Pleasure, shame and self-sabotaging: My struggle with vaginismus

Illustration of a person lying in bed, surrounded by a swirl of dark thoughts and trying to push them away, by Aishwarya Jayadeep
Aishwarya Jayadeep/File

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From the days where showing ankles would be considered scandalous to the degrading comments made about the sex-positivity movement today, those who identify as women have always been in a constant battle for ownership over their own sexuality.

It’s true that it has become more acceptable for women to be openly interested in sex, with the rise of podcasts like “Call Her Daddy” and sex-positive TikToks. We talk about the positives: the power, art and freedom of a sexual woman. However, we still have a long way to go. What about the negatives consequential of years of generational shame and trauma that lay below the surface? 

According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, as many as 75% of women will experience pain during sex at some point in their lives. Temporary pain during sex is actually considered normal, especially if it’s your first time. What makes pain during sex concerning is when it doesn’t go away. Dyspareunia, or persistently painful intercourse, affects 10% to 20% of all women, according to the American Family Physician. A similar condition, vaginismus, is the involuntary spasm of the vaginal muscles that makes penetration feel impossible.

It’s difficult to estimate the number of women affected by these conditions due to the lack of women speaking up about it. However, I can guarantee you that there is one unlucky individual who definitely has had vaginismus. Surprise: It’s me. 

So, how did I get there? You might expect everyone with vaginismus to have experienced sexual assault before the body results in a fight-or-flight response of closing up shop. For me, that wasn’t the case, although I can postulate that internalized shame had something to do with it. In my adolescent universe, sex wasn’t discussed. It wasn’t that my family was strict or vehemently religious. It wasn’t even that I had a negative experience with sex before attempting it. I simply had an internalized shame about feeling desire and wanting to fulfill it. 

After being in a steady high-school relationship for a year, I felt ready to take it to the next level and hoped to enrich my life for the better. But, when the time came for penetration, my body turned on the purge alarms and barricaded the doors. What made the initial experience worse was the feelings of disappointment and failure brought on by letting my partner down. I felt like my body was sabotaging itself, denying me pleasure. In a way, I felt like I deserved it. Maybe it was the fear that he would leave after he “got what he wanted,” or maybe it was the fear of pregnancy that the universe tattooed on my brain since a young age. 

Either way, I was ashamed. We tried eight more times and still no luck. We tried extra lubricant, massaging and foreplay. None of that changed the excruciating pain that shot through my entire being during penetration.

After that, sex was never really high on my list of priorities. My brain had linked sex with feelings of shame, unfulfillment and disappointment. I never enjoy letting people down, so I simply swore it off. While my friends were going out and enjoying their bodies, I turned inward, convincing myself I would never be “normal.” 

However, I still never gave up. I bought vaginal dilators, but I was too confused and intimidated to know what to do with them. I tried again with a different partner and continuously got the same painful and disheartening response. 

Four years after I was first diagnosed with vaginismus, I had the courage and direction to take it upon myself to work toward pain-free sex. I talked to my regular therapist about how I was struggling, and she connected me with a sex therapist. 

The sex therapist gave me a treatment plan to overcome my vaginismus. In the beginning, she told me not to insert anything at all to learn how to control the muscles without pressure. I would do exercises, similar to Kegels, in order to gain control over relaxing the muscles. 

Part of me was intensely frustrated that I had to put in so much effort to have intercourse when most men can have sex easily. I thought, “why would I devote my time and energy to this just for a man to use me and take pleasure from my body?” 

It took long chats with my best friend to convince me that sex, first of all, is a completely natural and enriching part of the human experience. Secondly, sex is a shared moment between two people that should result in mutual pleasure. If I swore off sex, I would be denying myself the knowledge and experience that comes with being human. I did not want to let any experience go by without fully understanding it and committed to the treatment routine.

Only three weeks into treatment, I was able to channel new control over my body to have pain-free sex. After four years of struggling to feel valid as a woman, I never knew that it would take a mere three weeks to gain control and confidence in my sexual being. All it took was being connected to the right resources. 

Of course, everyone’s body is unique. I felt the urge to share my story to let others know that they are not alone. The world wants you to believe that women enjoying sex is inherently wrong and dirty, and that it makes you less respectable. Don’t believe them. This is your life. Don’t write your pleasure off as a first-world problem. You deserve the best. The resources are there; you just have to reach out for help. 

Contact Dina Katgara at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @dinakatgara.