Guest Post – 10+ years with vaginismus

03/23/2010 at 8:01 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments
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[Dear internet, we have a guest post today! The following was written by someone who prefers to remain anonymous actually, with her permission, make that an adventurous virgin.]

Picture the scene….I’m 18 and in my 1st year at university. It’s a Thursday night and I’m getting ready to go out dancing with my friends and boyfriend at that time. We start off in the usual bar and finish up in the usual place. We’ve all had a good night and it comes to going home. My boyfriend suggests we go back to his place. I nod and we start walking up the road. As the alcohol wears off I remember that I don’t want to do that at all and start thinking of reasons why I can’t sleep with him tonight. A taxi comes along and I run to get it and go home. That’s a typical Thursday night out for me.

Fast forward to the next morning and a typical conversation with friends before class goes something along the lines of: “Why didn’t you stay at his place last night? Haven’t you done it yet? He won’t wait forever. Just get it over with.” I knew that being an 18 year old virgin at university was a little freakish, so I was left with no other choice-I had to end the relationship.

Now, here I am 11 years later, still obsessing about the same thing. Except now I know that there’s a name for what I experience and I’m working on it. I remember the day very clearly when I discovered the term vaginismus. I had been going out with my current boyfriend for about 3 years. We had tried to sleep together many times and failed miserably each time. I was totally freaked out by this. I didn’t know what was wrong with me and I was far too embarrassed to go to my doctor. Everyone else around me was able to have sex no problem and I really didn’t want to say to anyone that I’d been going out with someone for 3 years and we hadn’t slept together yet. It was just presumed that we had.

Anyway, one Sunday night my brother, who was working in a shop, brought me back a magazine that was out of date. The first article was entitled “I couldn’t have sex with my boyfriend.” I was extremely interested and read it over and over again. It was like reading about myself! In the article the girl had had a couple of boyfriends and each time she couldn’t have sex with them, they had broken up with her. Now she had a new boyfriend and was using dilators with him. After a few months of using them, they were able to have sex. In 2 minutes my world changed. I discovered a name for my problem, I wasn’t the only one in the world who had this problem and there was a cure!

It took me about a week to tell my boyfriend about the article. I didn’t know how he would take this information. I needn’t have worried-he seemed happy too to know this. And so the research process began. Every few months I would spend hours online reading stories from other women and their partners. I read about treatments, doctors, causes, things I should and shouldn’t do. I had so much information I didn’t know what to do with it. Some articles said it was a psychological problem and that I should see a therapist. Some said it was a muscle that needed to be stretched. Some said it needed surgery. I didn’t know what to believe.

I started thinking about why I might have it. If it’s psychological, then it’s easy to think of a reason why. Growing up in a Catholic society, I went to an all-girls primary school where the teachers pointed out that anyone who got pregnant outside marriage or had an abortion would go straight to Hell. This was followed by a Catholic all-girls secondary school, where I was taught by some nuns, who obviously shared that opinion! I was so terrified of getting pregnant before finishing university, that I refused to let anyone near me. By the time I was in a long term relationship, the fear of getting pregnant was so huge, that I would be physically sick at the thought of sex. I can’t remember the amount of times that I ran out of places to get sick because I thought that I might have to have sex.

So now I’m 29, going out with the same guy for 9 years and everyone is asking me when I’m going to have a baby. Society is so confusing: you spend your early teens being told that sex is wrong and not to let a boy near you, then in your early 20s you’re supposed to be having loads of it with as many people as possible in as many different styles as possible, (but keeping all this hidden from the older generation) before you meet “the one” and then you settle down and you’re supposed get married. Then, all the people who told you in your early teens that sex was wrong are asking you when you’re going to have a baby. How are you supposed to go from staying away from boys to having babies?!?!?!?! It’s just not logical!

Living in a society where now everything is connected to sex and not being able to have it is really hard. Practically every product is advertised using sex. Members of the opposite sex will find you sexy if you use a certain shampoo, wear certain make-up, drive a certain car, drink a certain drink etc…. Little girls aren’t happy with dressing up in their mother’s clothes anymore. They have to have mini versions of what their mother’s wear, but they’re still being told to stay away from boys! So where does that leave me??? I finally got around to seeing a doctor and getting a set of dilators. I’m finally making some progress and I can see some light at the end of the tunnel, physically anyway. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to get my head around the mixed messages sent to girls in society though!

