Sex hurts. That’s what I’ve been told all my life. And if you have a vagina, you’ve probably been told that too.
But just how much is it supposed to hurt?
If you Google “is sex supposed to hurt,” as I have a billion times over the past four years, you’ll get lots of different answers. According to Psychology Today, it hurts for 1 in 3 women the first time, and according to Scarleteen and Seventeen Magazine, it’s not supposed to hurt at all, especially after the first time. Notably, most of the top results are blog posts and teen magazines.
Well then, if sex isn’t supposed to hurt at all after the first time, then what in the world is wrong with me?
The first time I had sex that involved sticking a penis in me was painful. Not just painful ― absolutely excruciating. To be honest, we couldn’t even get it in all the way, and I ended up both laughing and crying because that’s how it’s supposed to be the first time, right?
But it was just as painful the second. And the third. And the 20th. And so on.
I first realized something was different about my unusually tense vagina while sitting in a circle in my friend’s hot tub at the ripe age of 17. We were exchanging sex stories, because we were, well, 17 and trying to figure out what was “normal.” One of the girls bravely spoke up, asking, “Does… you know… sex… really hurt that much?”
I was elated that she asked. Finally, someone was bringing up the pain instead of comparing notes on all the positions they’ve tried and consequently causing me to sink deeper into the water. I sat up tall, splashing the girls around me, and said (more like shouted): “Yes!”
In retrospect, I probably terrified her.
“Sometimes it still hurts for me,” I added. But it wasn’t just sometimes. It was all the time.
The first time I had sex that involved sticking a penis in me was painful. Not just painful ― absolutely excruciating.
And then my friends shared their stories of how it didn’t hurt that badly, how it went in pretty easily, and I joked that I must just have a tiny vagina, or that I must gravitate toward men with really large penises. We all laughed. And the next time we met up and inevitably the conversation turned to sex, I lied and said it didn’t hurt anymore. Because it wasn’t supposed to, right?
I began to read articles about experiencing pain during sex. I read that painful sex is a lie made up by men who don’t want to take the time to “warm a girl up.” I read that if you were truly aroused, sex will feel good. That’s probably true for people with normally functioning vaginas, but for me, those articles and thought pieces made me feel completely ashamed and even defective. Because I was aroused, I was relaxed, and it was still painful as hell. I was convinced that something was wrong with the way I was thinking. Was I not turned on enough? If sex is painful for me instead of liberating, am I not a good feminist? I was so ashamed ― ashamed because on the one hand, I was having sex and felt uncomfortable telling doctors or therapists about it. And on the other hand, I was ashamed because I couldn’t do “it,” not all the way, not without it literally feeling like someone was stabbing my vagina with 50 different-size knives.
After two years of living through this physical, mental and emotional torture, I finally went to a doctor for a Pap smear. And, honestly, my first pelvic exam was comical. I was so tense that they had to use a pediatric speculum, and even then, it hurt so much they couldn’t get it all the way inside of me. My doctor told me that next time, I would have to take anxiety medication or get a massage before my exam to calm myself down.
I thought to myself, what the hell is wrong with me? I’ve always struggled with anxiety. Sure, I wasn’t exactly relaxed or comfortable during the Pap smear, but it hurt just as much as sex always does for me. And I had already tried everything from massages to aroma therapy to make myself feel relaxed and safe when I was with my partner. So… why did it sill hurt?
I never got that pre-Pap massage and I didn’t get another Pap until 2 1/2 years later. Why did I wait so long? Shame. I was convinced that the problem was still in my head and that it was just a matter of calming myself down. Of course, that didn’t work.
After two years of living through this physical, mental, and emotional torture, I finally went to a doctor for a Pap smear. And honestly, my first pelvic exam was comical. I was so tense that they had to use a pediatric speculum, and even then, it hurt so much they couldn’t get it all the way inside of me.
Fast-forward to a few months ago, when I began experiencing abnormally painful cramps during my periods and decided it was a sign that I really did need to make another appointment. Because of the cramps and the pain during sex, I was immediately sent off to a radiologist for a pelvic ultrasound. They put a camera up my vagina during the procedure and ― you guessed it ― it hurt like hell.
“This is your exam,” the doctor told me. She had a soft voice and listened when I told her about my pain. “We can stop whenever you want,” she added, the camera not even halfway into my vagina at that point. So, I asked her to stop. I felt like I was being torn in two.
