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.