Lies my sex ed teacher taught me

06/16/2009 at 4:30 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 6 Comments
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A few days ago, one of my older co workers mentioned that he had gone to the same school as me. He rattled off a few teachers names (and their personality quirks) and I recognized many of them as having been my teachers almost a decade later.

Unfortunately that is a time of my life I don’t like to think about much. I have tried to overwrite several distressing memories of that time and un-learn the flawed lesson plans that took place both during and after class.
So the next time I saw my coworker I said to him, “You know how you brought up the old school we went to? Well I’ve been having flashbacks ever since then.”
I was only half joking.

I wish I kept my notes from high school sex education.

It was a class that required no text book. Bringing in an empty, thin paper folder would suffice. This folder would eventually be filled with handouts from the teachers, much as our heads would be filled with the teachers’ negative views of sex. It was a class that heavily reinforced gender roles & gender stereotypes. It was a sex education class that, while technically not abstinence-only, was nonetheless skewed to press abstinence if not outright celibacy until marriage. It was certainly not a comprehensive sexual health class.

I wish I had kept my notes.
Not because they were useful or had any real life value. They didn’t. I learned nothing of value in high school sex ed.
I wish I had kept them because you just can’t make this shit up. Is anyone going to believe me? It is probably going to sound like I am making some of this shit up. I wish I still had them so I could scan and post them online. Yet I know from hearing similar stories from others, that my experience was unfortunately all too common.

Alas, I did not keep the notes. I threw them out a long time ago. I remember seeing my high school sex ed folder and thinking, “Lol, this was completely useless,” and throwing my old notes into the paper recycling bin.

I knew that sex education was a joke when I was going through it. I had access to more comprehensive and non-judgmental materials at home on my computer. At home only, since sex education sites were blocked on the school network.
So I knew it was a farce. I sat through class, regurgitated the answers my teachers wanted to hear, and went on with my life, not thinking about it much.
For awhile.

I’m more upset about the lack useful sexual health information now, looking back as an adult. Now I see how much of the information presented by my sex ed teachers was wrong, outdated, fearmongering, biased, or possibly even a lie. And so much information that would be relevant to my sexual health later on was missing, which delayed me from finding treatment.

The class did nothing to prepare me for the journey that would lie ahead of me as a one who would face vulvodynia & vaginismus. Or, if the class did do anything to prepare me for the long journey, it was to perpetuate a misunderstanding of my own body, a strong sense of personal insecurity about my own sexual performance, and a suspicion for non-vanilla expressions of sexuality.

Never were these the words “Vulvodynia, vaginismus, dyspareunia,” spoken, despite the fact that it was the early 2000s. Sex and the City had already aired The Real Me. Books that talked about vulvodynia in great detail were starting to come out for possibly the first time. I wonder if sexual pain is brought up now by my old teachers. If so, is it used as a Threat rather than a Warning?

Unfortunately I was one of those goody-goody students dedicated to academic achievement. I valued approval, especially from authoritative sources. I liked feeling like I was smart & valued by adults. Unfortunately, I recognize now that even though the class was mostly useless, I was still, on some level, internalizing my sex ed teachers’ negative views of sex & sexuality.
There was social pressure to conform to sexual norms coming from the student body as well, in the form of harassment & rumors. Having teachers perpetuate sexual stigmas wasn’t helping. “Good girls don’t do that. The girls who do that have such bad reputations. I don’t want that to happen to me.”

Yet at the same time I knew I didn’t want to wait until marriage to have sex, either. This was the best long-term path recommended by my teachers. But it just didn’t seem practical. What difference does it make if I have found a partner I feel comfortable with?

Since my teachers kept pushing over & over again that Sex = Bad = You get what you deserve, when I first noticed the dyspareunia (right away) and post-coital problems, at first I assumed that the pain was normal… all girls have sexual pain their first time, right? It’s just something that’s supposed to fade over time. It must be my hymen breaking.
Then the burning didn’t stop. It didn’t get any better the next few times I tried to have sex. I thought I broke my hymen the first time – why am I still bleeding? What part of my vagina is the blood coming from? This area wasn’t on the diagrams!
I knew I didn’t have an STD because my partner and I had both been virgins in every sense of the word before engaging in coitus sexual activity, together. I had been to the gynecologist and cleared of any & all infections prior to attempting sex anyway. The thought of an STD may have crossed my mind for all of five minutes – maybe he cheated on me and passed something along? But no, that didn’t happen. Bringing it up did cause some unnecessary relationship stress though.
I wound up running back & forth to the gynos several times trying to find out the cause of and relief for my vulvar pain. When there was no obvious reason (or treatment) for it, I freaked out & I blamed myself. I did something Bad & Wrong by not waiting until marriage for sex (even though I was in my early 20s and with a partner I felt comfortable with.) Maybe this wouldn’t have happened if I had just waited to give away my precious virginity for awhile longer…
Were my teachers right after all? They seemed so wrong at the time…

