At first, I blamed the horrific pain of any attempted vaginal insertion on my long-unbroken hymen, which seemed to have been constructed of some sort of space-age polymer, with bindings of titanium and granite. It had resisted a childhood of baked-leather saddles, pitiful attempts at an Olympic gymnastics career, and twelve years of sprinting down soccer fields drawn on thick Ohio clay. Visits to the ob-gyn weren’t supposed to be fun, anyway; nobody ever put together an all-female band and sent them on tour as the Pap Smears.
I understand that I wasn’t supposed to be angry with my own vagina. The two of us hung around together all day long and slept in the same bed, and I took it to graduation ceremonies from two women’s schools where entire courses were dedicated to discussing our vaginas and how wonderful they were, how beautiful, how powerful, how worthy, how resilient against repression. Vaginas were art.
But while other women’s vaginas had monologues, mine had panic attacks. It did not like tampons. It did not like menstrual cups. It did not like anyone of any gender looking in its general direction. It really didn’t like exam room four of my gynecologist’s office, where, two seconds into my first Pap smear, I fainted dead off the table. I was twenty years old and a former rodeo barrel racer who had been happiest at a leaning gallop; there was no excuse for slithering to the floor at the mere extension of a speculum.
“Well,” the doctor said as I batted at the nurse trying to reload me into the stirrups, “since you’re not sexually active, I guess you don’t really need a Pap, if it’s that painful for you. Come back when you’ve had intercourse.”
I raised my head from between my knees and picked up my purse. The doctor was already packing up his clipboard and latex gloves, and there was no time to explain that I had no plans for intercourse because I barely remembered the way to class, let alone directives to take a pill every single morning, and I certainly had no plans for babies. I decided to worry about it later.
• • •
Later finally caught up to me when I became engaged. I endured another pain-failed Pap attempt with another doctor, who cheerfully assured me that a fully erect penis would barrel on through where a pediatric speculum could not. At last, I turned to the great diagnostician of our age: Google.
I pushed a pile of tulle and blank wedding invitations from my desk so as to better sit before a blank page and type painful intercourse. What I got back was a lot of Astroglide commercials, the word frigidity, and a deepening sense of alarm. Five pages into the search, I wound up at a college online advice column, which gave me a symptom list, a vague suggestion that I enter therapy, and a new vocabulary word: vaginismus. Numbers varied, but estimates pegged the number of vaginismus sufferers at anywhere between 2 and 14 percent of the female population. Mothers had it! Nuns had it! Lesbians had it!
It had never been my hymen. It wasn’t my bony frame that still fit into dresses from the junior department. It wasn’t really a physical problem at all. It was, in my case, an offshoot of obsessive-compulsive disorder, and it caused the same muscles that could push out new life to do their level best to prevent a man—even a man I loved—from coming in. The website used terms such as involuntary and spasms. I rested my forehead on the keyboard: OCD, you son of a bitch.
I’d been in and out of psychologists’ offices since the third grade, but my OCD wasn’t diagnosed until a psychologist at a college clinic took one look at my rough, chapped hands and casually wondered if I washed them a lot. I did, out of a baseless fear of contracting either AIDS or a pregnancy. I’d tamped down the OCD in my neuronal pathways only for it to relocate to my vagina.
One patient, venting online, referred to vaginismus as “angry vagina disease.” “That makes your vagina sound mean,” my fiancé said when I told him about the apparent animosity between my own mind and my physical femininity. “I’m sure it’s a perfectly nice vagina. It’s just a little scared right now.”
• • •
I returned, armed with the authority of an unsigned online article, to the female gynecologist who had most recently attempted to examine me. Like me, she must never have heard of the problem; otherwise, with symptoms so clear and so violent, she would have been able to diagnose me from my first dry heave.
“I found out what’s wrong. They used to call it frigidity. You can help other women who might have this,” I said, extending the sheaf of papers I’d printed out.
She nodded in its general direction. “Oh, yes, vaginismus,” she said. “So how are you doing with your prescriptions? Need more Luvox? Zoloft? Or would you like to try another antidepressant?”
• • •
I was one of the lucky ones—I had a diagnosis before the marriage began. Some women don’t discover the existence of vaginismus until long after their husbands have left them in disgust, or until they’re past childbearing age. We’d been warned. My fiancé was offered a slide out of the exit door of the airplane before take-off. He didn’t take it.
At the wedding, I sat with a very straight back next to my husband and realized that while any other bride at this moment in her life would be basking in the glow of speeches dedicated to her beauty and happiness, my primary focus was consummating this marriage without the bride vomiting all over the groom.
