the rejection personally, and that shit takes its toll on your self esteem and when people tell you;“you have to learn to love yourself anyway”, you know they mean well and that you absolutely should. But it’s a big ask when just want someone to fancy you back for once. They are unknowingly asking you to love the thing that has made you hate yourself and it’s impossible. It doesn’t take away your very real fear that you will be lonely for the rest of your life because the world we live in tells women like me in many subtly cruel ways every day that if you can’t have full on p in v sex, you don’t count, that you are simultaneously not enough and too much.
I didn’t know how to own this vulnerability, I masked it and stopped myself getting into situations where I might come across as ‘desperate’ so instead probably came across as ‘aloof’. There’s no lonelier place in the world than a body that has become a internal battleground that you just don’t want to talk about, or visit, or invite any one into who might be able help you put the guns down, cause what if they start another fight you have no ammunition for, because you’re ill equipped and exhausted? Or worse still, what if they just don’t get it and they laugh or recoil in disgust and inadvertently make you more bullets to hurt yourself with?
I feel like I ‘love myself’ much more than I used to, and exploring my body’s capacity for self pleasure has been a major part of that, but self love has its limits when your big complex is the disease of loneliness. Don’t get me wrong, sex toys have been a joy to discover and I highly recommend experimenting with them but no amount of playing with toys by myself could make up for the basic psychological fact that no one has ever touched me intimately in a way that wasn’t functional. I literally felt untouchable. Like this basic right to be nurtured with physical contact was not something I could ask for unless I was prepared to take more pain. I could feel that my capacity for pleasure was there, but it felt ‘stuck’. There was still a wall. I got to the stage where I realised no amount of talking therapy, pelvic floors exercises, audio erotica or tantric dance was going to make me feel like my body and I were friends again, that we could let go of this.
The crux of the problem was I couldn’t give myself a new narrative. There’s was nothing in it for my body to let its guard down when there was no possibility, or rather guarantee of this experience I craved going any other way than how it usually did, with me getting hurt.
In lived in a world where it seemed my choices were ‘dress more provocatively and go on dating apps’ or: ‘retire to a spinster cave in the forest with your thousand cats because we don’t know what to do with you’. I felt like I had no foundations to give my body an experience of how it should have been in an ideal world, where impressionable young women aren’t given their net worth as a sexual object before they’ve really had chance to figure out what they want on their own.
I felt in every other respect that I was a grown woman, yet when such a fundamental part of you is stuck in this hinterland of feeling frozen, infantilised, what can I do that won’t make it worse? I had to acknowledge the fact that the only way I was going to be able to catch my body up with the rest of me was to give myself a completely different experience of sex with another person. And this is the big contradiction for me. I crave sex but I’m terrified of it, I have urges like everyone does but I also have this thing in the way that nobody talks about. I have got it wrong with guys so many times I’m convinced I am untouchable, undesirable and I hate the fact that this matters so much to me when I was getting really good at feminism. How can I fix this? Who can I fix this with? Knowing that mentally and emotionally I can’t take any more rejection and that physically, my body is just begging me to either leave it alone or be brave enough to set it free, when either way there is no going back and at the same time no clear way forward?
I had finally clocked the toxic narrative of the patriarchy only to fall into the deep pit of confusion about what can become an equally damaging narrative: ‘you don’t need a man, you can give yourself the best orgasm ever, you are powerful, you are all you need to be you’. Again, don’t get me wrong I’m all for female sexual empowerment, it’s my new thing, I wish I’d got into this band years ago, but the means by which you can achieve it for yourself come with their own minefields. Don’t worry, all this has a happy ending, well, more like new beginning.
Which brings me to the present, where I’m going to tell you something that I didn’t think I’d want to divulge so soon, but it feels timely and important.
At the time of writing, it’s three days since I spent the night with a male escort who I hired after a good six months of changing my mind, procrastinating and catastrophising before I finally gave myself a very clear ultimatum: the possibility of moving on or more of ‘all this horrible shit’, potentially forever? It was an easy decision, though it didn’t stop the nerves, but you can never conquer a fear without nerves. I needed to be in a situation where I had control, with someone who wouldn’t reject me or confuse me with ambiguity and basically, not shag my sister straight afterwards. Someone who I didn’t have to go through the usual rigmarole or getting to know and investing in knowing when we got to the bedroom I’d either freak out and spoil it for myself or trigger my body with ‘not this again’ passivity for the sake of not wanting to kill the buzz. There was a lot riding on this for me, there was nothing casual about it.