If there is any psychological component to my vulvodynia & vaginismus, this makes up a huge chunk of it. I’m not fully comfortable with this conclusion because it feels too close to the dismissive “All in your head” argument. For me, personally, it probably has something to do with my vaginismus, but nothing to do with my vulvodynia. I don’t see how listening to a bunch of blowhards going on and on about how sex is bad 4 u could actually cause my vestibule to become red & inflamed. I am not fully understanding how that could cause a physical reaction… perhaps sitting at those awful bolted together plastic & metal desks had more to do with that.
But then, I already had some vulvar problem warning signs I should have paid more attention to back then. There may have already been something going on inside of my body that I didn’t recognize. Perhaps, if I had had a more comprehensive sexual health education, I would have been in a better position to realize that something strange was stirring down below, something big.
But with regards to the vaginismus… So much class time was spent with teachers pontificating about all the bad things that happen to you if you have sex. Did my pelvic floor muscles start tensing up then, in an effort to protect me from some vague sexual bogeyman?
All that pressure to wait until marriage, then suddenly perform… and it’s going to hurt anyway? That is way too much pressure!
What would have happened if I had waited until marriage? My wedding night, and subsequent nights, would have left me in tears of pain & frustration rather than joy. The teachers made it sound so easy. Was I some kind of freak? What did my fellow classmates have that I didn’t?

It has taken me this long to un-learn much of high school sex education.
It has taken me this a long time to accept that no, it really wasn’t my fault, or my partner’s.
We didn’t deserve this.
You don’t deserve this.

But at the time, It sounded like there was so much to be afraid of…

I remember…

My teachers spent a lot of time talking about STDs (always a “D,” to indicate “you are diseased” rather than an “I,” to indicate “you have an infection,”) AIDs and pregnancy.
Very serious stuff and definitely worth taking into consideration when embarking on your own sexual journey. We didn’t spend a lot of time talking about general sexual health, pap smears, yeast infections. We spent some time talking about the body’s structures, but the sexual & anatomical road maps my teachers gave the class were fraught with “Here be dragons!” and very few directions.
Or labels.

The map of my own body I was presented with in sex ed were very basic for their time. The anatomical diagrams of men & women’s bodies were highly stylized black & white outlines, as viewed from the side. Every picture you get back when you Google the term, Sexual Anatomy, is more detailed than what I had back in the day. Which is strange, since the internet existed back then…

The simple anatomical diagrams were left mostly blank, with lines pointing out of the most Thank-You-Captain-Obvious parts. I remember the class exercise – label the penis, vagina, labia majora, urethra (in males), meatus (also in males only) scrotum & testes, ovaries, fallopian tube, uterus, cervix, etc. Most of the parts you received points for labeling were the parts that you don’t usually get to see – the testes inside of the scrotum, the ovaries & uterus. The parts that are most responsible for pregnancy.

The female clitoris was never labeled, and no teacher ever dared speak the word aloud. I went through high school sex education never hearing the word “Clitoris” from my teachers. It was the little pink elephant in the room.
Why no students brought it up, I’m still not sure. Maybe we were all too embarrassed or picked up on the teachers’ discomfort.

It wasn’t just the clitoris that was overlooked though. The G-spot was a no-man’s land, although the prostate was labeled. The Bartholin’s & Skene’s glands in women didn’t exist. Never did anyone point out the posterior fourchette, that fused flap of skin at the bottom of the labia minora that would tear on me the first few times I attempted intercourse. The vulvar vestibule was not labeled, nor was the introitus. Places that would become my problem areas, remained a mystery to me until I had to learn about them the hard way.

Sexual pleasure was mentioned – for the male, at least. The teachers emphasized over & over that the male partner would find sexual gratification doing just about any sex act. Female pleasure & comfort was ignored. Perhaps it wasn’t worth pursuing. After all, women do not require an orgasm to become pregnant.

