Love & Sex

Why I Didn’t Have Sex Until I Was 27

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It wasn't my choice — it was my vagina's.


R and I had sex for the first time three weeks after we broke up. I was twenty-seven, and had been living with vaginismus for all my life.

Clinically speaking, vaginismus is

…involuntary tightness of the vagina during attempted intercourse… In some cases vaginismus tightness may begin to cause burning, pain, or stinging during intercourse. In other cases, penetration may be difficult or completely impossible. Vaginismus is the main cause of unconsummated relationships.

From the moment I felt sexual, I wanted penetrative sex. I consumed classy erotica, airy-fairy romance novels, and dirty fan fiction in big gulps. The sweet, candle-lit first time never appealed to me. Hair-pulling, back-scratching sex — that's what I fantasized about. Two people, desire-addled, grasping at each other. The man hiking up my skirt, ripping my panties off, gripping my hips, and then…

Sex-positive folks will eagerly tell you that there's more than one way to have sex, and that penetration isn't necessary to get off. That's absolutely true (and thank God for that). But my vaginismus went beyond "no penetration." P-in-V sex was impossible for me. Fingering? No. Mouth? No. Tampon? Why don't you just shove a spike up between my legs? During gynecology checkups, two medical assistants would have to physically hold me down while I screamed. The medical staff dismissed me when I tried to get help. "Just use lube or something when you have sex," they said.

My frustration and depression really wasn't about craving a penis. Well, okay, a part of it was, but in a larger sense. I knew that I wanted penetrative sex with my partner, with R. But more than that, I wanted control. I wanted the choice to have penetrative sex, or finger sex, or oral sex.

Imagine feeling like you have no power over your own sexuality. Imagine being afraid of your partner, not because you don't trust him, but because you know that eventually he'll want to be intimate, and you are the obstacle to that intimacy. My vagina literally cock-blocked me. Imagine the pain being so bad that it overshadows every area of romantic connection. Imagine kissing someone you're really into, and instead of enjoying all the wonderful reactions happening in your body, thinking, fear-stricken, "Please, please don't let this go below my waist. Don't make me have to say stop." Imagine feeling trapped, constantly, looking at other people, teenagers, who manage to fuck for the first time with minimal discomfort. Imagine loving someone, deeply, and being unable to visualize a future with them.

The emotional and physical pain fed off each other, to the point where any touch around my vulva or even my inner thighs caused my muscles to spasm and lock painfully. I could tolerate soft, loose panties against my skin, and gentle soap in the shower. Nothing else. Not even my own fingers.

Imagine constant guilt. Imagine never feeling as though you're a true partner in your relationship.

I read a story once about a woman who overcame her vaginismus by drugging herself several times a week, and allowing her husband to have sex with her unconscious body. R and I agreed that we did not want that. He loved me. He never blamed me, shamed me, or even expressed anger at my situation. No matter how upset I was, he could always bring me back with a silly joke or face.

Imagine never feeling as though you're a true partner in your relationship.

Once, after a particularly painful attempt to have sex, I ran into the bathroom to pee and weep. And then suddenly he was in the bathroom with me, holding my face and kissing my forehead. "We'll get through this together," he said. "You're not alone."

"But… but I'm peeing," I said, scrambling to cover my lap. "This is gross."

"I know," he said. "But together."

The absurdity cracked us both up.

Unfortunately, he felt bad all the time too. "I want to be able to give you pleasure," he'd say sadly. "I want to be your lover, not your source of pain." To our mutual delight, I discovered that I loved blowing R, and many good days and nights were had. But R couldn't reciprocate at all. An entire year went by, and despite all our attempts, we hadn't managed any penetration. When he'd reach for me, I'd have a Pavlovian response. Sometimes he didn't even need to touch me, and my muscles would spasm. On a good day, I'd fall asleep in his arms wiping away tears of frustration.

Finally, I contacted a physical therapist who specialized in pelvic-floor pain. I'd known that such physical therapists existed, but I'd never been brave enough to book an appointment. In my head, I pictured a prudish therapist and a nun lying in wait to yell, "Gotcha! You're just a freak, and there's nothing you can do about it. Use some lube, and get over it." But R had awakened something in me. I found myself thinking, "This relationship is worth taking a risk, and I am worth taking a risk."

