I knew that something was wrong the first time I tried to use a tampon. I was about twelve and my mom gave me a box of slender fit Tampax and told me to read the instructions and “just stick it in there.” I tried for about an hour, working to thrust the slim pink applicators inside me, nearly going through the whole box, and with each attempt feeling a stinging pain through my entire body. The smooth plastic had become like knives when it touched my vagina and I couldn’t force it more than a centimeter into myself. “What is wrong with me?” I asked aloud and started weeping.
I had already suspected that I was different in some innate and incurable way. While other girls my age had begun kissing boys and casually talked about their breasts as they changed in the locker room, I resented the way my body was starting to soften and hoped that I would never have to even touch a boy. “Buck up!” my mom said when she found me crying. It was her favorite phrase, something that she shared with Katharine Hepburn, another tough woman who took freezing showers well into her 80s and believed in doing what had to be done no matter the pain or occasional rumors of communism. So I kept silent about my discomfort and used pads even though I was a gymnast practicing up to six days a week in only the most minimal of costumes.
It wasn’t until I was in college that I was forced to address this particular and shameful pain again. I had been diagnosed with severe anemia after passing out at a friend’s birthday party and rushed to the local Baptist hospital for tests. Nurses there thought that I either had cancer or was anorexic. They also blamed my veganism. “You’re going to have to start eating meat,” one of them told me with a face that made it clear that he blamed me for my illness. However, the doctor they referred me to was a kind, patient woman who thought my low iron levels might be caused by my ever-fruitful and painful period rather than my avoidance of animal products. But she would have to give me a pap smear — my first one. I cried when she told me, my tears flowing embarrassingly down my face and into my lap as I begged, “No, please, I can’t do it. It’s impossible.” She told me that she was gentle and would use the smallest speculum she could find. We scheduled it for two weeks from that day and I wept every day until the appointment.
In so many moments in life, the thing you fear turns out to be so much less frightening than you imagine and you feel silly and stupid for being so frightened in the first place. This was not the case. A pap smear can take less than a minute and many women complain only of minor discomfort. I’ve heard so many women tell girls and women undergoing their first examine that it’s “no big deal” and that it will “be over before they know it.” One of my friends told me that all I needed was cute socks to keep my feet warm and comfortable during the examination.
This is what happened for me: I started crying as soon as I put my legs into the stirrups. The nurse held my hand and whispered kindly that everything would be okay and just to breath and think about something that made me happy. “Maybe puppies?” she suggested. I saw my doctor look thoughtfully at the nurse and then tell me that she was going to start. Then I felt a blinding pain I had never known was possible. My hips thrust upwards like a girl possessed by demons in some cheap porny horror film. I felt at once like someone was taking a sword and twisting it further and further up inside my vagina and like I was being run over by a car or large animal or being held down by some invisible force while someone pounded my body. I am not prone to exaggeration or fantasy, but there is no better way for me to describe these things.
After it was over, I couldn’t speak. The doctor left to find me some juice and crackers and then sat down with the saddest and most compassionate eyes I’ve ever seen a doctor wear. “I’m so sorry,” she said. “I know I’ve traumatized you.” Later she would ask if I had ever been raped or sexually abused. When I told her no, she kept asking at each appointment. She eventually gave me a vaginismus diagnosis, a condition that makes any sort of vaginal penetration painful and causes one’s vaginal muscles to spasm or tighten as something penetrates it. There are many possible causes for vaginismus including sexual or physical trauma and can make things so commonly expected of women like childbirth and vaginal intercourse incredibly painful or impossible. There is no definite test used to diagnose vaginismus, but one’s doctor may make a diagnosis after reviewing one’s medical history, asking several questions about one’s symptoms, and possibly conducting a vaginal exam to rule out other issues such as injuries and infections. The prevalence of vaginismus is unknown but has been reported in five to seventeen percent of patients in clinical settings.
I was thankful for a name to describe the pain I had been unable to voice for so long. And I was grateful that I was a lesbian and didn’t have to experience penetrative sex if I didn’t want to (what was a stone butch again, I thought). Only of course, it wasn’t so easy. As a lesbian who is incredibly proud of my identity and has had to struggle against those who still find my sexuality shameful (I have never lived outside of a conservative area), I tend to romanticize queer and particularly queer women relationships. I thought that my first real girlfriend, who I had only recently started dating, would understand. She was not particularly empathetic. Rather, she saw it as a challenge that we could overcome or she could fix. I told her not to penetrate me during sex, but she would sometimes attempt to force herself inside me.
