I don’t recall the exact age I was given the sex talk but I remember refusing to hear my mother out, so she resorted to leaving a Christian book about sex by my bed. The book was all about how sex was mainly for having babies, only discussed one sex position and one version of sex; penis in vagina.
I grew up in a Middle Eastern country in a very religious family so I spent many years attending Sunday school learning about how premarital sex was a huge sin. All the priests implied that if a girl lost her virginity before marriage it was a graver sin than if a boy engaged in premarital sex. Then there was the culture outside the church that put so much weight on a girl’s virtue: essentially, you were undesirable and damaged goods if you ever let a man penetrate you before he put a ring on it.
Fast forward quite a few years to when I was 19 and had my very first boyfriend who happened to be of a different religion, so we had to keep the relationship a secret. We did what most couples our age did which was to “fool” around, but I never allowed him to penetrate me. That situation was quite the norm in my society and because I knew marriage was never on the cards for us due to differing religions, it was quite easy for me to say no to penetration, i.e. sex.
I eventually left the Middle East to live in Europe and for once was away from all religious and societal influences. Over the course of the next year or two I finally saw through all the sexist, damaging teachings I had been force-fed and made my own mind up that my ‘virginity’ didn’t define who I was as a person.
I no longer cared if I was going to hell if I had premarital sex. This was a pivotal moment in my life. I was then 25, having lived in Europe for two years and had decided the time was right for me to have sex. I hadn’t considered any intimacy with my first boyfriend as sex even though we practically did everything but penetration.
I met a guy who was 5 years older and really wanted to have sex with me. I put the extreme pain when he tried to penetrate me down to me to being a virgin. After all, I had been taught that sex the first time always hurts the girl/woman. Looking back, this guy saw it as a challenge, he wanted to penetrate me and penetrate me deep - that is what he would say to me. We kept trying for a month, but I was always in pain and he barely penetrated me. Sadly, I put up with the pain because I felt flawed and broken. We eventually stopped seeing other, and over the next two years I had two short-term boyfriends and more casual encounters.
Each boyfriend said things that made me feel like I was broken and that something was deeply wrong with me, but I also said those things to myself: Why wasn’t the sex working? Why couldn’t I have the thing I wanted the most. Why couldn’t I please the men I was with?
The frustrating thing was that I felt like I was finally liberated from all those sexist, damaging beliefs and I viewed myself as a very progressive person when it came to sex and someone who wanted a lot of sex. I then resorted to having lots of very drunk one-night stands that were never “successful”. I thought the alcohol would make me more relaxed, but it never worked, and I was too scared to try drugs to relax.
I then stopped having sex with anyone and blamed my workload, stress and a reduced sex drive, but I was still desperate to “fix” what was wrong with me. None of my friends could understand what was happening to me and they all gave me different advice, such as trying different sex positions, drinking, taking drugs and just relaxing so I finally decided to go see a gynaecologist. I explained how I could never insert a tampon or have sex from the pain. The gynaecologist did lots of tests which included inserting a speculum (my first time ever) and I nearly fainted from the pain and fear. After all the tests he gave me this metaphor: “If I told you there was some chocolate cake behind that closed door and that every time you opened the door to go get some, you get punched in the face, you would be scared to eat the chocolate cake, wouldn’t you?”. He then gave my condition a name - 'vaginismus' - and told me how common it was. He basically told me to relax and practice and then just ended our consultation.
Whilst I was thrilled to finally be diagnosed I was so angry that something was “wrong” with me and I didn’t know what to do with this new knowledge of my condition. I had no idea at the time that there was such a thing as a psychosexual therapy, but after many months of googling and researching online I finally booked my first session.
My therapist and I now laugh about my first session. I sat down and very matter of fact stated that I had vaginismus, I wanted to know how to fix it and “oh, by the way I experienced something as a child but that has nothing to do with it so let’s just get on with it”.
It took me nearly two years of therapy to address the reasons behind my vaginismus because I wasn’t ready to deal with any of it. During that time, I still hid behind my work and lack of a “sex drive” so I never used the dilators I had bought and didn’t try to have sex with anyone. I also avoided cervical screenings because of the pain and shame.
It has only been this last year where the most change has happened. I still have vaginismus and can’t use a tampon but that doesn’t seem to matter as much as it did. I have been on a journey of sexual healing, awakening and understanding. I no longer view sex as a man penetrating a woman. I finally acknowledge that my condition doesn’t define me and that it is not my fault. More importantly, I have opened up about my childhood sexual abuse and have started to heal from that trauma.
I won’t lie. I still get nervous about having to explain to sexual partners that I can’t have penetrative sex and that it takes time for me to relax and trust a man. It is harder with casual sexual partners, but I have managed to come up with some things to say that don’t invite too many questions and try to avoid triggering the trauma from my childhood sexual abuse. Some of the things I say that obviously oversimplify my condition but work for me include, “I can’t have penetrative sex today. I have pain down there so let’s not do that” or “I get performance anxiety and just like a guy may not be able to get hard, my vagina tightens up when it has been a while or if I’m nervous”. I have stopped lying and saying I have my period to avoid penetrative sex because there’s also no reason not to have sex just because you have your period. I now try to discuss what sex means to me with the sexual partner beforehand and how, to me, it’s so much more than penetration.
This past year, I promised myself two things. The first being that I would not have drunk sex just to get through it and the second being that I will be pickier with who I choose to have sex with. I no longer want to have sex with someone who doesn’t have the same viewpoint as me or isn’t on the same wavelength. If my sexual partner thinks that sex is just about penetration and is adamant in that view, then I won’t go for it with them.
Unfortunately, my friends don’t always offer the right support because they have no idea what it is like to have this condition and when I say “I had great sex with this guy recently” they tend to reply: “Oh did it work, then? I’m so happy it finally worked for you!” or “Oh, did you finally manage to have sex? Did his penis go all the way inside?” They don’t mean it; they haven’t been on the same journey as me, so I don’t get upset and I just explain that penetration isn’t why I have sex.
All the work I have done for myself has allowed me to finally love my body for the first time in my life, which makes me feel so much more confident. Also, because I’ve stopped obsessing with “fixing” my vaginismus, I can now really explore the true meaning of sex and it has been a hell of a lot of fun doing that! I’m still healing but I am so much stronger and self-assured because of this new-found perspective.
I have shared my story in order to inspire hope and to allow others to feel less alone.