Love hurts. And so does making love. At least, for me it does, as well as for an estimated 8-21% of women at some point in their lives. Dyspareunia, vaginismus, vulvodynia; there are many difficult medical terms to describe the types of pain that some women have to deal with during intercourse, but they are all a pain in the hole. As a teenager, I thought I was the only girl with this problem. Around me it seemed my friends and peers were enjoying their first sexual relationships. I assumed they were happily exploring their own and each other’s sexualities. I eventually found out that the reason for feeling so isolated with my problem was that no one else was talking about it. In reality, some of my friends struggled with similar pains and conditions, but they were too scared to discuss them, like I was at first. This is why I want to share my story. I want to let other women know that they are not alone. I want them to know that their vaginas are not at all strange, and that there is help available. I would also like to shine a light on the way misogyny is deeply rooted into the way we think about sex and sexuality. I found this in the fact that multiple solutions offered by medical specialists are often more beneficial to the men that the diagnosed women have sexual relationships with, rather than the female clients that are seeking help for themselves.
Let me start off with a recent, very personal experience of mine that acts as a synopsis of the factors related to my problem. I am in my mid-twenties and I met a man of a similar age on a night out. We flirted, we danced, we kissed. As it was getting later, I was beginning to get my usual anxieties at the thought of his possible expectations. I hoped I could subtly leave without him noticing. Not because I wasn’t interested, but because I like to get to know someone better before telling them a very personal, and often disappointing, fact about my ability to have sex. Things didn’t go according to plan and he ended up at my place. I made my intentions clear and said I was not ready to have sex. By all means, I was attracted to this man and I wanted to kiss him and sleep next to him. Regardless of me being transparent about what I wanted, he kept trying for more and was very persistent. I explained to him why I was saying no: the opening of my vagina hurts. It hurts when anyone - even me - touches it, and sex can be very uncomfortable and painful for me. Sometimes it can even feel like a knife cutting through it. He backed off, we both went to sleep, and in the morning when he left he gave me a polite kiss goodbye.
Polite did not last long and soon after, he made a point of telling me that he is 'not a fucking teenager any more' and that he wasted his time on me. For a woman who has been dealing with this issue for years, it was really awful to be spoken to in such a way by a grown man. It is demeaning to have a man insinuate that I am being immature for trusting him with a huge personal aspect of my life and body. As if I have nothing better to do, he accused me of playing some sort of ‘teenage game’ simply because I had told him about my condition. I ‘wasted his time’ because as a heterosexual man, time spent with women that does not lead to sex is presumably time wasted; suggesting that women are for sexual gratification and not much else.
When I first started seeking help, I would have hoped that things would have improved now that I am older. I have been through those teenage years, a time when romantic and sexual relationships are intimidating enough without the added pressure I endured. I had to deal with teenage boyfriends sighing and getting frustrated with me. I experienced a huge invasion of my privacy when an ex-boyfriend told the whole school after we broke up, and I became the target of ridicule. I have encountered anxiety, judgement and alienation in ways that has been exacerbated due to the juxtaposition in which women are afforded sexuality in general: on men’s terms, or not at all.
At 18 years old I was referred to a psychosexual therapist for an assessment. She told me that they could not help me unless I was in a relationship of ‘at least six months’. Yes, those were her exact words. Her reasoning was that the treatment was aimed at couples working on the problem together. This is an extremely damaging message for an 18-year-old to hear. That being: I was not entitled to improve and enjoy my own sex life, unless I was in a long-term committed relationship with a man. This failure to help me as an individual is counterintuitive to having ownership over my own body and sexuality. I wanted to solve the problem before getting into my next sexual relationship - of whatever level of commitment. I could not help but wonder if they would have said the same to a man reaching out with a medical problem related to his genitalia. Whilst yes, it is true that at the time my main desire was to have ‘ordinary’ penetrative sex with a man, I also wanted to explore my body through masturbation and I was curious about sex with women. However, the message was clear: they would not help me if I was not committed to a man for a proven longer period of time. To be eligible for medical treatment for such an all-encompassing physical problem lies a hugely heteronormative premise. What about lesbian women? What about masturbation? It seems female sexuality can be easily dismissed if there is not a male partner benefitting from it.
I am grateful that I now realise how these conversations have affected me, that I have the support network to discuss and challenge them, and that I am mature enough to disagree and speak up when I need to. However, I do worry about other young women hearing the same outdated and detrimental ideologies from a medical professional or ‘expert’. I know first hand how easy it is to struggle and feel internalised shame about masturbation, gay sex, or casual relationships.