“I put two fingers inside you just now,” she said once. “You didn’t even notice.” She was trying to show me that my condition was all in my head and that if I worried less and simply let myself be penetrated, I might even enjoy it. Instead I felt betrayed, and I was ashamed of my problem as I had been as a scared 12-year-old, too confused and embarrassed to voice my pain. During the (way too many) years my girlfriend and I dated, I felt closed off during sex and disconnected from by body. I mentioned this to no one and when my doctor asked me about my feelings and fears around sex I would reassure her that everything was fine. I had been taught by almost everyone that this pain was merely in my head and I just needed to “buck up” to overcome it.
Around the time that I finally got the courage to end my relationship, I started talking more about the pain that is so intertwined with my understandings of being a woman, of sex, and even of queerness. When I try to research vaginismus online or read other women’s stories, most of it is framed within the concept of heterosexual relationships and how women with this ailment can enjoy sex with their male partners. There is very little about queer women’s experiences and the particular kind of shame that exists when one’s female partner is engaging in harmful sexual behavior.
I’m dating a woman now who is the kindest, gentlest person I have ever met. She cares for me in ways that I never expected and never thought I deserved. One day early in our relationship, I tried to casually mention my vaginismus to her by telling her how much I hate getting pap smears. She was driving and I was smiling as if it were just a quirky fact about me — no big deal. However, she didn’t absorb this information casually and was immediately concerned, asking me what I needed during sex and outside of it and how she could care for me and support me. I told her that the cause of my problem may be emotional (one of the ways I try to invalidate my own experience) and she told me that emotional causes are just as important as physical ones and that she would always take my pain and my fears seriously. I felt seen by her in a way that I had never experienced, and when we had sex, she asked permission before touching me in each new place, asking me if I was okay, if I felt good, if I was happy.
I don’t know if my vaginismus will ever go away or if I will feel more comfortable with penetration now that I have such a loving partner (as some people claim). But I also think that’s not the point. Rather, I think all of us in this queer community and world must continue expanding the conversation about queerness, sex, and pain as to make such expressions not courageous but expected.
I’ve had vaginismus since before I ever had sex, and even though it can be painful and it’s confusing and utterly inconvenient, it’s also who I am and it’s my body and it’s how I show up for the world. I know that it’s made me more compassionate and a better partner and better at sex because of how I’ve learned to love myself, express myself and stand up for myself, hit the mat and come back from it, all of it, and honestly, I’m pretty fucking jazzed on it.
Lauren, THANK YOU for writing this (and Autostraddle for publishing so many pieces on painful sex recently). I always feel stronger and more at home in my body when I hear stories that show me as a queer person with a petulant body that I’m not alone. And I’m glad your current partner is so lovely. <3
THANK YOU for this post. This is exactly what my experience has been like. I am lucky to have found a good doctor, and even tried pelvic physical therapy, which helped a bit, too, at least in terms of letting me get through my annual exam. There’s still SO MUCH shaming about penetration, even among lesbians, and it is so hard. Thanks for writing this.
lauren, you gem, did you read my diary/spy on my most private conversations/clearly live your own life+deal with this in your own way+put into words the very feelings so many of us convince ourselves is ours alone?
thank you for not only sharing your story but voicing the need for these notions to be expected over courageous. my teary-eyed-soul is so grateful today for your brilliance
Thank you for sharing this.
Thank you so much for sharing this with us
This is heartbreaking and brave. Thanks for sharing your story, and I’m so sorry for the people who didn’t listen to you. <3
Thank you for writing this; I dread my annual exam because of the pain, although it is less severe than yours. I only go because I need to get my birth control prescription renewed. When I didn’t have insurance and went to Planned Parenthood for health care, they didn’t require an exam for getting birth control pills, and I really miss that. Navigating gynecological care as a queer woman is terrible, and I wish it wasn’t so terrible.
Learning to navigate my vestibulitis (slash other types of pelvic floor pain that I wasn’t formally diagnosed for) as a queer, trans person – learning what hurts and what doesn’t, what kinds of pain stay and which ones are momentary, has gone hand in hand with accepting (slowly, hesitantly) that I am a sexually traumatized person.
It feels so silly to think that step one is actually just accepting (??!) that I’ve never felt safe being sexual or being in a sexual situation, before I can do anything to feel safer.
Oh hello I had this for a few years. You’re right that it’s not often talked about in the queer community, especially when things like fisting are so popularized. Thank you for writing this.
