Painful Penetration: One Human’s Experience With Vaginismus
The first time I experienced painful penetration I was fifteen years old. I was with my first serious boyfriend at the time and, like many catholic high school students with raging hormones, we had begun to explore ways of getting around the “celibacy” rule of Catholicism. After all, there was nothing in the bible against hand jobs and fingering—right?
We went to his house after school one day heading right for his basement bedroom. His parents were upstairs so we turned on Just Dance 2009 to throw them off the scent of our hedonism. I remember not feeling nervous, in fact I was excited. What could go wrong? We fumbled with zippers and belt buckles, discovered what hands and mouths could do, and it was all cute and fun until “OUCH!”
At first, I thought he had fingered the wrong hole. Or maybe he forgot to clip his finger nails? The pain was sharp and quick, enough to snap me out of the moment. He apologized profusely, both of us not knowing what had just happened. But alas we continued, avoiding that area all together. “Just rub your fingers on the outside, on the top part” I told him—the poor boy fumbled around down there like he was searching for spare change. What I hadn’t realized at the time was that painful encounters like this one would follow me through the majority of my sexual experiences, and even some non-sexual experiences.
Vaginismus (pronounced Vaj-in-iz-mus) is described by medical professionals as the involuntary contraction/spasms of the vaginal walls upon or during penetration. As I am not an OBYN, I can only speak to my own experiences and symptoms. The way I preface my experience with Vaginismus is with a quote from season 2 of Netflix’s Sex Education. In episode 8, the endearingly peculiar Lily says to her girlfriend: “I have something called Vaginismus. My vagina’s like a Venus fly trap.” In watching this show I felt seen and validated in my body. In fact, watching Lily go through discovering her pain, searching for a diagnosis, and beginning dilatation therapy is what inspired me to seek my own treatment. I began using this line as an ice breaker with prospective sexual partners.
Regardless of the length or girth of whatever is entering me, be it a finger, penis, toy, or sometimes even tampons, I always experience a sharp and intense pain at the entrance of my vagina and base of my pelvic floor upon penetration. So, you can imagine my fear surrounding pap smears, tampon/menstrual cup insertion, and yes, sex. All through my teenage years and early twenties I felt broken, betrayed by my own body. I didn’t have access to the language or knowledge about this condition, so I figured I was the problem. Though many partners tried to work with me on it, they either gave up and we avoided penetration all together, or we continued and I would just bare with it. This then unknown condition of mine produced a lot of internalized shame and sexual repression within me. As a queer and non-binary human living in a cis-heteronormative world where the legitimacy of sex is based on penetrative acts, I was an outsider looking in.
In 2018 I finally decided to talk to my doctor about it, which was difficult for me because we already had a strained relationship. She examined me and said “Yep, you probably have Vaginismus. It requires extensive therapy to cure, but since the pain isn’t severe enough, I suggest lots of lube and foreplay moving forward.” At first, I was okay with this. After all, I was just relieved to have finally spoken up about it. But the more I thought about this invalidating response from my doctor, the more disempowered I felt. How could she rate my own pain for me? Why would I have brought this up to her if I wasn’t seeking some form of treatment? Am I not worthy of pain free sex?
After months of doting on this experience, I decided to take matters into my own hands. I did what I had access to. I began telling prospective sexual partners about my condition and outlining my boundaries as early as possible. I explored my body and other sensitive areas where I could access pleasure. I started talking to myself in a nicer way, soothing the voices that tell me I’m less of a human because I can’t orgasm a certain way. Just before the pandemic started, I made an appointment with a pelvic health centre in Markham devoted to individualized treatment. Unfortunately, when we went into lockdown that appointment fell through, and I ended up pursuing psychotherapy instead. I couldn’t afford both therapy and pelvic health treatment, but in therapy I learned that my condition is likely linked to mental health and sexual trauma. Apparently, being taught that sex before marriage is a sin and growing up in a world that shames your sexual identity and desires at every turn has lasting effects. Who knew?
I wish I had something inspiring to say about my experience, but I don’t. Vaginismus fucking sucks. It is a devastating, mentally, and emotionally taxing condition that doesn’t get talked about enough. I think the world has a long way to go in acknowledging and respecting that all bodies are different, and that sex doesn’t look any one way. If you’re someone who experiences vaginal pain of any kind, I’ll leave you with something that I wish someone had told me a long time ago: I see you. I hear you. I love you. Your pleasure is important. You’re not broken.