In my process of seeking treatment I have also been to a hospital vulva clinic. Here I was diagnosed with vulvodynia, a condition where a certain area of the vulva is painful with no explanation. Women can get it at any age, and it can also go away at any age. There is no real effective treatment for it; only different ways to work around it, soothe the pain, or learn how to live with it. Among a few options, which included counselling and physiotherapy, I was offered a numbing vaginal cream. The cream is to be applied approximately 30 minutes before expected intercourse in order to work and effectively numb the area. I refused; it seemed unnatural to me to numb the pain, as pain is usually an indicator that something is wrong. I insisted that I would like to feel when it gets worse so I know when to stop. The specialist then told me that it would not matter whether I feel the pain or not, as not only was the pain explained by the vulvodynia, but alarmingly that it is also normal for women to 'split', i.e. experience pain, when they are having sex. I could not help but notice her attitude towards me, for refusing the cream, was patronising and far from sympathetic or pleasant.
At the same time I was also seeing a therapist regarding my issue, and when I told her about the cream, she said that she wouldn't recommend it, because it also numbs the pleasure. Why would I want to have sex if I don’t get anything from it? It is absurd to think that in 2017 a recommended and prescribed solution for vaginal pain can be a numbing cream which prevents women from feeling anything, to the point it may even cause a woman to ‘split’ and inflict physical damage, for the sake of male pleasure. Female sexuality has become shrouded and saturated by misogyny and old-fashioned messages, resting on the premise that: sex is not for women. This is extremely disheartening to hear as a woman seeking help, especially when my primary motivation was as natural as wanting to enjoy my sex life, not to please anyone else.
Now that I am older, more confident and more assertive, I have learnt to talk about my issue. I now have a supportive network of friends, of different genders, who I do not shy away from talking about this with. Almost every person that I have ever mentioned it to knows someone who has a similar problem. Practically every sexual partner that I have told has had an ex-partner with similar symptoms. It’s heartening to hear from women that I have been friends with for years who, inspired by my openness, have suddenly spoken out about their issues and sought help too. They didn’t want to admit to themselves that they had similar problems, but are now comfortable because I spoke up about getting help. They also went to talk to their GPs and other professionals who are trained to shed light on the anatomy of the female body and genitalia. Above I have included an explanation of my experiences with medical professionals in detail because of the negative impact they have had on me and I want to make people aware. However, it is also important to note that I have also been consulted by brilliant gynaecologists who have made me feel less strange. Some have made me feel so comfortable and relaxed to the point I have laughed out loud during check-ups. I have been seen by gentle and patient physiotherapists who have helped me understand the muscles in my vagina and surrounding area. There are some excellent doctors, nurses and therapists out there. The detailed inclusion of my negative experiences is not to dishearten anyone, but to demonstrate how sexism can directly infringe on the health of women, and how we still have room to improve here.
For me, the best thing that has come out of seeking help is finding my current ‘vagina therapist’, as I like to call her. She is absolutely brilliant, and it is great that I can discuss my frustrations with her. It is thanks to her that things are getting better for me. She has helped me tick off every single possible diagnosis, and I have been able to discuss the different solutions and options available with her. She has encouraged me to get out there, to pursue the sexual relationships I want and to be more honest and less ashamed about my issue. It really does go to show the importance of honest and transparent conversations in relation to personal issues and women’s issues.
I had reservations going into this essay because of how personal this experience has been. There is an inherent loneliness in feeling vaginal pain because hardly anyone is talking about it. Addressing a wide audience felt intimidating and has forced me out of my comfort zone, but it is for that very reason I have laid out my experience in the hope it will help more women; to ask for help, to question that help, to access options, to not ignore their bodies or desires, to tell their sexual partners, to tell their friends, and to not feel bogged down with shame. I wanted to speak about it for the sake of women with vaginas. Women should not be ashamed or scared of their own bodies, nor should they let misleading advice and messages, whether that be from medical 'authority' or anywhere else, lead you to believe you do not deserve access to your own bodily autonomy and a pleasurable sex life.Thanks to my therapist, and because I actively sought out help, I have learnt better ways of approaching the issue with new partners and I feel less ashamed about my condition. Because of this new confidence, things are so much better for me now. My sex life has finally become enjoyable and satisfying, even though it is still not completely painless. I still have a long way to go, but I can see a light shining bright at the end of the tunnel. There is help out there. Sometimes it takes a while to find the right people, but please do not give up. I did not, and now I am happier than ever. Believe in yourself, and believe in your vagina!