I vibe with this so much– growing up I had a septate hymen, meaning I had a strand of tissue that went across my hymen creating two smaller holes. I got the tissue snipped when I was 19, which had me feeling extremely similar to the Pap smear experience. I still hold so much shame in my physical body because of it regarding sex and sexuality and queerness, also coming from a very conservative community. I’m just blown away at how well this piece was written and how much I connect to it. Thank you so much for sharing, it’s all a part of a lengthy healing process.
Thank you. I’m so glad you have a compassionate doctor and an understanding partner now. I can so relate to what you said about your ex seeing your condition as a challenge to overcome- an ex of mine used to try to do certain things to me and tell me that my finding it painful meant that there was something wrong with me. As a bisexual woman I genuinely felt like no man would want to be with me for long if I couldn’t have penetrative sex, and several times tried to force myself through the excruciating experience just to feel worthy of being loved (a mindset enforced by that same ex who I later realized was a sexually and emotionally abusive asshole). I’m lucky in that with time and gentle and understanding partners, my condition has improved to the point that I can have penetrative sex, but it will probably always hurt to an extent and will never be a large part of my sex life- something which I really wish was a more widely accepted attitude to have (vaginal penetration not being the ultimate goal of sexual interaction). I will always avoid tampons like the devil, though. Those things hurt like hell.
Yes to all of this. Thank you so much for sharing. I always felt like penetration is going to hurt and why should I want to do something that will hurt???
I made an account for this post and the other that mentioned vaginal pain. As a bi person, this is made all the more complicated, because I’ve never been able to have penetrative sex with a penis and now recently coming to terms with my sexuality and learning that even with folks who don’t have penises, some sort of penetration is expected and could be demanded of me is also disturbing.
I am able to partake in all other acts but penetration and I can get one finger in just enough to find my G-spot without too many issues. I would like to get to therapy, but still sorting out healthcare and also just finances as this is just one of many things to happen to me this year.
Thank you and also thanks to the other person on the 7th of November for sharing their stories. And now that I have an account, I’m looking forward to interacting here more.
Thank you so much for sharing this. I am so so glad that you’ve been able to find a compassionate doctor and loving and respectful partner. I think that you writing about both your negative and positive experiences will help people going through similar things and also hopefully make all of us more compassionate towards friends/sexual partners in the future.
Also, obviously it is up to you how you want to define and grapple with your experiences (and I say this as someone who has had some similar ones and it’s a long process of finding the right words), but I would say that your previous partner forcing penetration on you and engaging in acts that you hadn’t consented to and, it sounds like, had expressly asked her not to do on previous occasions, isn’t just a betrayal but is also sexual assault. I’m so so sorry that that happened to you, and I’m so glad that you eventually found your way out of that toxic relationship. I just wanted to comment here in case you’ve been hesitating to put “such harsh” words onto the experience(s) or anything similar — I’ve been there, and I’m here to say that what she did isn’t ok, it doesn’t matter that you were in a relationship and had consented to other sex acts; you *can* name it as rape/sexual assault if you want/need/are able to.
Wait – this exists? I think I have this. I never thought it had a name. I’m holding in tears at my desk right now. This might be why tampons/speculums/pap smears/dildos/fingers/ANYTHING IN MY VAGINA hurts. THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU.
Thanks so much for this, Lauren. I cried a lot reading this piece. I’ve been missing a lot of validation from people with experiences similar to mine.
I wanted to add some of my experiences that differ. Penetration is essentially impossible, but sometimes sex is too. I get pain from being aroused and all kinds of different touching. This interplays with other sensory issues that I have, like sometimes not being able to speak.
It has been so frustrating for so long to feel broken and betrayed by my own body in so many ways.
I want to share some recent successes I’ve had, too. Using medicinal marijuana has helped so much more than I ever thought possible. If any of you self-medicating (as I am), and it’s helping you, I think that’s super legit and I’m really happy for you. I think this type of pain is treated so differently from other types of pain (which are already often under and mistreated), and that it can be radical to treat ourselves.
Learning to sign has been magical for me in the everyday, and I recently realized that signs can be used during sex, too! If you have trouble with verbal communication during intense times, I’d really recommend trying tactile or visual communication.
Hope some of this helps some of you. Much love, and thanks again.
Hi Emma, I was reading your comment and it totally gave me some hope, b/c I totally forgot about medical marijuana as an option! (My doctor gave me a few possible options on ways to get through a pap smear but none of them really sit well with me)
If it’s ok …could I ask more about your experiences self medicating? Has it made the pain disappear or does it just become more manageable? (I hope that’s not too intrusive to ask!)
