What I've learned about sex since being diagnosed with vaginismus
Everyone tells you it hurts the first time.
No one tells you it hurts the second time, and the third time, and that it will continue to hurt every single time you try.
Vaginismus is a disorder that affects the vagina and pelvic floor muscles. It makes vaginal penetration of any kind painful, as the walls of the vagina are likely to spasm uncontrollably when anything as small as a finger tries to get inside.
At its best, vaginismus makes penetrative sex incredibly uncomfortable. As its worst, it makes it excruciating and pretty much impossible.
The condition is believed to affect somewhere between six and ten percent of women. There don't appear to be any concrete stats out there - presumably because conducting such a study would mean testing women for vaginismus and testing women for vaginismus would mean putting a lot of people in a lot of pain.
In some cases, the condition can be triggered by a particularly traumatic birth experience, a sexual assault, or anxiety disorders.
In other cases, like mine, it just happens. Seemingly, for no reason at all.
I was diagnosed with vaginismus when I was 19-years-old.
My doctor produced a tiny cotton swab to put inside of me, took one look at my terrified face and said "yeah you probably have it."
At the time, the condition didn't upset me. Getting a diagnosis meant that I knew there was something wrong and that I could go about starting to get myself fixed.
What followed were a few draining years of painful penetration attempts, expensive hypnotherapy, and the unwavering belief that I could never have a normal or satisfying sex life until I overcame this condition.
It's tiring to feel so inadequate. It's exhausting to feel like you're alone.
The realisation that I wasn't, and that I didn't have to be, came hard and fast and suddenly you couldn't shut me up about my vagina and the fact that no penis was getting within a two-mile radius of its walls.
I decided that I didn't want to put myself through more years of unnecessary emotional trauma.
I made the decision that painful dilators made to 'stretch' my vagina over an extended period of time just weren't for me.
Pop culture, questionable sex education classes, and misinformed teenage conversations had led me to believe that sex was restricted to vaginal penetration.
Anything else didn't count. That wasn't full sex.
Except it was. It definitely was.
Being open about vaginismus has taught me two things.
The first is that there's nothing wrong with me. The second is that many of us still have warped perceptions towards sex and pleasure.
Since speaking out about my condition I've been thanked for my honesty. I've been quizzed by people who genuinely want to educate themselves on vaginismus. I've been told that I'm brave.
But I've also been told that I'm strange.
People I've known for years have said that they don't understand the 'point' of sex without vaginal penetration. People I've just met have ridiculed me and said that they'd never be 'able to deal' with that.
Women living with vaginismus and other related conditions are being told to give anal sex a go instead. We're being asking to try breathing exercises, lots of lube, and to just grin and bear it.
We're being treated as if the holes in our bodies are the only things that make us worthy.
We're being treated as if it's all in our heads.
Despite the prevalence of the sex positivity movement and the willingness of many to understand that sex means different things to different people, there still remains the heteronormative assumption that 'sex' equals 'penis inside of vagina.'
And trust me, it doesn't.
There are plenty of issues that come with having vaginismus that are less than ideal but choosing to avoid vaginal penetration is not one that bothers me.
I can't use tampons. Smear tests are terrifying. I may never be able to have children. The mere sight of a condom is enough to make me anxious.
But these things, like most, are trivial and after a while, I learned to accept them.
Saying no to attempting vaginal penetration was another thing that I learned to do.
Growing up surrounded by what seemed like ceaseless talk of virginity, 'losing it,' and the assumption that there was only one way to have sex told me that I couldn't say no.
But once I did, it finally stopped hurting.