Partly for religious reasons, partly because of a bad relationship history, and entirely due to personal choice, I waited until I got married to have sex. I didn’t think my first time would be particularly graceful or miraculous. I assumed it would be messy and maybe painful and possibly even funny, and I was delighted that both embarrassment and pleasure would be shared with my soon-to-be husband. I went into my wedding night (or, let’s be honest, the day after) full of confidence that the rose-colored glasses were off and relieved that this milestone would soon be passed.
What I was not expecting was not being able to have sex at all.
Sex Ending In Blood And Tears
Over the first weeks of our marriage, my husband and I tried having sex numerous times, each attempt ending with him in worried confusion and me in excruciating pain. The pain, though acute, was nothing compared to the shame. Humiliation consumed me. I had always prided myself on my strong feminist sense of self-worth and this deep mortification was a shock. Although I logically knew that I was no less a wife, emotionally I felt as though I had already failed. Hadn’t my body been evolutionarily designed for precisely this purpose? I had never had a problem with a tampon or a pap smear. Sex ending in blood and tears seemed like a biological betrayal.
The other unanticipated and unwelcome effect of this ordeal was that it was driving a wedge between me and my brand-new spouse. Normally ardent communicators, we were maintaining a careful silence on the subject. We wallowed separately, not wanting to add to each other’s burden. I kept my crying to the shower. My husband didn’t even feel like he had a right to be upset since I was the one in pain. Both of us were ruminating about worst-case scenarios (what if we never had sex?) that would end in divorce and misery. Marriage was making us lonelier.
It Felt Like Hitting A Wall
A few years beforehand, a close friend from college had confided that she had been diagnosed with the horrifying-sounding “vaginismus.” She described the sensation of it feeling like her boyfriend was “hitting a wall” whenever they tried to have sex, how she had learned to associate sex with pain, and just how invasive the resulting months of physical therapy were. I had listened with sympathy and the detached curiosity of someone never expecting to undergo the same thing. Now I recalled her experience with a wince. I googled “vaginismus” and read what appeared to be a litany of my current marital problems: Burning or stinging with tightness during sex. Difficult or impossible penetration. Unconsummated marriage.
The internet provided pockets of hope. Vaginismus, which is technically defined as the involuntary contraction of pelvic muscles, has its own subreddit full of women whose stories mirrored mine. They were there to vent, offer advice, and cheer on small victories. I stayed silent, but eagerly glommed onto any sign of light at the end of the tunnel while trying to keep the looming fears of annulling my marriage at bay.
The Perils Of Being A Woman In Pain
The internet is also full of unnervingly common horror stories about the perils of being a woman in pain. Studies and anecdotes repeat the same mantra: your pain is less believable, your suffering less important, you’re probably exaggerating. Vaginismus is the apex of this problem. It’s a medical condition exclusive to women, the symptoms don’t always present themselves during an exam, and it can be extremely awkward or shameful to talk about in plain terms. One of the main resources for women suffering from vaginismus warns that “getting medical confirmation can be challenging” and that so many physicians are unfamiliar with it that they often advocate for unnecessary surgery. I booked the soonest appointment with my gynecologist and rehearsed what I would say, trying to strike a balance between a scientific description of symptoms and the emotional urgency I felt. The first time we finally had sex was the morning of my gynecologist appointment, a month and a half after our wedding date. I was so relieved that my anxieties about the appointment dissipated. We would figure this out. My gynecologist, cheerful and chatty, listened sympathetically and did an exam without a breath of doubt about my self-described pain. “The muscles are quite tight,” she clucked, while writing out a prescription for physical therapy with a pelvic floor specialist. “We’ve sent so many women to her, she’s wonderful,” she said reassuringly. Here was hope in two forms: I was going to get better and I was not alone.
The Magic of Hope
I’ve been in physical therapy for about four months, which has been an enlightening acquaintanceship with my own body through at-home stretching assignments and perineal massage at my appointments. Progress has been slow but palpable. I can have sex with my husband, often without any discomfort. It’s something I want and not something I dread. At my latest appointment, my therapist beamed, “Well, I don’t think you’re going to need me anymore.”
I was lucky in so many ways. My particular case was not severe. I didn’t have the anxiety or trauma that is so often associated with vaginismus. My husband was understanding and eager to help. I had a dear friend who had been open about her own experience, ultimately leading me to seek help quickly. My gynecologist was compassionate and immediately got me into physical therapy. My physical therapist was a dream. But even with all this luck, I had felt utterly desolate and ashamed, convinced that despite all evidence to the contrary, I was the only woman in the world going through this.
For those of you who are reading this with a sting of recognition, let me be the one to tell you: there are people who will believe you and help you and you are going to get better. You are not alone in this.