I haven’t used marijuana for sexual pain, but I’ve used it for other types of pain. It’s kinda twofold. I think it slightly reduces the intensity of the pain, but it also has a big effect on the emotional reaction to the pain. Pain doesn’t make me feel as desperate when I’m using medical marijuana.
Here to second the medical marijuana! It allows me masturbation without pain or with only momentary pain, owing in large part, as far as I can tell, to the muscle relaxant properties. I have not tried it regarding medical examinations and have little data regarding using it during partnered sex, so your mileage may vary. I’m curious about using it to facilitate medical examinations but also wary because doctors can be callous or cruel and I’d like to have my wits about me. Perhaps if you have a regular provider whom you have a trusting relationship with? I would certainly suggest trying it out.
I’m so sooo grateful that more articles on vaginismus, vulvodynia and other painful vaginal conditions are being written and shared.
I have vaginismus, aaand just yesterday went in for my third unsuccessful attempt at a pap smear. It felt just like you described-like being stabbed or run through…and they couldn’t get any samples…Basically they told me the only options they could think of were valium and a numbing medicine, dilators, or anesthesia if none of those works. ??? And all of those options scare me…
It leaves me feeling angry at my body and angry that this seems to be the only way to test for cancer?
I’ve been in that headspace and then your article showed up..so thank you again. It really helps me to hear other people being vocal about this, and helps me remember that it’s an actual medical condition and not something I can just psych myself out of.
I’m really glad that these articles are popping up. I don’t know, for the past few years I’ve always felt so left out with all of the “Yay! Sexy times!” articles. Nothing new there. All of my slutty friends have been trying to hook me up and on occasion yelled at me for “not getting out there and having some fun”.
Sex, however, is a minefield for me, not a playground, and I’ve felt SO alone with that.
And I don’t wish it on anyone, but I’m glad, that I’m not the only one who runs into shitty same sex sexual partners. It took me until the metoo campaign to find a word for what my first gf did and the word is sexual harassment.The two words.
I’m also glad to know, that I’m not the only one who can’t deal with tampons.
Thanks for sharing this deeply personal story, Lauren! You’re getting super hero points in my book!
I really appreciated this article. Thank you.
I love seeing this article on AS. I have this condition as well, and have struggled with similar feelings.
In case it helps others, I found pelvic physical therapy to be really helpful with the pain (and my wonderful regular therapist for talking about the physical side).
oops, typo– should be “talking about the EMOTIONAL side”
Lauren, I am crying right now as I read this because I have the same problem! I had my first pap smear 2 months ago and I’m still freaking traumatized. I’m 26 years old and I’ve been putting it off for so long but I decided now was the time to just get it over with. I couldn’t deal with the pan. My sis told me (she was in the room with me and she was holding my hand) that I looked like I was possessed or something because my legs were thrashing about and my other hand was on the wall, scratching the wall. I had no awareness of any of this! I was too focused and terrified of the pain. It felt like you described! Like a sword and it burned too (because she was opening me from the inside with the plastic thing). The results came back normal and I’m healthy! :) I don’t have to go through anymore pap smear for 2 years. Hopefully, I can ask to skip it and go for the ultrasound instead. Or hopefully, I’m no longer small and can handle a bigger dildo.
Anyway, thank you for writing this! It’s really nice to know that there is a name for this! I’m happy you have a patient and loving girlfriend! I can only wish for the same <3
Thank you for sharing your experience of what is often a poorly understood condition.
Thank you for your words! I have vaginismous as well as a chronic pain syndrome. I’m glad it’s being talked about more
I have to say that I’m a bit shocked that this seems to be unknown to many readers here.
The right to not have penetrative sex was one of the main demands of second wave feminism, and often lesbian sex was considered non-penetrative by definition. It went so far that lesbians who liked penetration kept it secret. Dildos were a completely no-go for much of the 70s and 80s.
Now things seem to have gone in the opposite direction. Both extremes will leave someone behind, so I hope that some middle ground can be reached.
Another point: As someone else wrote, painful penetration can also be caused by some form of closed or partially closed “hymen”, i.e. the vaginal opening didn’t fully develope during embryonic developement. While usually the hymen skin is thin and might even be gone completely, in some women it is much thicker and can be highly sensitive to pain even if it was surgically removed.
This is also the case is several intersex condition but many gynecologists are not aware of this.
If you can’t use tampons etc. you might want to check that out as a possible explanation as well.