Illustrations by Debashree Turel
Content Warning – Trauma
I have primary vaginismus. I have said this out loud to hardly anyone because of the shame and stigma that is associated with experiencing what comes with vaginismus – the inability to allow vaginal penetration. There are many contributing factors to vaginismus, but in my case, it is a manifestation of trauma in my body. My brain perceives physical contact, particularly the act of penetration or insertion of any object in my body as a potential threat, and goes into a freeze state. My heart desires pleasure, intimacy, love, and sex. But, my brain, heart, and body are communicating well. I am in a state of hypervigilance, scanning for signs of danger. Forming a connection with an intimate partner or relaxing during a gynecological exam feels impossible. This is not all in my head and I cannot relax, because my body and mind do not know how to feel safe.
I discovered my condition in a very vulnerable state. I had been in a long term relationship with a man I met in college, for many years. We enjoyed a rich intimate life. He read stories and poetry out loud to me. We were both exploring the sexual world for the first time, with each other. Every night, I would go up to his hostel room to cuddle by his side; we made out passionately and explored each other’s bodies. We had oral sex and shared many intimate moments. When our relationship became long-distance, we had phone sex. . We were both exploring the sexual world for the first time, with each other. Much later, I learnt that none of this was ‘real’ for him; that he would tell his friends that we are together, but we have never had sex. When he shared this with me, I felt ashamed, angry, and betrayed. For me, he is and will always be the man I had sex with for the first time. I experienced orgasms and together, we both discovered sexual acts that we both enjoyed. Just because he did not penetrate my body does that mean we did not have sex? I was ashamed of how other people who are having penetrative sex would perceive me. He had decided everything for us – our future, the validity of our sexual experience, and our break up.
It was his decision to not have penetrative sex. There were no condoms in his bedroom, and when I had offered to buy some, he said, he preferred not to have penetrative sex. One day, he also said that because we can never be together because we belonged to different faiths. He does not want to be the one I have sex with for the first time. Was sex only penetration? Was I only my vagina? It was troubling and hurtful that someone I loved so deeply, didn’t seem to take my desires and choices into consideration. But somehow, caught up in that relationship, I too started believing that I never had real sex. So, I never realised I have vaginismus.
I remember though, that even when he tried to insert his finger into my vagina, I would wall up, like my vagina had a mind of its own. I felt disconnected with my own body part, but I never gave it much thought. I wonder often now, what would have happened, if we had had penetrative sex and I couldn’t go forward. Would he have been frustrated? Upset? Agitated? Or thought that I am just making a fuss about something routine?
Growing up, my mother had told me about periods and a special teacher visited our school to tell only the girls how babies are made without explaining how sex happens and what different people experience while having sex. When regular people spoke about sex, it seemed a given that penetration, for women, is a painful experience, that there would be blood – something my partner also brought up. I would curiously ask my college friends about their first time experience – most had been sexual for the first time, all with men. Some would never talk about it. Most would be taciturn. I wasn’t looking for juicy details or prying. I was simply trying to understand what intercourse would entail, when it did happen. The fear was palpably present though I had no idea that I had vaginismus. When there is so much silence about sex, when it’s already presented as a difficult experience for women, the chances of discovering that there may be an issue that isn’t just in your head, are slim.
I also grew up in a violent home environment, feeling constantly unsafe. As a child with a learning disability, my body bore scars of beatings, and my mind remained in a state of constant hypervigilance, anticipating violent outbursts. One can live through suffering and pain, and understand what it means. But not having the language for your pain can leave you feeling very lost. That is how I felt growing up — lost and alone.
I learned I had vaginismus, in a very vulnerable state. I had broken up with my partner. His family did not approve of our match and he gave up on convincing them because khoon ka rishta hai. After 9 years of trying and trying to make this relationship work, we ended it.
