Your vagina doesn’t work.
Well, that’s not quite fair. It sits where it’s supposed to sit; it smells like it’s supposed to smell; it isn’t shaped weird, not relative to other vaginas. And sure, once a month it pushes out blood by the tablespoonful. So you pad yourself with liners and maxis to catch everything that drops, but you don’t use tampons, never tampons, because nothing, no matter how hard you try, ever gets up there.
Once, you read that when the vagina owner is aroused, the inside of the vagina opens up like an umbrella. You studied these words like an operator’s manual, and then you thought of all the times you’d been aroused, so, so wildly aroused, and you’d tried to work your fingers up there, and your body had demonstrated all the yielding suppleness of a length of PVC pipe, but tighter, smaller, like you were trying to finger a hollow pen tube.
You think you know the cause. It might be because, the first time anyone but you ever touched your vagina, it was something you didn’t want. It was him forcing his way onto you and into you and you telling him to stop, that it hurt, that you didn’t want it, only he was twice your size and when he pretended he didn’t hear you he was so convincing you wondered if you even said it at all. Or it might be because, when you finally said it again, louder this time, he didn’t let you go. He kept going. He grunted out, “Well, it’s going to hurt,” like that was something you should have known, like this was something you asked for.
“He really did a number on you,” someone says, one of the friends you’ve told, who listens and hmms in all the right places, but still doesn’t remove him from her Facebook friends list. It’s a small campus. She doesn’t want to start drama, make things awkward. Neither one of you say the r word. For years after, it doesn’t occur to you to call it what it is—and for years, whenever his name comes up on your Facebook feed, your vagina contracts in response.
This happens your freshman year of college. You don’t date again. A handful of times, while you’re studying abroad, you get tipsy and kiss strange men in bars. One of them takes you out once, twice, eventually takes you to his home, where he kisses you and paws at you and pulls down your neckline to suck your nipples. You’re having an okay time, trying to relax into the sensory experience of the moment, hoping that you can just try this out long enough to see whether it’s even something you like, but as soon as he takes your hand and puts it in his lap, you jerk away, tuck your boob back into your dress, and tell him to drive you home.
Over time, you come to accept that you’re unfuckable. You’re surprised at what a relief the realization is—that a barrier, a shortcoming, can become a part of your identity. You get to the point where you want an unfucked life so badly that you wish your youth would hurry up and get out of the way so that you wouldn’t have to wade through the rest of your teens and twenties before people would stop expecting sex from you like you owed it to them and you could just get on with living already. Without the expectation of sex and relationships, you could be what you’ve always wanted to be, only you’ve never stopped to ask yourself what you wanted that didn’t involve the dating-sex-marriage-family trajectory that always seemed so central in your communities. Now you dream up a variety of sexless, stylized lives for yourself, a frenetic mood-board of possible selves: the kindly, portly kitchen witch living in a forest cottage by the running stream, or the wan Victorian ghost haunting the turret overlooking the moors. The fantasies aren’t perfect, maybe, but they bring you a sort of relief from the expectations of others. Your parents never ask why you aren’t dating, when you’re going to give them grandkids. A friend remarks—appreciatively, almost anthropologically—that you’ve started dressing like a wizard trying to pass as a Muggle. If sexlessness is achievable, you have achieved it.
You graduate, move onto a new school, a new graduate program, where you fall in with a group of ladies who get together every week and watch Queer as Folk. Before each episode, you stand together in the kitchen popping popcorn, pouring wine, and improvising cheeseboards, and the other ladies talk about sex. They are all some variety of queer, which makes you feel more comfortable because you find them much more accepting of the strangeness you’ve drawn up around yourself like armor. Just to hear about their sex lives is eye-opening for you. Your friends talk about sex with partners, casual sex with friends, sex with all genders and with varying degrees of kink, the kind of stuff you didn’t understand people could actually like, but here they are, liking it, powerful and cool and embodied in it in a way you’ll never be. You stay quiet, listening and learning, afraid of the day when they’ll turn the questions onto you. When they finally do, you manage to demur, because even in this crowd, even when you’ve been shown collections of sex toys or someone’s FetLife profile, your problems feel like an overshare. In time they learn not to ask, but there’s a gulf between you that wasn’t there before, one that can never be breached.