The teachers made it clear that alternative sex acts, especially oral sex, were offenses just as worthy of condemnation as intercourse. We weren’t made to feel comfortable exploring alternatives like outercourse. If you, (this was addressed to the girls in the class) did engage in some alternative sex act with a boy, you were being disingenuous about valuing your virginity.
The lesson plans didn’t include sex toys. We didn’t mention natural & artificial lubricants. We didn’t talk about masturbation for either sex, although the handouts drew attention to male nocturnal emissions. We didn’t talk about the importance of good, healthy communication between sex partners. The teachers did raise the question of consent between parties, but they did not provide any guidance from which to draw an answer.

Sex ed was very heterocentric, very heteronormative. We spent much of the class talking about male-female intercourse, with pregnancy as the result. Although my school had a few openly gay & lesbian students, no one talked about same-sex activities, or the fact that they are not risk-free either. Those vague anatomical diagrams gave us no hints that individuals can born intersexed, and no one thought to bring up transgenderism. If these topics had been brought up though, I cannot imagine that they would have been handled maturely.

Preventing pregnancy & sexually transmitted disease were important lessons. The loudest lesson the teachers tried to drive home was, it’s best to avoid these two things by remaining abstinent until marriage. While this is true, it ignored the fact that many of my fellow students were already sexually active by then. For them, it was important to have access to accurate, unbiased information on how to enjoy safer sex.
Emphasizing abstinence until marriage also forgets the fact that, not everyone is going to get married. Some people will never find “The one.” Are they to remain celibate until death? Others will not legally have the right to marry their partner; what about them? Still others will marry then divorce, lose their partner to death, or have sex partners outside of wedlock. So even marriage is not so safe.

For those students who were sexually active, the teachers talked a little about condoms… but only to focus on their notoriously high failure rate at preventing pregnancy & STDs. Some of the statistics were technically “Correct,” but I remember one teacher spending a lot of time driving home the point that condoms will inevitably fail. We were all just so incompetent about using them, after all (nevermind the fact that the class offered no instruction on proper storage or application.) The implication I gleaned from this was that using a condom was an exercise in futility. Eventually it wouldn’t matter anymore, so why bother in the first place?
Besides, said one male sex ed teacher, wearing a condom was like “Putting on a raincoat and then getting in the shower.” His exact words.

What about birth control pills for preventing pregnancy? One sex ed teacher spent quite some time expounding on the many dangers of hormonal birth control pills. Nevermind the fact that some of my classmates were already on birth control for nonsexual reasons (Painful, irregular periods, severe acne, etc.) Hormonal birth control isn’t right for everyone. It isn’t right for me, but I feel like my teachers spent a disproportionate amount of time talking about the cons of using hormonal birth control vs. the time they spent talking about its benefits, and I feel like they projected their own beliefs without leaving much room for the students to make their own decisions.

The diagrams of the IUD were not to scale; to me an IUD looked enormous & uncomfortable. So the first time I actually held an IUD, years later in a more comprehensive, college-level women’s health class, the little device fit in the palm of my hand. It was no bigger than my pinky, and a lot skinnier. I took one look at it and went, “That’s it? That’s all? Oh, I can handle that!”

Nowadays we have a few more options for birth control that were unavailable to me then. Now we have NuvaRing. The Sponge tries to return periodically. Latex-free polyurethane condoms are another new option. If you are over 18 and live in the US, you can get Plan B over the counter.
I’m morbidly curious to see how sex ed teachers incorporate these new safer sex options today.

The class never talked about abortion in detail. I seem to recall seeing the word printed somewhere and maybe hearing it tossed around a few times, but I didn’t understand how to induce one or what was involved after.

The infections you may encounter while traveling down the road of sexuality were skewed towards the disasters. My class didn’t mention that you can be a virgin and still develop a yeast infection. The lack of information led me to believe that if you simply stayed a virgin forever, your vagina would not have any problems.

Again, many of the raw numbers presented about the prevalence of STIs was technically correct. But as was the case with pregnancy, the teachers spent relatively little time talking about how to prevent infections & how to seek treatment when all else fails. I remember one teacher regaling us with tales of former star athletes’ high school sports careers being derailed by their very first outbreak of genital herpes. Their lives were ruined forever after. The implication was, damaged goods.
We looked at graphic images of STI’s, left untreated so long that the infections became extreme cases. If these pictures were trying to make us hypervigiliant, it worked – even I have freaked out about an ingrown hair, thinking it could be herpes. I worry though, that by showing students long-term infections that became severe, whether some students would go on to write off actual infections while they were still new & causing only minor symptoms. How many infections went untreated until they looked like the pictures?

