Frigid

By

On the Internet, I read that vaginas can stretch to accommodate almost any reasonable thing. Women’s health sites and online magazines and web-based doctors all seem to agree. The vagina, they say, is built to birth a seven-pound (on average) baby. It can take a penis up to any girth or length. It is, in the language of Michael Castleman of Psychology Today, a hand towel-stuffed tube sock with walls that unfold like an accordion upon entry. It is a mouth that, once empty, will immediately snap back to its pre-stretched shape. It is elastic. It is meant to acclimate.

On Google Images, I search through an endless amount of pictures of vaginas stretched around everyday household items and dildos and fists. Some are stubbled or bushy while others remain hairless. They appear on the screen in varying shades. They belong to women of different ethnicities and span a wide range in age. They take in cell phones and Nalgene water bottles and plastic Easter eggs. They widen for bowling pins and medical-grade speculums. They fit carrots and butternut squash and the type of long English cucumbers my parents grow in their backyard garden. They both expand in width and elongate.

To verify what I see, I look to the “experts” at Women’s Health and Glamour Magazine. Debby Herbenick, PhD, assures me that Slot A has been designed to comfortably take in Tab B. I find the same basic assertion on the Mayo Clinic website and while slogging through the pages of WebMD. Dr. Kate says, “You were literally born to have sex,” and I picture all of the world’s baby girls being passed through a factory. Perhaps that facility holds a universal vagina-making machine. I imagine the trip made down the conveyor belt that will equip us all with the standardized parts meant for breeding. I wonder if there is someone overseeing quality control to check that no mistakes have been made. Because, somewhere along the way, it seems like a defective part was placed between my legs.

I can’t find any official recall information on the government-sponsored page.

*

My first gynecologist tells me that my vagina is on the smaller side of the normal range. I use this as a justification for why, at eighteen, I still can’t get a tampon in more than a quarter of an inch past my hymen. During the weeks I have my period, I spend fifteen (sometimes twenty) minutes on the toilet seat engaged in an exhausting crusade. I lean forward and spread my legs. I strain. I push until I am lightheaded and red-faced. But I still can’t get the tampon in through the pain. I hide the useless plastic applicator in the trashcan beneath mounds of toilet paper and cotton balls pink with nail polish and lip gloss stains. I don’t want my mother to complain again about the waste. Tampons, she reminds me, cost up to ten dollars a box these days.

I assure myself that my small vagina is the reason why things are so awkward with Jake. During Senior Week, my high school friends and I lie out to tan on the beach and I cut a maxi-pad to fit my bathing suit bottoms and hope that no one will notice its bulky shape. Later that night when I am grinding down on Jake, I won’t let him take off my shorts or slip his fingers between my legs. He is twenty-two and I am sure he has never been with someone who wears a sanitary napkin like some sort of toddler, pre-potty training.

I blame my small vagina for the tears that come when, nearly a year later, I lose my virginity on the couch in my parents’ study. In the past, I have let boys (for the most part, drunkenly) lick somewhere in the vicinity of my clitoris and touch me. But anything entering my vagina is new, scary territory. I brace myself for the kind of pain I usually experience while running. My old cross country coach has taught me to breathe through side cramps and shin splints and the swollen ache of plantar fasciitis. I have run on a stress fracture so advanced that it broke through my fourth metatarsal and left me in a cast. But all of that training has not prepared me for this. Nearly twenty minutes in and we’ve barely gotten his head through my entrance. The whole time, my vagina feels like it is being stabbed. In the shower after the act, my partner tells me, “You know, you’re not the only one in pain. My penis is all chafed.” The water at our feet is pink, and for once, I have nothing to say.

When I find my first “good” boyfriend, the one who sends me flowers when we are apart on college summer breaks, I feel like I have some shameful secret I have to explain. “My vagina is small,” I say. “If we’re going to do this, it needs to be super gently.” Pretend, I tell him, like you are taking my virginity. Envision that my vagina is one of those free-range brown eggs they sell down in The Commons on Saturday. It’s liable to break if you treat it too roughly.

I am twenty-one and Jason assures me that sex will eventually stop hurting. When we start out, we do it in missionary. He reminds me not to hold my breath and gives a light slap to my thigh in an attempt to get my quadriceps to stop being so tense. “It’s all about trust,” he says. “With time, you’ll get more comfortable with sex.”