I was in a difficult financial condition; I was supporting myself, my family, and cradling my broken heart. There was no time to grieve and mourn this loss. I moved overseas and started a new job. I was learning to live by myself. I was trying to move on and meet new people. For the first time, I downloaded dating apps. I was 30. Everyone in my new location assumed that meant a glorious sex while everyone in India thought that I am a 30-year-old virgin. Of course I was neither. I took it slow.
When I thought I was ready, I connected with someone on Facebook, and we became friendly. But as he showed interest in becoming intimate I completely shut him off. I told myself, perhaps I am not over my break up. The fear of pain had taken deep root in my heart. But, we met again after a gap, and somehow, this young man and I kissed and made out. After a few minutes, he asked me if I was ready and I nodded; my heart was beating against my chest. Was I ready? He put on his condom and the moment he tried to penetrate me, I felt a sharp and searing pain at the opening of my vagina. It was like my vagina screamed at his penis without consulting me.
I immediately asked him to immediately stop. I wanted to burst into tears. I was embarrassed. He was confused, and ready, and asked me eagerly, “are you really sure we cannot do this?” I said, “no, I am sorry, I don’t think I can.” I wondered why though. Was it because he was only the second person I was being intimate with? Or because I needed more than a casual connection, that I needed to be romantically to have sex with someone? But really, the fears that had haunted me in my first sexual experience, had followed me to a new place and with a new person. I was afraid of being hurt, bruised, and my sense of safety being violated.
He was a kind friend and hung out with me for a few days. We kissed and made out during my stay, but he said that he need to have penetrative sex to ‘finish.’ I began to feel like I am causing, and perhaps will cause, men to not ‘finish.’ I had learnt from media and friends that this is ‘climax’, the culmination of a linear story of sex. Things get hot and heavy, people make passionate love; there are no hiccups, no one gets embarrassed, no one cries, no one fails to have sex.
But me? I used to fail at Math, and now I was failing at sex. I was dejected and heartbroken. I tried to speak to a friend at work and she just said, “Oh, maybe you have not found the right person yet.”
How was I going to find that person? The world of online dating felt so intimidating. When people – cis, heterosexual men, anyway – are looking for sex on the internet, they don’t expect to meet a person whom they cannot enter, and who stops them. I feared that if I tried dating, I would get a person excited, and then right before penetration, I would say, “nah, I’m in the mood, but my vagina is not.” Is there a guide book for having this conversation?
I googled — FEAR OF PENETRATIVE SEX …. NOT ABLE TO HAVE SEX….
There it came. A label, a language, “vaginismus.”
Some time passed before I looked for a non-invasive and queer-affirmative gynecologist, in Mumbai, finding one through someone’s post on Twitter. It was my first time going to a gynecologist. I had only heard horror stories about women being asked personal questions. Having vaginismus was terrifying enough, without fielding intrusive questions from doctors.
But I went determined to be confident, and not be bullied. I told her I had been with two men and not found sexual intercourse too painful to have, never inserted a tampon, or met a gynecologist before. She wrote down, ‘primary vaginismus,’ and asked the nurse to bring out the dilators. Three dilators ranging from the size of my little finger to big, penis shaped-ones. The sight terrified me – but she reassured me that we would try, but didn’t have to continue if it was hard. “I just need to see if you can.” The moment the dilator was inching close to me, I raised my buttocks; my muscles clenched, and my vaginal walls closed. The doctor asked me to breath and relax, and said, “imagine you are urinating” Somehow that did the trick. For the very first time, a dilator — the size of my little finger — went into my vagina. “See!” she exclaimed. At first numb with fear, I was now numb with joy. My vaginal walls relaxed. Dilator no 2 was inserted, the third one went halfway through, and I asked her to stop as we had agreed. Having something in my vagina was strange — there was no bleeding and the two small-sized dilators slid in and out with the help of a water-based gel lubricant.
