Writing by Ellie Bye. Illustration by Lana Fawaz.
At the centre of all life is sex. It is, possibly, the most natural thing on our planet. We see it in every animal, and yet, we have somehow managed to turn it into something that feels so unnatural.
Sex is embedded into every crevice of human existence: from films, to books, to social media, and sex scandals that force MPs to resign. Nonetheless, the way it’s presented is far from the awkward and messy experience that is the reality of most sex. Whether it’s the pristine and sultry appearance we see in porn and James-Bond-esque films, or the prudishly clandestine approach we take towards sex, rarely are we able to learn how sex truly exists in our society.
At school, most of us learn little to nothing about sex. The extent of my learning was limited to my 60-something-year-old teacher telling 15-year-old-me that her personal favourite form of contraception was the female condom. “Good to know”, I squeamishly thought. Of course, the overall message was still, and say it with me now, “the only 100% method to be safe is abstinence”.
Same-sex couples were never even addressed. As far as most definitions are concerned, a good proportion of homosexual couples are still virgins, since no penetration of the vagina is involved.
Between the crazy expectations and lack of knowledge, finding sexual freedom is a difficult task for anyone. It takes understanding your own sexuality in an incredibly heteronormative society and figuring out your preferences on a scale of too-vanilla to too-kinky, whilst simultaneously not having any helpful and educational information readily available and accessible. Having sex too often, not enough, with too many people, too few people...Sex should be characterised by your individuality and personal preferences, and yet these unspoken rules interrupt every choice we make, like that sick feeling you get after your alarm goes off again after snoozing it six times already.
As a teenager, I naively imagined myself as some sex goddess, forgetting that this would involve someone seeing me naked, an idea that terrified a very self-conscious me. And when it came to it, I felt too young, like a toddler clumsily stumbling around in my mum’s heels. My first sexual experience was two teenagers who had no idea what they were doing, and yet simultaneously I believed myself to possess some god-given gift of sexual pleasure.
My enjoyment was pretty absent. It wasn’t until a few years later that I found out this was the result of having a condition called vaginismus. This is a psychosomatic condition, meaning it is a physical problem caused by a psychological issue. For me, this meant my brain was so intent that sex was a huge danger for me, that penetrative sex is impossible because my vaginal walls contract completely beyond my control and disallowing anything to enter, even as small as a tampon.
And so, there I was, already shrouded in self-doubt and a lack of self-esteem, biologically programmed to not have sex. I was faced with an impossible task. How on earth could I find sexual freedom when I appeared to be biologically programmed to do the opposite?
Starting at the beginning of my journey is a little challenging because I don’t even know where it begins. Do I start with thirteen-year-old me, crouched over the toilet, desperately trying, though unsuccessfully, to get a tampon up, only to watch my tears drop heavily into the bowl of the toilet? Or perhaps, with my first boyfriend? I remember him trying to finger me but only feeling as though someone was trying to scratch out my insides. No, I am not whimpering with pleasure on the verge of orgasm, I am not biting my lip to stop myself from screaming out with satisfaction, I am merely stopping myself from screaming in pain and being too afraid to say anything was wrong.
After this point, I effectively became a social recluse. I confined myself to my bedroom, and busied myself with revision. Nothing, to my knowledge, was wrong. As far as I knew, I was just an 18-year-old virgin who happened to not know how to use a tampon.
At university, experiencing a little more male attention than what I was used to, I endured some more incredibly painful sexual experiences and what I can only describe as an internal wall inside my vagina, or what I now like to think of as my own, 100% effective, biological cock block. It wasn’t until about January 2020 that I googled my symptoms for the first time, carefully typing out “sex doesn’t work” into an incognito browser, stuck for any other words to describe it.
Eventually, after stumbling around various websites giving tips on how to spice up my sex life, I found myself on the NHS webpage titled Female Sexual Problems. And this was where I met the term “vaginismus” for the first time. “That’s enough for one night”, I thought to myself. I closed my laptop and put it as far away as possible. Pulling my duvet over my head, I went to sleep peacefully, pretty confident that I probably just wasn’t doing it right. “I don’t have vaginismus” were the words I heard in my head as I drifted asleep.
For the next few months, I was in and out of denial and acceptance. Every time a sex scene appeared in a film, I shrank into myself, crying because that could never be me. Sex jokes caused mental breakdowns because I could never relate to them. I talked to my friends as if I understood everything about sex, wanting them to believe I was the sexual goddess I yearned to be.
In the summer, I dragged myself to the doctor. Tearily, I explained my pain to the nurse, and she whipped out a massive phallic-looking device to look inside. I held my breath as she put it inside of me, but after about 2 seconds she had to stop to keep me from shrieking in pain.
As I ambled along the long, shameful walk back to my flat, my vagina still throbbed in pain. I snuck back inside, hoping no one would ask where I had been. Without a diagnosis, I still questioned myself. Somehow, I truly believed that I was just making it up.
It wasn’t until September 2020 that I told anyone. And it wasn’t until 2021 that I said the word “vaginismus” out loud. To save myself from the pain and embarrassment of telling a new sexual partner, I committed myself to, well, no commitment. I told myself that this was it for me. No more sex (or anything of that nature). And yet, the suppressed, faraway desire of teenage me to be an irresistible sex goddess kept tugging at me.
And so I found myself with quite a horrifically paradoxical problem: completely out of control of my body and my sexual autonomy, how could I be sexually liberated, when my own body is dedicated to me being some satirical Virgin Mary? My low self-esteem became tangled with my inability to express myself sexually and I was trapped in a cycle of self-loathing. The only word I could use to describe myself was “broken”, and how can I have better self-esteem when I am fundamentally broken?
That being said, with time, and a lot of over-analysing my life, questioning how I got to this point, I was more able to talk about it with my friends. After a few slobbery, wet-eyed chats at 3am, I opened up more and even found myself making jokes about it. Finally accepting my condition (although still the occasional doubt), was the first real step I took. I even found out that one of my very close friends has the same thing.
In fact, as more time went on, I constantly seemed to meet more and more people who had the same experience. Hearing the words “yeah, me too” was the biggest relief I had felt in the whole process. You can read 1000 statistics and articles, but meeting a real person makes it all feel a lot less isolating and a lot more manageable (with this in mind, if anyone reading this has any similar struggles, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me).
I’m still far from calling myself “sexually liberated”. This is a pretty ambiguous term, and to be honest I’m not entirely certain of what it means yet. I’m still figuring that out. Unfortunately, I can’t offer a happier conclusion than that. Currently, I am paradoxically suspended by a subconscious repulsion of my sexuality, and complete fascination with it. Every day, however, I move one step closer to being the sexual goddess I always thought I would be.
Even though I have come a long way, there’s still a lot of unlearning and relearning to do. Ironically, the week I started writing this I made the biggest physical progress I have done since beginning my journey (satirical Virgin Mary no more), but my mental difficulties have quite a bit of catching up to do, and I don’t think being completely cured of vaginismus will solve all my problems either. I’m more comfortable with myself now than I’ve ever been, but I look forward most to the day that I truly do feel “sexually liberated”, whatever that means. I don’t have to be a goddess, just a part of nature.