But two years down the road and one thousand miles across the country, I still haven’t. On the weekends when we are not working, Jason and I both lie beneath the blue Calvin Klein comforter (purchased on clearance at Macy’s) and contemplate our upcoming wedding. Our bodies are never quite touching. I keep a vibrator in my bedside drawer and use it at night while Jason is asleep. On my computer screen, I watch women with fake breasts take eight-inch strap-on dildos into their vaginas easily. I pay special attention to the expressions that pass over each of their faces. I look to the thighs for some sign of strain, to the way the brow creases when the thrusts become too much to take.

My stomach clenches and I put my computer away.

*

TLC airs {strange}SEX around the same time that Jason and I are usually eating. The show features individuals with “sexual dysfunction” or “eccentric” sexual tendencies. Ron, a “typical” suburban dad, is striving to restore his foreskin through tugging. Phillip gets his jollies by feeding Donna eggs and piles of breakfast sausage in the morning. Norma Stitz has eighty-five pound, size 102ZZZ breasts. Samira, a young newlywed, is struggling with painful sex. I watch her story over a meal of chicken marinated with balsamic vinaigrette.

Jason spends our dinner reading through page after page of fantasy football statistics. He cuts his chicken into large hulking bites that he eats between his trade requests. I pick at my wild rice and asparagus as, onscreen, Samira explains what it means to have vaginismus. The condition makes sex “beyond painful” when her husband tries to force his way in. Her vaginal walls clamp down involuntarily against him. In football jargon, her PC muscles are the Clay Matthews of defensive linemen: six foot three and two hundred and fifty-five pounds of strong unyielding flesh. There are no drives. Successful carries be damned.

Jason leaves his roster for the kitchen as I watch Samira seek out a cure for her vaginal condition. She is told that she will need to “retrain” her body to accept her husband. She practices stretching out her PC muscles like she is training for an Ironman. She takes her vagina to the “gym.” She gets psyched up for penetration. Her husband has threatened to divorce her if she doesn’t get the problem fixed. With a regimen of lube and anti-anxiety medication, Samira is finally able to get his penis in.

The game seems like a win, but I can’t help feeling disappointed.

As the show ends, Jason takes up the remote to switch the channel to ESPN. He watches as the announcers debate the severity of a torn meniscus with a physician. With corrective surgery, the doctor says, the player will be able to return and finish out the season. Jason sighs with relief as he pours himself a drink with Bombay Sapphire gin. “Thank god,” he says. “I have a lot of money riding on this, but I didn’t want to have to trade him.”

My plate is still half-full and I poke at the remains of my chicken. I listen to the clinking of the spoon against the old-fashioned glass we received as an early wedding gift. The gin and the St-Germain and the lime juice all mix, and Jason takes a long congratulatory sip.

*

Over the course of our relationship, I ask gynecologist after gynecologist why my vagina has still not successfully adjusted to sex. At each new doctor’s office, I cross my arms over my chest. I tie and retie the crinkled paper robes that always seem to reveal some part of my flesh. I pull a gaping armhole up so that it will cover my right breast. Up on the examination table, my bare back grows wet with an acrid, nervous sweat. I feel like some rookie called into the coach’s office, my recent performance disappointing at best. I have a terrible record of passes and hits. When it comes to teamwork, I am obviously ill equipped.

By the time the doctors come in, I’m sure I must smell like a high school boys’ locker room circa eighth period. My cheeks are flushed and my palms are damp. My voice cracks as I request the virginal speculum. Each doctor looks at me skeptically as she slowly pulls a set of gloves over her hands. She guides my feet into the stirrups and says, “But I thought your chart indicated that you were sexually active.” Like a broken record, I have to explain that I have always had trouble with pelvic exams. My fists clench as she readies her tools. The doctor grows frustrated when my thighs start to strain against her hands. She says, “Now relax and breathe.” She repeats, “Stop tensing. Just open your legs.” I try to comply, but the pain is too great. My knees shake as she forces the speculum in.

As a parting gift, I am given a handful of tissues to wipe the excess goo from my legs. Each doctor concludes: “Try using more lube. Be sure to buy a brand that’s water-based.” One woman writes me a prescription for a numbing cream that she says should help lessen the pain. When I pick up the package at the pharmacy, I see that the active ingredient listed is lidocaine.