For the first time in my life, my vagina was listening to me. We were on the same page; it had decided to open up to me. It felt like it belonged to me, and did not exist outside of my bodily and emotional experience. I tried using my dilators every day. The first time was hard, Whatever I tried, my muscles would involuntarily clench. I would breathe, apply a lot of lubricant, and gently persist.
At the same time, I also started receiving therapy. As a trauma survivor of my violent childhood, my challenges are further compounded. But, I was learning to anchor myself to the present and learning to be safe. I started reading a lot about vaginismus, trauma, and people with the trauma that also experience vaginismus. I had a name for what was going on in my mind and in my body. Knowing the names made me feel less alone.
My sister was the first person I shared this with. She was very kind, sharing that her first time with penetrative sex had been uncomfortable and painful. “I only did it because I was at the age where I felt I needed to tell my close friends I had done ‘it.’
My therapist was the other person I told, explaining my response to touch. When I told her I was scared of being in relationships and telling men that I have vaginismus, she validated my fears. We discussed how I would go out there, look for love, look for sex, with vaginismus. My therapist also asked me to try masturbating and try what seems fun and pleasurable.
I tell many of my friends that I am struggling to be intimate with men, and they listen, but I don’t know if they understand. I still cannot tell anyone that I have vaginismus. Because it becomes a label — they read the label and based on their understanding of sex, they draw a conclusion about my sexual life.
Am I in a relationship with someone? A man? No. But I am learning to have a relationship with myself, with my body. I feel more in control because I am now on dilator 3 of Amielle Comfort. I have had to unlearn many ideas I had about sex in order to rebuild my relationship with pleasure. I had to tell myself that I am having sexual experiences. I wanted to see what are the different ways in which I can learn pleasure. I bought a clitoris stimulating vibrator and used that to have orgasms. Watching porn was frustrating. Everyone “climaxes” in porn. The fixed journey, the predictable, linear sexual path – just starts to heighten my anxiety that I am lacking. But I searched for other eroticism and started listening to audio stories on Dipsea. Of course there is a sense of linearity for the characters in these stories too, but at least I am able to create my own sexual experience in my mind while masturbating.
When I had just begun dilating, I joined an online support group. Surely, I am not the only one who has primary vaginismus. A community of people, which also includes partners of those who have had vaginismus are also a part of the group. Many women and individuals share their stories, their dilating journeys, their frustration, and lack of motivation to dilate. Sometimes we also celebrated each other’s journeys. Only we, in that group can understand how a person feels when they have been able to manage penetrative sex and enjoy it. In that community, I do not feel alone. But the world outside can be very isolating, intimidating, and limiting.
Now that I feel more comfortable with myself, I recently told another friend, and the more people I share this with, the more my shame shatters into pieces. Its silence is broken. This friend was wonderful; I took pictures of my dilators and shared them with her to tell her which dilator I am on. She said, “I completely understand. Penetrative sex is difficult, and sometimes you do feel frozen.” She does not have vaginismus, but listening to her, made me realise, maybe sex is not always as easy as porn and films make it sound, is it?
So, I am carving on my own path. I started a personal blog in which I write about my sexual experience with myself, my fantasies filled with delicious possibilities, and my mental health. Recently, I wrote a private blog post describing my imaginary sexual experience with my dentist on whom I have a massive crush. We’re in a fantastical land, and this dentist is loving, caring, and makes me feel safe. In this fantasy we do not have penetrative sex — but it is hot, pleasurable, fun, and we both are happy at the end of it. We know that there will be more, but in my fantasy, in this specific story, we are happy with how it is now. I am still trying to muster the courage to ask him out, but I am not feeling hindered because of vaginismus. I am just scared that he will say no or find it absurd that I am asking him out after he pulled out my teeth!
I don’t control my vagina or feel ashamed or embarrassed by it. It is scared. It needs me — to love it and to comfort it, and to slowly help her feel safe. She needs to know she is cared for.
Tara is an educator. She loves talking to young people and seeing them grow. Outside of work, she takes long walks, takes care of her plants, reads and admires art.