“It’s very queer you know,” another queer friend tells you, years on down the line, when you’ve finally managed to explain the basics. “Asexuality.” You try to figure out a way to tell them that they haven’t got it quite right. You aren’t asexual, not the way you understand the term, because you do have sexual feelings and desires. The spirit is willing, oh so very willing, but the flesh is rigid, unwelcoming, closed.
But the validation, the queer card you’ve been granted, helps you to accept the new possibilities available to you. You’ve always been attracted to women—something you were raised to ignore—but the longer traditional heterosexuality is off the table, this becomes increasingly obvious. If you dated cis women, or anyone without a penis really, then maybe your dysfunction wouldn’t get in the way. And, given you could find such a person, maybe love is still possible if it’s with someone like you, someone with limitations like yours, for whom sex is a frightening prospect, and intimacy of all kinds is, by necessity, external.
Only how do you date? This presents a perplexing puzzle, one that gums up your tongue even when you gain the self-awareness to realize you want to ask someone out. Sometimes you’ll end up at dinner, coffee, brunch, one-on-one with a friend you’ve been crushing on, and you wish you could understand how to make it a date, or to ask whether it could become one, but the barrier between where you are and where you want to be is irresolvably high. After all, how do you get anyone to look at you and think of you that way, when you’ve worked so hard to get them to think of you as a kitchen witch, a Victorian ghost?
Your anxiety extends well beyond the unchartable regions of dating and the unequal ground of sexy story-swapping with your queer lady friends. You guard your pelvis against any approach, well beyond reason. You wait for your PAP smear, wait until you’re old enough that your physician tells you you’re a bad woman for waiting so long, that you don’t care about your body or else you would have done it years ago. Something in her authority convinces you she’s right, that you should hate and judge yourself for the fear that has permitted you to delay this moment. You certainly can’t tell her that any medical problem seems preferable to the excruciating, tearing invasion she is about to enact on you, the anxious hours you’ve spent imagining it, cringing in anticipation. Less for the good of your body than to escape her judgment, you let her will subsume yours. And, when it happens, it tears, it burns, it feels like you’re getting raped again, right there on the table with one of the nurses holding you down by the shoulder and you clenching her hand so tightly in yours that you can feel her finger bones grinding together. The pain pauses a moment, and you think that means they’re done, finally done, so your heart breaks anew when the doctor tells you that you’re too tight, they can’t fit the speculum up inside you, so she has to use her finger, has to shove up all the way to your cervix while you focus all your attention on your feet, trying not to kick away, shift your body up the table to escape. You can feel the negative imprint of your doctor’s Latex glove inside you the entire limping walk home.
So it’s a surprise to you—and not entirely a pleasant one—when you fall in love with someone who has a penis. You thought you’d set up defenses against the possibility, but here he is, and here you are, loving him. He hears your story and curses his kind. He tells you he can wait, he’s in no rush. Six, twelve, eighteen months, he says casually, like eighteen months is forever away. But you hear behind the words the clacking drag of an egg timer winding, setting off a steady ticking that sounds in your ears every time he looks at you that way, every time you fall asleep next to each other. To you, eighteen months seems like tomorrow, seems like too soon, and all your vagina does in response to the thought of eighteen months, granted to you in such a spirit of generosity, is to screw that much tighter in fearful anticipation.
You fight. You start to worry that you were never designed to be this close to someone else, that just as your body has become clenched and inhospitable, so has your personality. Your defenses are too high; you refuse to leave yourself vulnerable to him, to humble yourself in that yielding way that you know makes relationships work. The failure of the relationship feels like an inevitability, thanks to your body. Why bother bending and changing and growing with him if you know how this will end? Meanwhile, behind every fight, there’s that ticking, that voice that tells you that you aren’t enough. When you were alone, your vagina was your problem: Now, it’s an inconvenience you’re inflicting on someone else.
You learn to have sex in ways that don’t require penetration, but still you’re paranoid about pregnancy, worried that somehow, by some one-in-a-million chance, there will be a baby growing inside you. One Christmas, while visiting your parents, your period is late, and your anxiety begins to conspire against you, making you turn away glasses of wine, making you Google the best places to have a pill-abortion when you get back home, making you sob on the phone with him each night when he calls, unable to confess the stupid thoughts that are haunting you. A baby is the last thing you need, you think, but you don’t for a second consider the reality of a baby—the financial drain, the strain on your relationship. Your one thought, obsessive and cyclical, is of the birth. With your body so sealed off, the baby coming out will tear you in two. You doubt you would survive it.
