At fourteen years old, I attempted to use a tampon for the first time. I thought that hysterically crying on the bathroom floor whilst I tried to insert it with the help of my mother was entirely normal. My response felt valid because I expected pain. Just as I expected pain when I attempted to have sex for the first-time years later. What I am learning to do now, at twenty years old, is to break this cycle of thinking.
It was after many attempts at having sex that my expectations of pain were matched. Initial attempts, whereby penetration was practically impossible, caused confusion, anxiety and a general queasiness. This feeling I can only describe as wanting to completely shut my legs and curl up into a ball. I remember setting myself goals of being able to use a tampon by age fifteen, then sixteen, which turned into seventeen and before I knew it I was attempting to have sex without any biological understanding of my own body. I couldn’t even use a mirror to look at my vagina as it made me too uncomfortable. When the slightest form of penetration became possible with a boyfriend, the searing pain it resulted in caused me to visit the doctors. A horrifically uncomfortable examination later, and I was diagnosed with a condition called vaginismus. This condition has gained recent attention due to its inclusion in Netflix’s Sex Education, whereby a college student named Lily has the condition and describes her vagina as a ‘Venus fly trap’. The technical definition of vaginismus is the involuntary tightening of the vagina due to muscle spasms that prevents penetrative sex, (or the insertion of a tampon etc) or causes pain during it.
Pain is not normal in sex. It is not something that schoolgirls should chat about to make them feel grown up because they are tolerating another female woe. ‘I cried for hours after I tried’. ‘I bled for like three days after’. But who is to blame us? We were educated about safe sex and consent (arguably) but not about pleasure or therefore lack of, specifically from a female perspective.
To an extent these conversations will always take place between kids and teenagers at school. However, I believe with the right education these inevitable conversations can have a positive effect. A curriculum including female anatomy, masturbation and pleasure could prevent painful sex being normalised for a generation of teenagers. I have experienced so much positivity from talking to my female friends about sex, but only in recent years (at least two friends I have met at university have shared with me that penetrative vaginal sex is impossible, or painful for them too). If these positive examples of communication can happen at an earlier age perhaps sex would be such a better experience for so many more women. Sex is not something that should only be discussed between a child and her parent, teacher or counsellor. Girls should talk to other girls about sex in an honest, non-sensational way so that women go on to have better sex.
Not everybody would have taken such a negative experience away from the way in which these conversations were framed in social circles. The way these conversations effect certain students and not others of course ties into other debates around self-esteem and confidence. After my diagnosis and a nine-month waiting list, I began psychosexual therapy through the NHS in Leeds (which after three sessions was halted due to coronavirus but nevertheless, I made substantial progress both during that time and beforehand with my partner). With the help of my therapist I have been able to establish that personally, I found many of these conversations intrusive at a young age. An initial intrusion surrounded pressure I placed on myself to be able to use a tampon for a surfing school trip in year nine. I have also been able to identify times in my life where I have felt a loss of control of my body, talking therapy for these examples have provided me with methods to retake control; with this article being one example. My therapist has also introduced me to physical exercises I can practise that aim to break the cycle of fear and pain. Certain exercises have been as simple as using a mirror to routinely look at my physical anatomy; I can now do this without my legs seizing up. There are several other methods and tools to treat this condition, and these along with being in a supportive relationship have vastly improved my experiences of sex and penetration in the last year.
However, this article is not explicitly about the discussion over methods post diagnosis. It is about the significance that surrounds fundamentally changing the notion that sex is something women endure.
Image credit: Sex Education, Netflix.