Words by Brianna, 22 QLD
This article contains themes about sexual assault, coercion and incremental consent which may be difficult to read or triggering to some readers. Readers in need can seek support from the following services or visit our Creating a Safe Space page to see a full list of support services.
The following piece is part of the Rarely Seen, Hardly Heard campaign.
Rarely Seen, Hardly Heard is about shining a light on the stories, thoughts and opinions of young people who have never been published on the WhyNot platform before, helping break down stereotypes and continuing to amplify diverse voices. All young people have a right to speak up and be heard.
I am living with vaginismus.
The involuntary contractions of the pelvic floor.
This condition forced me to understand what it means to have a sexual disability. It sounds like a small issue to have, but it complicates even the most natural parts of my life. Despite being a necessity, menstrual products like tampons and cups, cause me more pain than they’re worth. Sex for most people is a pleasurable activity (if occasionally awkward) but has only ever been physically hurtful for me and even impossible at times.
He was my first boyfriend. He asked me out for the first time and we went dancing. I was head over heels for him and astounded to think he felt the same way about me too. By the second date, I was already in his bedroom, a place I still regret letting myself go. We might have kissed, but nothing more, and yet I was still apprehensive about how quickly things were moving. I later realised I’d landed myself in a place he equated with sex, something I wasn’t ready for three months into the relationship, let alone three days.
The term asexual is something I have long found comfort in. I don’t remember my friends being “sex-obsessed”, but there was always this sense that they were doing it and having fun. I couldn’t imagine the same arousal or yearning for intimacy on that level. Holding hands, an arm around my shoulders, a gentle kiss on the cheek – all of that I found sweet. Anything below the belt – it was always too soon. Whether or not asexual is the right word for me, it’s what I felt closest to long before I knew him.
When I try to explain asexuality or demi-sexuality (needing to know the person very closely before forming sexual attraction) to people, their reaction is typically to tell me that NOBODY wants to have sex with someone they don’t know, that I’m no different or ‘special’ because I feel this way. Yet the ease with which others spoke about one-night stands suggested otherwise to me. My ex was no different. I tried to explain these things to him as sleepovers at his house became more frequent. He’d invalidate my anxiety and become frustrated that I wasn’t ‘ready for it’ yet.
I wanted him to see me as intelligent, creative and a passionate young leader in my community. Instead, he saw me as an object of his fetish. Literally. I still feel uncomfortable to have been thought of this way.
I said ‘yes’ more than once, after being worn down by his demands and made to feel like I was difficult. He continually threatened to end the relationship if I didn’t take part, preying on my insecurities.
When my unwilling mind tried to push all these thoughts to the back, my body reacted. It created a shield, a wall that blocked him off, causing intense involuntary pain. My body protected me more than once, and he finally ended the relationship.
Growing up, I’d heard that sex was often painful the first time. Even knowing this I couldn’t put aside what was happening to me. It didn’t feel like a single pinprick but rather a knife that was constantly stabbing and leaving me in pain. My GP referred me to a gynaecologist, a pelvic floor physiotherapist, and a sex counsellor for treatment of vaginismus.
Vaginismus can come in two forms: primary and secondary. My gynaecologist and physiotherapist treated me as if I was experiencing a primary case, one that is purely a physical and involuntary reaction. It would explain why tampons caused me such discomfort and why penetration was usually painful for me. My counsellor focused on treatment for secondary vaginismus – this occurs when the body is affected by fear and anxiety and reacts by unconsciously guarding the pelvic floor region.
My ongoing experience with vaginismus is confusing. I recognise my body was protecting me from a dangerous event, but this condition has caused additional pain and inconvenience. Menstrual health is a challenge and regular gynaecologist appointments cause additional stress. I’m apprehensive to try dating again because I dread knowing a partner will want something it hurts me to give.
For some people, vaginismus is a treatable disorder through the use of cognitive behavioural therapy and vaginal dilators. I view my vaginismus as a disability, something that I might alleviate but will struggle to remove from myself entirely. It feels silly to say I have a disability when it’s ‘just a sexual thing’. A lot of similar conditions have been grouped under the term ‘sexual pain’, which feels like a failing to me as they can have a much broader impact.
In school, I never knew these things existed, let alone that the wasted tampons in my bathroom bin were reflective of this condition. Being unaware meant it was easy for others to water down my anxiety and reduce my pain to something relatable, even when it was not. I didn’t seek help as early as I could have and a short discussion with my GP could have alerted me sooner to the fact that I was in an unsafe relationship.
In future relationships, I may be faced with more anxiety as I try to explain this disability to my partners. I’ve been lucky lately, to have time and space to muse on this by myself. But I hope to contribute to an informed understanding of how disability can affect sexual pleasure. The next time I need to tell a guy to ‘wait and slow it down’ I hope I don’t have to rely on my body alone to keep me safe.