This is a whole other ‘my story’ and I’ve already decided what my next show is going to be about, so I’ll just stick to the most relevant stuff.
I had an amazing experience with a very sensitive, intuitive, patient man. He also happened to be devastatingly sexy which was a massive help, and when I say sexy I use that word to encompass his personality, vibe and confidence just as much as his looks. He was very good at his job in bed, but more importantly, he was just as good out of it. I felt listened to, safe, seen, desirable. I learned so much about my body’s capacity to receive and give pleasure I’m still pinching myself about how easily and rapidly the damage of a single evening can be undone with another one that went the totally opposite way. I was able to surrender to the experience of letting go of years of sexual tension that my body had twisted around that potential sexual me that had frozen inside me when I was eighteen. The one who had been told by two people she trusted without them actually acknowledging her: “this is not for you, you’re out of your depth, you blew it, it’s your fault”
Although having someone utterly focused on me and helping me release all this was very pleasurable, it was also quite intense and overwhelming. I think the best thing I can liken it to is when I witnessed my friend giving birth to her second child. This might sound a bit weird but I felt like I ‘birthed’ my tension/pain/tightness out of me in one full on moment of release and I cried/laughed, and he was totally there for me as I wept uncontrollably into his lovely toned chest and announced. “It’s fine, it’s just cause I’m happy”. (If this has touched a chord with you, I recommend reading up on healing the female ‘pain body’ > DISSOLVING THE PAIN-BODY: An excerpt from THE POWER OF NOW by Eckhart Tolle > New World Library).
I’m still processing the feeling of being in a body that feels like it’s thanking me for a banquet after years of me starving it. I feel like I can resolve my delayed anger towards my sister for basically putting her sexual urges, or jealousy at mine maybe, before my feelings, knowing what she knew about me, because now I actually understand what all the fuss is about. I’m not excusing her or him from doing a shitty thing, but now I don’t feel like I was hurt on the basis of a big lie. Good sex with someone is totally getting off on getting you off feels great, you want to give your body the good stuff. Sometimes you want that good stuff ‘now’ and you don’t always notice how you might be making someone else feel.
So I’ve essentially come full circle and I don’t regret any of the anguish I went through in between because of shame, social conditioning, or my own self enforced victim mentality, because it all bought me to this place, this new ‘now’. Full of possibility, looking forward to more of the good stuff both from me and the potential of other people getting involved who are respectful, worthy and comfortable in matching my vulnerability with their own.
I’m not suggesting a night of ‘no strings sure thing’ great sex with an escort or any of the other things I’ve mentioned is what will help you through your Vaginismus. It’s a very personal thing. But let me just say this; whatever seems like it might work for you to feel more comfortable in your body, more whole, more in sync, try it, without judgment or shame or guilt and most importantly; pressure. This was something my escort clocked about me straight away. “You put a lot of pressure on yourself”.
No one can take this pressure off for you, you have to find a way, a place where you feel ready to try and take it off yourself. You need to cultivate ways of giving yourself permission to be as you are, without fear that that is how you might stay.
Wherever you are in your journey with recovering from Vaginismus, know this and remind yourself of this every time someone makes you feel shitty about it:
There is nothing ‘wrong’ with you or your body.
None of this is or ever was your fault.
There is nothing you have to feel guilty for or ashamed about.
You are not broken.
You are not a lesser woman because penetrative sex doesn’t feel good/isn’t possible/isn’t something your body wants to say ‘yes’ to yet.
You’re a woman living a world that doesn’t want to acknowledge your primal pain or what might have put it there. But there are also things in it that can help you, people that can help you, so know you are worthy to seek them out but most importantly, listen to your body first, because when it says ‘yes’, it’s wonderful.
12th September 2020
‘No Entry’ will hopefully be previewing at the postponed ‘Calm Down Dear’ Feminist Theatre Festival at Camden People’s Theatre when it’s rescheduled sometime next year.
In the meantime, here’s the monologue: https://youtu.be/BMiv8kSkJmg
And a link to a poem from No Entry: https://soundcloud.com/lornameehan/no-entry
You can watch performances/trailer for No Entry and other stuff on my Lorna Meehan youtube channel.
And most importantly, if you would like to get in touch with me privately to talk about any of the stuff I’ve talked about, please do. Like I said: let’s find each other- firstname.lastname@example.org
‘No Entry’ Images: copyright @Zak Marsh