AIDS was then, and is still, a very real health concern. Here, the teachers did some things right when talking about AIDS. They didn’t frame HIV as exclusive to the gay community, they let us know that you could still be near and could touch an infected person without becoming infected, and they didn’t claim you could cure it with diet and herbs. Again, the statistics about its prevalence and course of illness were technically correct. This was the biggest reason to avoid sex at all costs, since there is no undo button in real life and still no cure. You just couldn’t risk sex because how do you know your partner doesn’t have HIV? Even if a test came back negative, the virus could still be new, and hiding.
Looking back though, I remember that when some of my fellow students gave presentations about AIDS (everyone had to,) some students forgot to include breast milk and pregnancy as possible ways the virus can be spread. It wasn’t until I got home and checked the computer that I found even the elderly have sex (Gasp!) and are at risk, too. One teacher warned that you can get false negatives when you take an HIV test, but she never mentioned that, while statistically very rare, it’s possible to come back with a false positive. I had no idea a false positive on an HIV test could exist until years later when a patient on House got one.

Unfortunately there’s only so much time you can spend reiterating a vague description of heterosexual intercourse with intent to procreate and describing all the diseases you will catch from doing so.

So after running out of “Factual” information, the class spent a lot of time watching Movies.
Made-for-TV Lifetime Drama movies and after-school specials. “Very special” episodes of sitcoms. Some students brought in taped episodes of 7th Heaven. We watched a generic movie in which the poor pretty white girl got pregnant and the boyfriend eventually accepts his responsibility and the girl always decides to carry the pregnancy forward to birth, then the movie ends. Never did we see a documentary or film where students just like us explored their sexuality safely & went on to lead relatively happy lives.

Towards the end of the school year, my teachers started wrapping things up. Before taking the end of term tests, one sex ed teacher warned us, “Passing the test on paper doesn’t really matter. I need you to remember this when the time comes and it’s important.” Good advice; teaching to the test is usually a bad way to teach since students can mentally dump the lesson plans after the test is over.
My teacher went on, “I hope you all learned something here. I’ve run into former students who remembered me and this class and they thanked me.”

Th… Thanked?

…It has been years since high school. I have been free of it. I have entered the Real World.
Yet this moment in time sticks out to me because I find myself asking…

Thanked you?
…Why? What for?
Perhaps, once again, I’m the weird exception to the rule. I’m the one with the pelvic floor problems, here. Or maybe I’m over thinking things again, over analyzing.

Because I can not think of anything to thank my old sex ed teachers for.

What I remember most from these classes, is not the raw statistical numbers. It is not the list of available birth control options.
What I remember most, is the stigmas, stereotypes, the judgements. I remember the push to conform to gender norms, the push for chastity. I remember teachers fond of gossip & anecdotes. I learned about futility.

Did these former sex ed students, now grown adults in my neighborhood, who went out of their way to thank their old teachers, did they just not continue learning about sex? Is that all the exposure to sexual health they had? A few weeks in high school?

Is that really something to be thankful for?

Would they say the same things years later on, after getting married, maybe starting a family on their own?
Is “Thank you” that what members of the LBGITQ community said? Is that what the women who had abortions said? Is that what the kinky couple said?

It is not what the one with vulvodynia & vaginismus is saying.

No. I am not thankful.

I learned much more about sex & sexuality, at home, on my own. I learned more complete, less biased facts in books and in online support communities. To them, the authors, doctors and friends, I am thankful.

I would like to believe that in the years since graduation, my old teachers have changed their minds. I want to tell myself that maybe some other students have confronted them & called them out. Maybe one of them will stumble across this little tiny niche blog, see what I have written and realize, “My god what have I done.” I want to believe that teachers are incorporating a variety of unbiased, factual materials from the internet. I would like to believe that by presenting a fuller picture of sexuality & health, there will be fewer people like me who are blindsided by sexual problems. And maybe even if others do go on to have problems, they will be better equipped to deal with them in their own chosen way.

I want to believe…
But… …

I have some other completely bizarre stories from sex ed class. But without my notes, I have no way of proving that they actually took place. And they’re strange enough so that I can’t imagine many people on the internet saying “Yeah that happened to me, too.” If you wanted to hear more, you’d just have to take my word for it.

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