I think I was maybe four or five years old when my great-grandmother described her first time to me; it was a horror story. She completely believed her new husband was trying to kill her, repeatedly stabbing her, and surely when morning came she would be dead.
Growing up in a pretty traditional Catholic home, the expectations weren't spoken, but they were known: sex was for the married, and therefore not a conversation for the unwed. I was probably close to 12 years old when I realized where babies actually came from.
Losing my virginity was torture; I remember wanting it, wanting him... but as soon as the burning, stabbing, intolerable pain came: I turned my head to the side and focused on the episode of “Invader Zim” playing in the background that drowned out the sounds of his pleasure. I hoped that in time it would get better.
Even after a number of other partners, one after another, all the while reaching for the answer that it wasn’t me, nothing changed. No matter the partner, time, place, position... there was pain. So I accepted my new truth, and suffered in silence.
In time I worked up the nerve to talk to my older sisters and ask if sex hurt for them, too. They hardly even understood the question: “What do you mean it hurts?”, “What PART hurts?”, “ALL of it hurts?”. Was this conversation so inappropriate, so private, even though we were adults? Was I so different, and so strange to be missing out on this incredible experience? Or was it something else. It was the first time I realized that there may actually be something going on with my health and my body.
The discomfort I felt reaching out to them and saying the words was probably more difficult than the sex itself. Why was it so hard to explain to someone so close to me the pain I felt? If I was sick, or injured, or hurting anywhere else, I wouldn't have thought twice about asking for help.
At twenty-years-old the frustration became too much, and I finally reached out to my Ob/Gyn about how much sex was hurting me. Her answer: “Yes, it's pretty normal for a lot of girls.”
That was it. No fix, no reassurance that it could get better, no validation that my pain even mattered at all.
It was “normal,” she said. Reassuring? Hardly.
I switched gynecologists frequently for years as their answers were always slightly different and not that helpful; “Maybe you’re just not attracted to him, and that’s your body saying so” and “You probably just need more lube”. After almost a dozen doctors later and not allowing “normal” to be a sufficient answer, I received a diagnosis of pelvic floor dysfunction, Vulvodynia, and stage four endometriosis, all at the age of 24.
It was the first time I felt any type of relief—physical or emotional. My pain, which had always felt real to me, finally became real to my doctors.
Of course, I had known this before my official diagnosis— the burning, stabbing, intolerable pain that felt like torture, the fear of an orgasm because it came with days of sharp gut-clenching pain, the anxiety that no one should have to tolerate, the feeling that we, as women, are being punished for some biblical mistake. Now, finally, there was something happening to me that was being acknowledged and treated.
Eventually, I opened up to my partner, and thankfully he’s been the kind of man every woman who goes through this journey should have. He came to my appointments, re-learned how to have sex with me to avoid my pain (certain positions that needed to be avoided, repositioning my pelvis), he quieted his ego and accepted that using lube had nothing to do with my arousal or how he makes me feel but is a necessary element in making the experience better. Whether or not sex was a possibility, he never made me feel like I was depriving him of something. He always reassured me that our relationship was more than physical. And even with all of this reassurance, and even though I was the one in pain, I feared losing the one I loved. I was ashamed. I didn’t feel like I was enough of a woman— or enough at all— because I couldn’t be intimate. My priority wasn’t my own health, but making sure my pain didn't cause him frustration.
Why are we hardwired to think this way? Is it because we’ve been told women feeling pleasure has is unnecessary? Or is it because we’ve been told that communicating about sex, even to the person that we share that very experience with, is taboo, even embarrassing? We suffer in silence for fear of how someone else may react or judge us for our pain: “if something is wrong with your vagina/uterus, you must have done something to deserve that, you probably slept around”.
I reached out to a friend of mine who had mentioned dealing with the same issues, and she offered me some advice: "I've just accepted that sex isn't a necessary part of my life anymore. And maybe that's what it needs to be for some women.” I don't truly believe she always felt that, but I think that somewhere along the way, she heard so many people tell her that her pain was normal, she accepted that it was.
So, to that woman, and to each of you reading, and to myself— know that you do not have to endure in silence. I refuse to believe that this is "just how it is for some women,” that I'm part of this super-secret club that doesn't get to enjoy sex, and has to shut up and be quiet about it. I implore you to not normalize your pain.
Sex is a very necessary part of our biology, and the only reason we are still not having an open conversation about our vaginas with our doctors and our partners is because we, as women, have been made to feel ashamed for something completely out of our control.
How many women brace themselves every time their partner penetrates them because they fear for that pain before it even begins? How many of us have been keeping it secret for as long as we can remember? How many women close their eyes and wait for it to be over? Fake pleasure to hurry it up? How many women have subconsciously trained their brain that intimacy is an act of violence that they must protect their bodies from? How many of you have lost your sexual identities and sexuality because you found comfort in being pain-free? I know I did.
If this conversation makes you uncomfortable, good. It's just the start.