While Craccum’s sex issue is usually full of fun, quirky, happy-go-fucky reading, the reality for some is that sex comes with a lot of hurt, shame and distress.
When I tell people that I can’t have penetrative sex or use tampons, some common suggestions I get back is that I should have a drink, that I should use lube (wait, people don’t?), or that I should “just relax”.
Ahh. Just relax. This gaslighting phrase belongs in the kettle of fish where you find all of the other excuses for ignoring womxn’s pain. Without exaggerating, if this were the 17th Century, I’d be diagnosed with something called Hysteria – a term that connotes a psychological disorder. I might as well also be considered demonically possessed as that would be the conclusion resorted to when no medical diagnosis or cure could be given. This speaks to the zero number of fucks that medical institutions give about researching womxn’s health.
Hysteria comes from the Greek word for uterus, hystera. Therefore the association between womxn’s pain and insanity goes way back to Ancient Egypt where poppycock interventions would be undertaken to settle the ‘wandering uterus’. Even though it’s 2020, I’m still not far from simply being diagnosed as crazy. Nor do companies stop capitalising on vaginal shame through vaginal steaming, vagina-optimising supplements, scented washes, vulva masks, labia serums, and other gels, sprays, deodorants, wipes and douches. A vagina-shaming society makes its owner feel like their body isn’t good enough.
After years of dismissal, I had finally learnt at a gynaecologist appointment that I had an unusually thick hymen. Hearing this felt like the first time I put on glasses when I was 10 and saw that trees had leaves. I hadn’t realised the potential quality of life that I had missed out on until I was diagnosed. While other GPs would go straight in with their finger while I squirmed and held back punches on the table, this gynaecologist very quickly and gently looked from the outside, acknowledging that this was a painful experience for me physically and emotionally. To give you an idea, it often hurts when my menstrual blood comes out to meet the world. Had I pushed myself through forced penetration, my hymen would have gone through much more irreparable trauma than a person with a normal hymen would.
To set things straight, hymens are membranes that surround the opening of the vagina. Embryologically, the hymen is used to stop dirt from entering the vagina to prevent infection, but otherwise it has no real purpose. Perhaps as an adult, my hymen has had one use in being a great fuckboy filter.
Hymens can come in a range of anatomic variations that aren’t just one regular hole. To name a few, but not all:
- Dentate hymen – the membrane has a serrated-appearing edge around the hole.
- Fimbriated hymen – the membrane has a star-shaped edge around the hole.
- Imperforate hymen – the membrane completely covers the hole.
- Anterior/posterior lunar hymen– a crescent-shaped membrane either facing downwards or upwards.
- Septate hymen – the membrane has a band of extra tissue down the middle making it two holes instead of one.
- Cribriform hymen – the membrane has numerous small holes instead of one.
- Microperforate hymen– the membrane almost completely covers the hole.
Some of these variations will cause more problems than others and can be resolved through a quick and simple outpatient surgery called a hymenectomy or hymenotomy where the excess tissue is removed. For example, the imperforate hymen is usually diagnosed quite young as menstrual blood cannot exit the vagina, causing abdominal and pelvic pain, back pain, bowel problems and/or pain with urination. The point is that no two vulvas or vaginas work and appear the same.
There is no doubt that hymens are loaded with cultural connotations, particularly that of it being a marker of virginity. The monolithic construction of hymens as a virginity piñata creates many problems for people who might not physically be able to insert anything into their vagina in the first place. In the language my parents speak, hymen translates to “virgin seal”. Explaining to my traditionalist parents that I will be getting my hymen surgically removed was something they could not comprehend. The rite of passage that sex is meant to hurt the first time, or that a virgin is meant to bleed the first time they have sex, is woven into the cultural fabric of too many societies. It hurts me to know that some people feel compelled to go as far as getting a hymenoplasty (a reconstructive surgery of the hymen to restore it back to its ‘virgin’ state) to prove or pretend that they are a virgin, for whatever fucked up desirable reason. Hymens change shape and size over time and can be influenced by hormone levels and the physical activities done at a prepubescent age. Therefore, hymens are not a reliable indicator of virginity.
The way that hymens and vaginas are discursively referred to is a product of a phallocentric world. We say things like “cherry popping” and “hymen breaking” which place an emphasis on penetration and annihilative sexuality. Vaginas are often the object in the equation of sex, rather that the subject, and sex becomes synonymous with penetrative PIV sex. The word foreplay denotes something that comes before this main event, whereas I believe that the activities associated with foreplay simply need to be recognised as sex itself. The obsession with penetration extends to the way that external female genitalia are referred to in terms of exchanging the word ‘vulva’ for ‘vagina’.
As a result of the social conditions in which I expect my vagina and reproductive system to operate and the cumulative memories I have of vulvovaginal pain, I have developed vaginismus. This is a condition where the muscles around the opening of the vagina spasm or contract involuntarily making vaginal penetration painful or impossible. The causes are wide and varied including physical causes and non-physical causes, but it is usually linked to anxiety from the fear of having sex. This does not mean that someone who is excited and roused up to have sex cannot still experience this involuntary spasm. It is difficult to know whether the anxiety or vaginismus came first, as it is a cycle: you anticipate pain, tighten the vaginal muscles to protect the body, experience the pain which reinforces the limbic reaction, retain this reaction, and avoid penetrative situations, causing more anxiety for the next cycle.
Luckily, vaginismus can be effectively cured through the use of dilator therapy and additional CBT or psychosexual therapy if needed. Dilators are a set of plastic or silicon tube-shaped devices, starting from about the size of a pinky, graduating to the size of a penis or speculum. They are lubricated and inserted into the vagina for about 10 minutes a few times a week while you do breathing exercises or something relaxing. Having a safe and private space to use them helps to undo the anxiety response and when one feels completely comfortable with that dilator, they can move up to the next size. Given that there are no anatomical or physical issues, dilators can fully cure vaginismus.
I am one month out from getting my hymen removed and as grossed out and squeamish as I feel about it, I feel relieved to know that I figured this out before I sucked it up and submitted to the patriarchal expectation of painful PIV sex. And to anyone who feels as disembodied as I do with my reproductive system, I hope you get the medical and social recognition that you deserve. You are not hysterical for having normal functioning sexuality, and you are definitely not broken. It is up to media, sex education, medical institutions, and our sexual partners to step up to us.
Disclaimer: this article does not replace professional medical advice.
- Vulvovaginal Pain: Tight Lipped Podcast (www.tightlippedpod.com)
- Vaginismus and Dilators: Hope&Her (www.hopeandher.com)
- Film about Vaginismus: Tightly Wound (www.tightlywoundfilm.com)
- Pelvic Pain: Pelvic Pain Foundation (www.pelvicpain.org.au)
- Endometriosis: Endometriosis New Zealand (www.nzendo.org.nz)