One by one, each girl in my sixth-grade class took turns applying and removing the piece of duct tape from our arms. Once the tape made its way around the room, our instructor at my Lutheran school used it as an analogy: Women who have premarital sex with multiple partners resemble the tape — tattered and impure.
Toxic messaging about sex became so ingrained in my childhood that it was one of the factors that caused vaginismus, the involuntary contraction of vaginal muscles.
The condition has shaped my adult life. At summer pool parties as a teenager, I’d stay out of the water because my body would convulse whenever I attempted to insert a tampon. In my early 20s, I felt lightheaded reading about the Pap smear and avoided scheduling an appointment out of fear of penetration. Sex felt painful and sometimes impossible — past partners described it as “hitting a wall.”
“What can I do to help you relax?” my partner would ask. The reality was — nothing.
Vaginismus is believed to be one of the more common female sexual dysfunctions. But the normalization and diminishment of painful penetration made the condition all the more confusing to me and others. The idea of painful sex seemed incomprehensible to most people I confided in, despite 3 in 4 women experiencing it at some point during their lifetimes.
I was convinced something had to be wrong with my body. I was 14 when I listened to comedian Amy Schumer speak on national television about Asian women having the “smallest vaginas in the game.” As I matured from teenager to young woman, it was common for men to echo degrading comments, reinforcing harmful stereotypes.
By the time I was 19, I scheduled a gynecologist appointment. The lube, vibrators and hours of attempted sex had failed, and my partner at the time was not sexually satisfied (the suggestion of an open relationship had already come up, but that was off the table for me). I was terrified of how my inability to be sexually intimate at times might impact the quality of our relationship. I became more concerned with my then-relationship than I was with the pain and anxiety that consumed my body.
The gynecologist got as far as the apex of my thighs before my muscles spasmed. After the examination, she rejected the notion that my own physiology was the cause for the involuntary clenching. I had vaginismus, she said.
I previously came across the term when I scavenged the Internet searching for possible answers. Articles described the condition as rare, so I never thought twice about the possibility that I was affected. The gynecologist asked about my views and experiences of sex.
I told her that I grew up in a conservative, Christian home in Indiana and attended a Lutheran school up until college. The same message persisted at church, home and school: Premarital sex was a sin and nothing was more sacred than saving yourself for marriage. Once I lost my virginity, I could never reclaim it.
As I began to form my own views after moving to college, I realized the toxicity of purity culture and how it physically, emotionally and psychologically impacted me.
My first sexual experience at 18 years old was through coercion. From the moment I was first touched intimately, I associated sex with fear and pain.
My religious upbringing and sexual trauma created the perfect storm for developing vaginismus, the gynecologist told me. But the condition was curable. She scribbled down the name of a local store where I could purchase vibrators and directed me to a website for vaginal dilators. The tools were meant to help train my body into becoming more comfortable with penetration.
I tucked the piece of paper into my backpack, unsure how to proceed. I still couldn’t insert a tampon correctly, so the idea of experimenting with vibrators and dilators sounded impossible. It would be years before I opened her note again.
In college, I began talking to other women who also suffered from vaginismus. We bonded over people telling us our pain was normal, and it felt liberating to know the condition wasn’t as uncommon as our society painted it to be.
I still found myself apologizing to men when I could not always give them what they wanted. Many people I talked to had never heard of the term vaginismus before. And some women still questioned if I was putting in a tampon the wrong way.
From best-selling novels like “Fifty Shades of Grey” to award-winning TV shows like “Bridgerton,” sex is glamorized in media and literature. Yet sexual dysfunction, a reality for men and women, is rarely discussed.
The prevalence rate of vaginismus in a clinical setting has been estimated as 5 to 17 percent, clinical trials have found. But the count is most likely higher because of the shame around discussing painful penetration, experts say.
When strict stay-at-home measures hit in 2020, my hours spent engaging in typical college activities were replaced with time alone.
Perhaps it was out of boredom or curiosity, but I was finally ready to make those purchases the gynecologist recommended to me a few years back. Fast-forward to age 22, after many attempts and pep talks to myself, and I was able to successfully wear tampons. Penetration became less painful and scary, and it felt as if I was slowly overcoming vaginismus.
As I enter the post-vax dating scene, I feel emboldened for the first time in my life to be transparent with other women and partners about my experience with vaginismus. I will no longer allow the prevailing stigma around sexual dysfunction to isolate me: I’ve found that validating myself and other women has been just as important as relearning pleasure.