Back at home, I rub the cream over the inside of my forearm and prod at the deadened flesh. Out in the living room, Jason is debating hors d’oeuvres: beef tenderloin crostini versus deviled eggs. “For our entrée,” he says, “we’re definitely doing the filet mignon. Or maybe the New York strip.” The menu is the one part of the wedding planning he’s taken a real interest in. “And, hey.” He raises his voice over the sound of the TV. “Absolutely no buffet, okay?”

I turn on the sink, hold my arm beneath the tap, and wait for the numbness to wear away.

*

My own research into vaginismus happens somewhat unintentionally. I am on Weddingbee, the same online forum I have gone to for advice on Chiavari chairs and the price of local disc jockeys. On the Intimacy board, I discover a wealth of threads devoted to fiancés and newlyweds who are struggling with painful sex. They seek advice from their anonymous forum friends such as MsMamaBear and hisgoosiegirl and MrsSparkle10. Hundreds of women want to know why sex hasn’t stopped hurting for them. Their doctors, it seems, haven’t been able to offer any useful explanations.

Rumpus01On Vaginismus.com, the second hit I get when I google the condition, I read that the problem stems from an underlying defense mechanism. When penetration is initiated, the PC muscles at the vaginal opening clamp down in opposition. The response is quick. It is involuntary. It is meant to protect. The reason for this is a fear of pain or an anxiety about sex. Each new excruciating experience only teaches the body to further strengthen the reflex. The walls brace. The thighs clench. Over time, a debilitating cycle of pain begins to develop.

As our wedding date nears, I reach a point at which I am almost incapable of being intimate. When Jason strokes my back or rubs my thighs, I have trouble getting wet. I push him away and say, “I can’t. I can’t.” I grow angry each time he tries to takes out the pink lace teddy or the black G-string he bought me as a gift. I shut down whenever he asks, “Don’t you want to have sex?” He says, “Come on. Kiss me for real,” but I just can’t. I open my mouth and press. I let his fingers slide between my legs but I don’t feel any of it.

About once a month when we do have sex, the pain is so bad that, afterward, it hurts to sit. Lying next to me, Jason says, “Your vagina is small. You just need a few practice runs to adjust to it.” He talks to me as if our future is some hypothetical bargaining chip. “Once we’re married,” he says, “you’ll feel a lot less stressed.” He pulls on his pants. “Next year when you go to grad school, I know you’ll be more horny again.”

I pull the sheet up to my neck and picture Jason out at the racetrack placing bets. “The worse the odds,” he’s told me, “the bigger payoff you get.” He’s standing out in the stadium while the horses are rounding the bend. The lone filly’s coat is covered with a thick foamy sweat. Her muscles strain and wrench as Jason screams down, “Pull ahead! Pull ahead!”

I wonder how long he and the thoroughbred can hang there suspended.

*

In my weekly therapy sessions, my counselor tells me that I need to work on being more “open.” She over-exaggeratedly nudges a box of tissues at me whenever I show even the slightest sign of getting teary. She is well over sixty. She wears fashionable cashmere cardigans and comes highly recommended by my insurance company. The window in her office faces the highway and I watch businessmen drive by in their Lexus sedans and the newest model Mercedes. She is confident in her advice after several weeks of listening to my story. “You have a wall built up,” she says, “that’s entirely unnecessary. You need to stop being so defensive. Find ways to open yourself up to your fiancé.”

Online, I find several treatments for vaginismus that are touted as “simple” and “fast” and “permanent.” I look at a five-piece graduated dilator set and try to imagine how the tapered pieces of plastic can erase nearly four years of painful sex. The website assures me that I can “retrain” my vagina to override its defensive reflex. I can work my way up to a dilator the size of a penis. I can teach my body to react “naturally” to my partner’s penetrative attempts. There are muscle relaxants that can be inserted as a suppository a few hours before sex. Several specialists inject Botox, and for five months, the vaginal walls are unable to contract.

Out in the living room one night, I come across Jason watching an old video of the two of us having sex. The footage is dark and grainy and the bulk of Jason’s body is almost entirely out of the frame. As I walk toward him, he turns his laptop around so that I can see the action taking place. He asks, “Remember the good old days?” But I can only focus in on the expression on my face. My hands clench as I look to my wrinkled brow. I watch the shapes my lips take. The counter ticks off the seconds, but I can’t tell if what I am seeing on the screen is pleasure or stifled pain.