Even though I left that exam feeling somewhat like a failure, I also left feeling empowered. Because for once, the examiner acknowledged that my pain was real. She didn’t tell me to just relax or take a deep breath. She told me that I was in control of the exam and if the pain got too bad, we could stop. And that made me realize that maybe it wasn’t just me being uptight or anxious ― maybe, just maybe, my pain was an actual, physical thing ― and maybe it was something to do with the way my body was made rather than just in my head or related to my level of calmness.
After that appointment, I talked to my mom about the pain, something I had never done before. It started off with me joking about how they had to stick a camera up my vagina, and then I asked her if it was normal for it to hurt that much. “Does it hurt during sex?” she asked.
“Yeah, a lot.”
“That’s not normal,” she said.
I found myself wishing that I had said something earlier because I was finally beginning to realize that what I was experiencing was not just a symptom of my so-called high-strung personality.
What I eventually learned is that there’s a word for my condition: vaginismus. It took me four years to be diagnosed, but now that I finally had a name for my condition, I was ecstatic.
Essentially, how I’d describe it is that my vagina can’t relax. Like, no matter how mentally or even physically relaxed I am, my vagina doesn’t follow suit. You know Kegel exercises? I have to learn how to un-Kegel myself, because my vagina spasms involuntarily and gets stuck. Even tampons hurt me. Yes, even tampons. And, no, it’s not just in my head.
Let me paint a picture for you ― I know, I’ve already used the knives stabbing me into pieces analogy, and that might be my favorite, but I can also explain insertion for me as feeling like I’m trying to fit a star-shaped peg into a tiny, round hole. It feels like someone is literally attempting to rip me apart, limb by limb. It feels like there’s a wall in my vagina the size of the one from “Game of Thrones” and someone is jabbing it with a pickax. It feels like “Shark Week” in my vagina. I think you probably get the point by now?
The good news is that there’s treatment. It’s an incredibly long process and I’ve just begun it. In the span of two weeks, I went to three gynecologists, a radiologist and finally a pelvic floor therapist. Currently, I’m seeing the pelvic floor therapist weekly for physical therapy for my vagina, but it’s nothing like the physical therapy I went through when I injured my knee. Every week, I have to sit in a private room and talk about my vagina, do stretches and allow the therapist to stretch my vagina further and further. Additionally, I have homework ― three times a week, I insert a vaginal dilator (which you can find online!) into myself and sit with it inside me for at least 10 minutes.
Not only is this process physically uncomfortable, but it’s also emotionally uncomfortable. Who knows where I’ll be at the end of my 10 weeks with the pelvic floor therapist, but I have my fingers crossed that we’ll be able to make progress.
It took me nearly four years to seek help for my condition because of the shame I felt about my body, but now I know that sex should not hurt, and if it does, you should see a doctor. Yes, it can be scary and, yes, it can be uncomfortable. But being diagnosed and taking steps to address vaginismus head-on has been life-changing for me, and I’m not even done with treatment.
It’s heartbreaking to me that I ― and too many other women ― have had to suffer with this condition because we, as a culture, even in 2018, are still afraid of talking about sex and sexuality ― especially for women. The first time I went to see a doctor for this, he didn’t take my pain seriously and attributed it to “just anxiety.” Continually, doctors minimize women’s pain, especially when it’s pain related to reproductive organs. The only reason I was determined to make more appointments and get the answers I needed was because I had done my own, private internet research about what I was experiencing and finally found others who were going through the same thing that I was ― and more importantly, they were talking about it.
We need more and better discussions about women’s sexual pleasure ― or their lack of sexual pleasure ― and they need to happen in schools and doctor’s offices too. Think about it: We have ads for erectile dysfunction on cable television, but no one ever mentions vaginismus, and that’s unacceptable. If we had more educators and medical professionals who not only knew more about vaginismus but also were better equipped to talk and teach about it, fewer women would be afraid to admit they might be suffering from it and would take steps sooner to address it.
I hope that by sharing my story, others might relate to what I’ve experienced, and, if they do, hopefully they will find the courage to talk to a doctor about it. And hopefully, one day in the not-so-distant future, there will be more doctors who recognize women’s pain and more people who understand the reality of what it means to be diagnosed with this condition. Maybe one day, instead of labeling women who experience pain during sex as weak or prudish, we’ll acknowledge that their pain is real and can be treated. By doing so, we can empower women to love and honor their bodies in ways they never thought possible.
Erin Moynihan is a content writer from Seattle. Her writing has appeared in The Mighty, Her Campus, BuzzFeed Community and various freelance blog posts. Additionally, she was the 2018 winner of the Amelia Poetry Contest. She is dedicated to using her writing skills and platform to talk about mental health, social systems and other things that make people uncomfortable. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.