After the honeymoon, though the nausea eventually subsided, what I could not shake was the continued pain: before, during, after, always. We tried lubricants. We tried position changes. We tried liquor. The act was accomplished, but no more, no less. Afterward, I retired to the bathroom to sit on the closed toilet lid with my head in my hands. All my media-saturated life—raised in the glare of douche commercials and MTV and Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret and glossy, perfume-saturated magazines—I had been lied to. Sex was not intoxicating, or fun, or anything to abdicate a kingdom for. It hurt.
Books do exist about vaginismus, but once you’ve run the gamut of them in the space of a single Amazon scroll, offerings quickly turn to beer glasses emblazoned with #Vaginismus. The new shame that women feel about sex, apparently, is the inability to have it.
“It’s not so great for me, either,” my husband finally told me when, tired of creating excuses ranging from sore hip adductors to exhaustion to severe depression due to election results, I lashed out at him.
“You cannot be serious,” I yelled. “At least you get an orgasm.”
“I feel,” he said, not looking at me, “like I’m raping my own wife.”
• • •
“And how’s blaming your husband working for you?” the sex therapist, perched on a richly cushioned chair, asked me. I took in the graceful sweep of the fringed shawl tied around her waist, the solemn face of her son looking out at me from the picture on her desk.
“It’s . . . not,” I told her, running my hands over the rough surface of a beaded pillow.
“You are free, you know,” she said at length.
What a stupid thing to say to a poli sci major. “I know.”
“No, you do not. You are free to choose sex with your husband.”
“I do choose sex with my husband. My pelvic muscles are the ones all pissed about it.”
“But here you are, married two years, and you still experience pain during the intercourse you desire to have. Just as you chose to not have sex before you became a wife, you must choose to have sex now.”
I stared at her. A hundred and twenty dollars an hour for this woman to tell me that I simply had to choose the pain-free sex life I so desperately wanted.
And yet, I realized later on—as I churned on a treadmill at the gym, forcing my body to burn, to move, to obey—maybe that was precisely the problem. I had for so long demanded pain-free sex of myself that I had forgotten to just . . . not demand anything of it.
I let the belt roll to a stop, standing still on the quiet machine. The demand I’d programmed came to a halt. I was free to get off the treadmill, or run at a higher speed, or walk at a slower one, or even move to the elliptical machine over there. Or all of these things. Or none of them.
What would happen if I stopped insisting on what “should” happen and simply chose to accept what did?
• • •
After more weeks of demoralizing online research, I found a physical therapy program. Physical therapy, for a vagina. The last time I’d had physical therapy, it was after a knee operation, and it involved a trampoline and a giant rubber ball and staring at a puke-yellow wall as I pedaled a creaking exercise bike. I could not imagine the Dateline episode that would result if I happened to die under mysterious circumstances with a collection of vaginal physical therapy equipment in the house.
I ordered what was discreetly described as a vaginismus trainer set, which, I supposed, was a friendlier approach than a box labeled THINGS A TOTAL STRANGER ON THE INTERNET IS GONNA ASK YOU TO SHOVE UP YOUR HOO-HA. The contents, I was informed, were “ergonomic” and fitted with a “solid-lock handle.” It pleased me, actually: Someone out there thought enough about the 2 to 14 percent of us to make nice with the branding.
The vaginal physical therapy equipment consisted of a tube of lubricant, a long Q-tip, a tampon, and a series of phallic “dilators” ranging from thinner than a pencil to what looked to me to be roughly the size of a space shuttle external tank. And indeed, when I lined all the dilators up on the bathroom sink, it looked like the poster I’d tacked to the wall of my office, tracing the evolution of manned rocket power from the lean little Mercury-Redstone to the colossal moon-bound Saturn V, weaponry of the Cold War, smooth tools designed to fling a person from familiar ground to the terrifying dangers of outer space.
I was to start with the Q-tip, which seemed an unnecessarily husband-insulting step back. It hurt. But after a few weeks of lying on the floor of the bathroom with a book in my hand and a Q-tip hanging out of my ladydom, I moved on to the Mercury-Redstone. Then the Gemini-Titan II. And then, at last, the tampon.
“I’m wearing a tampon!” I shouted to my mother over the phone.
“I’m wearing a tampon!” I proudly informed my sister as she diapered her second son.
“Tampon!” his big brother yelled from across the room.
“Fantastic,” she said.
“I’m wearing a tampon,” I told my husband.
“I’m very proud of you. See, your vagina is nice.”
• • •
I do not cry in the bathroom anymore. And I no longer grit my teeth with that awful sense of obligation, lying on the bed like a sacrificial virgin on an altar of stone. Sometimes it hurts. Sometimes it doesn’t. I am a woman who has become a wife—a wife who chooses to have sex with her husband.