And in fact, contacting a physical therapist turned out to be the best thing I could have done for myself. Her demeanor was professional, kind, and encouraging. I felt safe in her hands. She started by working on my legs and hips, getting at the source of the muscle spasms. Within three sessions, she was able to rest her thumb at my vaginal entrance without my body erupting in pain. Furthermore, I was able to insert a vaginal dilator (granted, a very small one) inside myself. Gaining the tolerance for a dilator was enormously difficult, and took hours, days, weeks, of painful practice. Nonetheless, I was making progress.


R and I found each other on an online dating site, and met in person at a café in Boston. As we chatted, he seemed calm, laid back, confident — the reliable sort of guy people ask to feed their pets when they go on vacation. Then, not twenty minutes into our first meeting, R leaned close and said in a low voice, "I already know that I want to see you again. Do you feel the same?"

Like steam pushing the lid off a pot, R's true self radiated across the table: pure sex and libido. I realized that the person sitting before me hid a passionate disposition behind his calm, cool front.

This should have been a happy, thrilling moment; even if the meeting hadn't been going well, it should have been awkwardly flattering, at least. Instead, all I felt was panic. So what if I met a handsome, funny, exciting man with a sexual appetite as great as my own? Inevitably, we'd reach a point where I would let us both down.

I said yes anyway.

R and I broke up a year and a half later. We realized that while we had love, trust, and chemistry covered, we lacked everyday compatibility. We had a seven-year age difference to contend with, and our lives were moving in different directions. Both of us wished we could stay together anyway.

I attended my physical therapy appointment as usual that week, and it was especially intense. I went home, and, shocking myself, I successfully inserted a tampon without any pain. I tried my smaller dilators; no pain. All this success, only five days after we broke up.

This should have been a happy, thrilling moment. Instead, all I felt was panic.

I emailed R, explained the situation, and asked if he might want to meet once more. We were on the same page; neither of us wanted to inspire false hope that we could become a couple again, but on the other hand, we really wanted to bang each other. So we set up boundaries as best we could. We agreed that no matter what happened, we'd consider it a treasured time, a bonus weekend to spend with a loved one. Then we booked a hotel (a neutral place between our homes) for two nights.

In a nondescript room with functional furniture, white sheets, and bland carpeting, R went down on me, and while I jerked a bit, and locked my thighs around his head, I was able to feel beyond the pain. Sure enough, he lived up to my first impression of him: I came so hard I felt faint. I remember looking at the white ceiling, and thinking, "Ah, so that's what all the fuss is about."

This victory, however, was quickly followed by crushing disappointment. I'd practiced diligently with the vaginal dilators, but a dilator is very different than a penis. The dilators had smooth, prosthetic surfaces, and they didn't expand with arousal. Additionally, R's penis was a great deal bigger than the dilators I'd been practicing with. He just didn't fit.

I lost it, sobbing at the injustice of it all. I had hoped that since the dilators went in without an issue, I could be the wanton woman I'd always wanted to be with him. But R reassured me that we'd take it one step at a time. We spent the rest of the weekend trying again and again. He would insert his penis about halfway, and then the pain would overwhelm me. In between rounds, we laughed and celebrated each other's company.

Monday morning, hours before we checked out of the hotel, we tried one more time. I focused on the sweet slopes in R's ear, whispering, I love you over and over. I felt desperate to reach our goal, to be able to say that I had sex with the man I loved. At last, he thrust and filled me, all the way inside. It's hard to articulate what I felt. Pain, definitely. Simultaneously, I also felt a malleable, complicated pleasure beneath it all. Then, everything spasmed, and I had to invoke our safe word.

Technically speaking, we'd accomplished our goal. I cried anyway. I wish we'd been able to get beyond the mechanics of things, to make love and enjoy pleasure in the way we'd wanted to for over a year — and to do so in more meaningful places than a hotel room.

But despite everything, the space between us was vibrant, full of love. Real. Both of us, by that point, were exhausted, and R had to make the long journey to the other side of the state to get to work. We could only offer each other the past that weekend. That morning, we parted sadly, but without any regrets. Our past, we agreed, was good enough.