This is a topic I hate discussing because it’s a huge anxiety trigger for me, but I know that there are a lot of Mormon girls in the world with this same problem mostly because we DON’T talk about it enough, so here goes. Sex used to be massively painful for me. I’ve mentioned it before as a big contributor to my feminist awakening; it’s been the biggest, most heartbreaking trial I’ve ever endured. Soon it’ll be the biggest most heartbreaking trial I’ve ever overcome.
My wedding day and honeymoon were nothing short of traumatic. Going into it, I considered myself very sexually enthusiastic. Somehow I landed an incredibly attractive husband, and keeping our hands off each other until the wedding day was a major struggle. But then the wedding and reception were hugely stressful (as any other huge life event and accompanying celebration with 200 other participants would inevitably be), and by the time I got to my wedding night, I was an emotional train wreck. This is the part where I wish I could go back to Younger Pepper, sit her down and say “Hey! You know you don’t HAVE to have sex on your wedding night, right? Take it easy and wait till the stress wears off before you try anything. Seriously.”
Something else I would tell myself? “Do yourself a favor. Go down to the hotel gift shop and buy some KY.”
These are things we never, ever talk about – unless our parents have a healthy outlook on sexuality and enough huevos to actually talk frankly with us about it. Very, very few of us are that lucky, it would seem. We’re left to just fumble through and figure things out on our own. It doesn’t work though, I’ve watched many, many marriages crumble and fall apart just because people don’t know how to talk about their sexual problems. “Fumbling through” doesn’t work for a lot of couples.
Because I didn’t talk about it for several months, marriage positively sucked at first. My husband blithely had his way with me several times a week, trying all kinds of crazy positions and toys and lingerie, and I smiled and went along with it because I didn’t know what else to do. At the end of the day, I was still a good Mormon girl, and good Mormon girls don’t turn their husbands down, right? Well, when it got right down to it, I didn’t know what being a good Mormon girl looked like anymore. No one talked about this part. I had no one to turn to, no one to ask “is this normal?”
So one night, hanging naked from a nylon-and-velcro contraption strapped to our bedroom door, still sore from the previous night (and the night before that and the night before that), waiting for the hubster to clean himself up so he could help me down for the Walk of Shame to the bathroom (which, after the swing, will never seem as humiliating as it used to), I freaked out. Fuh-REAKED. “I hate you!” I screamed. “I hate your penis and I hate sex and I hate all men and I hate hate HATE this stupid thing!” indicating the swing. I thrashed and kicked and clawed until he finally managed to unfasten the velcro straps around my legs, then I sprinted to the bathroom and locked myself in. I hyperventilated until I passed out, and we didn’t have sex again for at least a month.
During that time, we had all the conversations we should have after that first night when I was so tight and tense that we couldn’t even achieve penetration. Or the second when we tried a numbing cream that numbed him but didn’t work on me so he enjoyed himself until I bled and cried, then he finally stopped. Or the third when we tried alternate methods of pleasuring him (because that’s what sex is all about, right? Him?) and the disgust, layered on top of my existing panic and shame and dread, kept me up all night long for the rest of my honeymoon. I went without sleep the entire time, I was so horrified.
This is what “fumbling through” looks like for a lot of couples. Think about that before you let your daughter figure it out on her own.
Talking about it once didn’t fix it, not even close. But making him aware was the first step. The next was reminding him. And reminding him. And reminding him. Guys, I’m really worked up over talking about this right now, so I’m just going to say it. My husband is bloody effing stupid sometimes. That’s been the hardest part. Worse than the pain and the anxiety and the humiliation has been the anger and frustration at how purely ignorant and forgetful and insensitive this guy can be. BUT I have to admit that it would never have worked with anyone else – any other man would have given up and left me, or given up and raped me, or shriveled under my sudden, accusatory anger. He is the only man on earth who could have survived that ordeal with me. So I’ll give him that much.
So over the course of long, hard years, full of fights and panic attacks and long periods of celibacy, we figured out that I had anxiety-induced vaginismus and a hypersensitive clitoris. In this post, I’ll talk about overcoming vaginismus. Part II will address hypersensitive clitoris for anyone interested.
Vaginismus is an actual physical condition where the vaginal walls contract painfully during sex in anticipation of pain. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy – you have your first sexual experience having been told that it will hurt and – lo and behold! It does hurt. So the next time you brace yourself, knowing how much it hurts and wow! It hurts even more! It’s a terrible cycle.
Now that I knew what to call it (it wasn’t just dryness or cancer or episiotomy scarring or low sex drive as we had thought before), I found all kinds of great books. This one was the best: Ending Female Pain by Isa Herrera. It addresses a battery of painful female conditions and empowers the reader with a massive variety of suggestions from essential oils and herbs to exercise to physical therapy.
I’m not sure what combination it was that helped me the most, but I do know for sure that my one true breakthrough came after using a dilator set. I had heard about dilators from my sister who got one from her gynecologist just before getting married. She was too ashamed (hello, Good Girl Syndrome) to try them, and had a traumatic honeymoon just like I did. Sadly though, her marriage didn’t survive the turmoil.
At first, I had thought that a dilator’s job was to stretch me out in preparation for penetration, which was silly considering I’d already given birth to something 20 times bigger than a penis. Stretching was not the issue. Isa Herrera recommends using dilators along with a special regimen of kegel exercises and internal massage – this prepares the muscles behind the vaginal walls and trains them not to expect pain. I went all the way up to the biggest dilator and couldn’t believe it – it didn’t hurt!
Until then, I had railed against the notion that my pain was “all in my head.” Especially asking for help from male doctors and therapists and even – gag! – my bishop, and being told that I was just crazy and needed to get over it. Well, at this point I realized that it was and it wasn’t. The pain – a nagging burning, chafing feeling no matter how much lubricant I used – was very, very real. But the pain came from a muscle reflex triggered by anxiety, which was in my head.
That same night, using a lot of concentration and relaxation, for the very first time, sex was pain-free.
Now the trick is undoing years of emotional scarring and getting my sex drive back up to snuff – even with a few moderate successes, I still have a hard time “rallying” myself into sex when I’m not already aroused. The act of pushing myself into it still triggers all those feelings of anger and indignation, even though I now know that it won’t hurt. I still have a lot of psychological work to do, and I’m sorry, but I don’t have many recommendations for you there.
But I hope that my experience can help even one Good Girl have a trauma-free honeymoon. If so, this will be worth it. Until then, I need to go smack my husband around until I feel better.