This week we are delighted to welcome back Quinn Rhodes with the first in a two part series of posts about vaginismus
“Just relax and think about something else.”
“Have some wine!”
“It’s normal for it to hurt the first time he fucks you.”
These are all things that women and afab people* are told – by our friends, by doctors, and by society. We live in a society that has not only taught us that sex looks like a penis going in a vagina, but one that has normalised that first-time sex will hurt for people with vaginas. Sex isn’t supposed to hurt, but a 2017 study by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists found that more than 75% of women and afab people will experience pain during sex at some point.
Yet we don’t talk about that. Whether it comes from dryness and a lack of arousal or having recently given birth, the idea that sex will be painful for us has been so normalised that women and afab people across the world put up with it. We’re taught that it will hurt, so why should we complain when it does? We may no longer be told to lie back and think of England, but there’s an expectation that we keep having sex even if it hurts, because that pain is normal.
I thought that pain was normal.
When I started teaching myself to masturbate, I thought that the way that women and afab people were supposed to get off was by fingering themselves. The erotica I read backed this up, talking about how good fingers and dicks and dildos would feel inside you. The first time I tried to push a finger inside my vagina I felt only a dull ache. When I tried again, that ache rose to a stinging pain.
At first, I assumed that I was just trying to push my finger in at the wrong place. I bought a hand mirror and studied my vulva, but even though I was sure I could see my vagina I still couldn’t get a finger inside it. I went away and did some research and realised that I should be focusing my efforts on my clit. Touching my clit felt so good, but even though everything I read said that penetration should be easier if I was turned on and wet, it wasn’t. It still hurt.
Because I have spent my whole life being taught that if you have a vagina sex will be painful the first time, I thought this was normal. I knew I couldn’t push through that pain to get a finger inside myself, but I thought that I could bare that pain if it wasn’t my own hand. The first time I had sex, the guy I was fucking tried to push his littlest finger into my vagina. I almost screamed. He tried again, this time with lube after he’d spent ages touching my clit. It still hurt too much, and he barely got the tip of his finger inside. He said he wasn’t comfortable forcing my body to do something that was clearly very painful for me.
I scolded myself for being so scared of the pain that I couldn’t properly have sex. I thought that I must be weak, and that it hurt this much for everyone, so I just needed to push through and then my body would start to get used to the sensation of having something inside me. I continued to attempt penetration when I wanked – using cotton buds, the tip of a vibrator, even a tampon because I know everyone** used them – but it hurt so much. I started to associate touching my vagina with pain, so clenched up whenever my hand went near it even if I wasn’t going to try and push anything inside.
I felt broken.
Like any other Gen Z sex nerd, I turned to the internet for answers. I was severely disappointed. Everything I read seemed to suggest that I just wasn’t turned on enough, or wet enough, or that I needed to be using more lube. I was already doing all of these things! This is around the time when I started reading sex blogs, but even they didn’t mention finding penetration impossibly painful. Fueled by what I was reading, my fantasies all featured fingers and sex toys going inside my vagina. I thought that’s what sex had to look like. I was queer, so I knew that sex didn’t involve just a penis going into a vagina… but I did think it was supposed to include things going into holes.
Eventually, frustrated with my own body and angry that I couldn’t just push through the pain, I turned to an older friend who I knew had had sex. I asked her if this kind of pain was normal. I explained that I understood that my first time would probably hurt, but I wasn’t sure that it was supposed to hurt this much. I asked her if she thought I was overreacting to a little bit of pain, and if I just needed to push through it. She was horrified by how much it hurt me to even get the first half-centimetre of my little finger inside my vagina, and more horrified when I added that it hurt that much with lube, when I was super turned on.
I kept researching, digging deeper than the ‘your first time might be painful!’ articles that encouraged me to fantasise and use lube. I waded past forums full of well-meaning women telling me to “just have some wine and relax!” until I found stories from people who had been given that same advice by their doctor and it hadn’t helped. I found a word for what I was experiencing: a word describing the involuntary contraction of muscles around the opening of the vagina, that makes sexual intercourse painful or impossible.
To quote the NHS website: “Vaginismus is the body’s automatic reaction to the fear of some or all types of vaginal penetration. Whenever penetration is attempted, your vaginal muscles tighten up on their own. You have no control over it.” I clung onto these words like a lifeline. It wasn’t just that it meant I wasn’t broken, it meant that I didn’t have to force myself through the pain I felt whenever I touched my vulva. The pain I was experiencing wasn’t normal, and I wasn’t just the only woman or afab person who was too weak to “get it over with”.
My experience is far from unique. When the highly acclaimed Netflix show Sex Education introduced a character who really wanted to have sex but found attempting penetration painful, many people heard to word ‘vaginismus’ for the first time. Because of Lily Iglehart’s story line in a series that more than 40 million people have streamed, women and afab people are beginning to realise that they aren’t broken. They’re beginning to understand sex is not supposed to hurt.
Research suggests that while the current stats show that two in every thousand women and afab people have vaginismus, the real number is much higher. Why? Because for women and afab people, pain during sex is normalised. We are not listened to about our own bodies, and conditions that affect people with vaginas are chronically under-researched. It’s not just vaginismus – look at endometriosis, which affects one in ten afab folks yet takes on average seven and a half years to be diagnosed. And that’s for white women and afab people: for BIPOC with a vagina, it’s even harder to get a diagnosis of or treatment for one of these conditions.
There are ways to treat vaginismus. Today I own vaginal dilators and do pelvic floor drops and understand that I might never have sex where fingers or dicks or dildos fill my vagina. I understand that sex looks like so much more than just things going into holes. I’m no longer resigned to sex being painful – even if a partner is going down on me and their tongue on my vaginal opening hurts too much, I’ll ask them to stop. Today I am still scared of my vagina, but I am working on that fear. Neither I, nor anyone else, owes anyone sex – especially not sex which is defined as a penis going into a vagina.
I often wonder what my experience would have been if I’d walked into my doctor’s office when I started having sex told my GP that I was finding penetration painful. Would my pain have been dismissed, and the idea that first time sex is painful by encouragements to ‘get it over with and it will hurt less next time’? When I did talk to my doctor about it, I told them that I had vaginismus and asked what help and treatments were available. Having a word for my experience was empowering, but it was more than that – I knew that sex wasn’t supposed to hurt.
So, just in case no one has told you this yet: sex is not supposed to hurt.
*Afab people are people who were assigned female at birth.
** Obviously I now know that not everyone uses tampons – for many people, whether they have vaginismus or not – they stick to pads and other period products.