Behind the closed door of the bathroom, I drink down glass after glass of water until my stomach aches.

*

Jason is one for game plans and agendas and there is no exception for our wedding day. In the morning, I sit in my hotel room and get layers of make-up airbrushed onto my face. At the venue, right on schedule, I pull on my mermaid dress and my sister carefully buttons me into the length. “There’s no getting out now,” she jokes, putting down the hook, and I am left with the gown’s sudden weight. My dress is so tight on the hips and the thighs that I am reduced to walking around at a toddler’s pace. I lift the hem from the ground and strain to buckle my shoes. When I stand up again, I feel lightheaded and faint. My photographer takes a photo and laughs, “Just remember that beauty is pain.” I arm myself with Advil and a strong malt cocktail, but I still struggle to keep a straight face.

Our ceremony kicks off at 6 p.m. sharp and the spectators take their place. The string quartet plays a mounting rhythm and, at the head of it all, Jason waits. Leg-locked in my dress, I take miniscule baby-steps. My pulse pounds and my hands shake. The processional reaches a final crescendo, and halfway down the aisle, I hesitate. I envision myself breaking through the seams of my dress. I imagine running until my legs ache.

Back in the hotel room, Jason unbuttons his shirt. His breath smells of ginger and vodka and Domain Chandon champagne. He slurs, “Come over here. We need to consummate our union.” But I have already retreated back to the entryway. I lock myself in the bathroom and wash what is left of the day from my face. Synthetic eyelashes stick to the bowl of the sink. The towel colors pink and then crimson and gray.

When I turn, I see that my wedding dress has left a line of dark bruises on the outsides of my legs. Jason calls, “Are you coming? I’m getting tired.” I sit down on the floor and wait.

*

In August, we move to a new state, but my problems with sex don’t magically dissipate. Far from the city, we unpack all of our wedding gifts. We unbox new dishware and the heavy metal KitchenAid. At Pottery Barn, we order a set of grown-up desks and a brushed canvas sofa sleeper in a dull mushroom gray. We set up house with new curtain rods and bathroom accessories. Jason schedules premium cable to be installed the next day. At night, we sleep between pristine cotton sheets, our bodies huddled beneath the all-goose-down duvet. But when Jason reaches out to touch the small of my back, I still flinch and pull away.

Rumpus02In the weeks before I start graduate school, I watch the Summer Olympics for several hours each day. I sit up close to the wide-screen forty-inch Sony. I keep my arms wrapped around my legs. From the kitchen, Jason calls, “You know, we haven’t had sex in forever. We should really break in the new place.” The air conditioning brings a wave of goosebumps to my flesh and the muscles in my shoulders tense and brace.

When the women’s marathon begins, I watch the athletes take to the streets of London, their forms drenched with the driving rain. Shalane Flanagan heads up the pack for miles until her face begins to contort with pain. A set of shockwaves ripples her calves with each step and I hear her cry out as her energy fades. Jason asks, “Can’t we change it to something else?” but I can’t take my eyes off the two-and-a-half hour race. My stomach drops as she falls from first to tenth. I imagine each twinge and pull and ache.

At the finish line, Shalane falls to the ground, her thighs shaking beneath her weight.

After months of grueling preparation and training, the thirty-one year old calls her performance “a heartbreak.” What I want to know is, if at any point, she considered dropping out of the race.

*

My affair begins with a long-wrought confession though, afterwards, the start-point is hard to place. A fellow graduate student and I sit in a dark local bar. We pass a bottle of Budweiser back and forth. Warm with one too many mid-afternoon drinks, I say, “I think sex just isn’t for me.” My colleague brings the beer to his lips and takes a sip. A question seems to alight on his face. I lower my eyes as I admit, “Sex has always hurt for me.” I let out a laugh, my throat tight with embarrassment. “It’s like I’m defective or something.” My friend listens quietly, his mouth set in a frown, and then reaches out to touch my hand. His fingers are warm and light on the back of my wrist and I feel something inside me shift.

Weeks later, alone together at his house, I ask, “Can I show you how it is?” He sits on his bed with his hands on his knees as I slowly unbutton my pants. I push my underwear down past my thighs and I watch as he takes a deep breath. His words are soft and careful as he reaffirms, “Are you sure you want to do this?” I take his hand in mine and press his palm up against my skin. I say, “See for yourself” and “I know it’s too small” and “I’ve tried, but it can’t be fixed.” He looks up at me, one finger in, and only smiles as he shakes his head.

Jason seems to sense that something is wrong but he can’t figure out what it is. He buys a new set of crystal highball glasses. He decants the scotch in his liquor collection. On a trip to the beach, he laughs and smiles then breaks down while we’re out to eat. He grows sullen as he sips from his vodka cocktail and takes bite after bite of his medium-rare steak. Emboldened, he says, “When we get back home, I want you to finally start acting like my wife.” I push him away a few hours later when he tries to rub lotion onto my sunburned shoulder blades. In the dark, I build up a wall of pillows to form a barrier between our bodies. I turn my back to him and say, “You know this isn’t working for me.”

Rumpus03One day late in the semester, I stand in my colleague’s bedroom and slip off my wedding ring. The carpet is worn and stained and my friend makes a joke about his rickety bedframe. We start out in our t-shirts and jeans but slowly strip down to just underwear. His mouth is hot on the base of my neck and I want the moment to last forever. I tell him, “I want to do this with you, but I don’t know how hard it will be.” Outside, the sun is beginning to set and the light colors our skin yellow and then orange and red. I tell myself not to try not to tense as he positions his body between my legs.

When everything finally slides into place, it takes me a second to realize that I am not in pain. Instead, there is only a light, gentle pulsing and my colleague asks, “Is this okay?” Dazed, I realize I am far from the infield. I am out past the grandstand and the track’s narrow lane. I open my eyes and say, “Yes. Yes. Yes,” as the spectators slowly start to fade.

*

On the Internet, I read that a woman cannot simply “will” her vaginismus away. Those who have the condition are locked in an indefinite” cycle of pain. They are defective. The only solution is to train, train, train. The woman must learn how to override the mistaken drive to shut out and push her partner away. She must become more open if there is any hope for the relationship to “mature” or move into a “healthier” stage.

Online, I find scholarly papers devoted to treatments from Botox to progressive dilation to topical lidocaine. The common goal is to desensitize the vagina, to numb the body and the mind to the interfering pain. Across researchers and physicians, I discover, over and over again, that the root cause of vaginismus is up for debate. Is it a revulsion for the self? Religiously or culturally ingrained? Could it possibly be a misplaced phobia, some faulty wiring in the brain? Is it a lack of some basic understanding that prevents women from engaging in an act that they should evolutionarily embrace?

Doctor after doctor claims that there is a simple physical solution regardless of whatever is triggering the case.

Nowhere do I read, “A Study: How Male Partners Can Contribute to Ongoing Sexual Pain.” Nowhere do I see, “Treatment Option #3: Have you considered possibly leaving?” Instead, there are interventions to ensure that wives can consummate their union and have a baby. There are reminders that divorce is likely in cases of “female sexual inadequacy.” There are gels and lubricants and numbing creams. There are lists detailing how women can work to “re-ignite the flame.”

When I tell Jason that I no longer want to be married, he wanders around the apartment in a state of disbelief. He says, “We’ll go to couple’s therapy.” He suggests, “We can take a romantic vacation. You’ll fall back in love with me.” He wants me to drop out of graduate school so that I can focus my attention on what’s actually important. He can’t understand how I can stand there in front of him, my demeanor unmoved by his pleas.

Rumpus04Upstairs, I cross my arms over my chest as I watch him pack his things. There are blazers and dress shirts and crisply folded jeans. After he leaves, I will discover that he’s left a whole drawer full of his summer shorts and lightweight tees.

For months, Jason will remain confident that I will change my mind, that I will invite him back into the body he has rightly claimed with years of flowers and gourmet dinners and a diamond ring. Over the phone, he will say, “You can’t ask for a divorce. Not if I don’t agree.” He will counter, “Do you know how much I’ve invested into this relationship? You owe me six more months at the very least.” When he becomes desperate, when he sees there’s no other alternative ending, he will say, “How dare you be so fucking cold? Don’t you care that you’re hurting me?”

On the weekends, I will lie alone in bed, the sheets kicked free from my body.

***

Rumpus original art by Azim Al Ghussein.


Jess E. Jelsma's work has appeared in xoJane, The Normal School, Indiana Review, and various other publications. You can find her online at jessejelsma.com. More from this author →