When the holiday is over, you return home, and your period is there waiting for you. You weep with relief, confess to your partner all the things you feared, the terror that had gripped you. “Why didn’t you tell me?” he asks you. “Why did you feel you had to do this alone?” You know the answer, but are too ashamed to say it out loud. Once again, your body made decisions for you: when the prospect of having a child with your partner came up, your body said NO with such definitive finality that your mind didn’t have a chance of checking whether this might be something you wanted. And once again, your shame made you turn inward, quiet, secretive. So it never occurred to you that your partner might have been your ally through this, that he could have comforted you or helped you through your fear. You kept him outside. You keep everything outside.
To help allay your fears, he takes you to your next gyno appointment, sits in the waiting room while you are led back through the labyrinthine halls and into an exam room and instructed to strip. “No,” you try to say, “I can’t,” but already the nurse is leaving, like she didn’t hear you, like you didn’t speak at all. You’re still wearing your clothes when the doctor comes in.
“Oh,” she says, “didn’t the nurse say to strip? I’ll come right back.”
“No,” you say. “I’m not here for an exam.”
“But the appointment said you were seeking birth control,” says the doctor. “I can’t give you birth control without an exam.”
You try to explain your situation: Your body, you say, simply won’t. You tell her about the PAP smear. “I’m not even having penetrative sex,” you say. “This is just for my health. My regularity. My peace of mind.” She stares, uncomprehending, disbelieving. She stares at you like you have done something wrong, like you are asking her to do something wrong.
“You can’t just not have an exam,” she says. “It’s irresponsible.”
You tell her you’re working on it. You’re trying, you’re trying—what would she do? Would she really allow herself to be violated all over again?
“All right,” she finally relents. “You’re still young. I’ll write you one year’s worth of refills. But this time next year, you come in, and I’m giving you an exam. I’m not giving you any more than this without one.”
Another egg timer. The year passes, the deadline looms and approaches, and still you’re as unyielding as you are before, as terrified of pregnancy, of irregularity, of being sabotaged by your own body. When your pills finally run out you brace yourself and make another appointment, taking care to request a different doctor, but they don’t take your request seriously, because when you find yourself in the exam room again it’s the same woman stomping irritably through the door. Except this time, your partner is in the room with you; he’s standing next to the treatment table on which you are perched, letting you hold his hand in yours.
“Why didn’t you undress?” she asks, looking between you and your partner. This time, he is your voice; he says what you tried to say, what you wanted to say, what you’ve slowly, haltingly managed to say to him in those quiet, intimate moments where you’ve slowly let him into your life. You hold his hand as he tells her how her deadline has terrified you, how the specter of it has arrested any progress you might have made. His presence inside the room emboldens you, and you are able to say, in a voice that does not shrink away, that you deserve the right to control your own body, and that you don’t deserve the pain, and that you won’t be bullied into it—not again, never again.
Cowed, she gives you the prescription. She doesn’t say anything about ultimatums. She leaves the room as quickly as she can.
“You know there are couples who never have penetrative sex,” a friend—the same friend who assumed you were asexual—tells you. “It’s totally normal and queer.”
They intend to comfort you, to let you know that you’re accepted, that there are a thousand ways to be and all of them can be valid and good. But you don’t feel valid and good. You’ve always felt out of alignment: what your body wants and what it is capable of doing have always fallen into different zip codes. You worry if you tell them what you’re coming to realize you really want—dating-sex-marriage-family—that they’ll revoke your queer card, cast you out of the garden. You’re still too insecure to see that wanting this, that being a cisgender woman struggling to make her body more available to penetrative sex with a cisgender man, doesn’t make you any less bisexual or queer— any less who you’ve always been. Later, you play back the conversation in your head, and you snag on one word: never. It repeats when you’re with your partner—never, never, never—like a curse.
You remember that old cliché about the definition of insanity, and you know something in your approach will need to change, but even so, the breakthrough comes as an accident. You stumble upon a piece online about a woman who says she has pain during sex. She uses a word you’ve never heard before. Vaginismus, you learn, is a painful reaction to pressure within the vagina, a rapid, bracing contraction of muscles, a rigidness where there should be a yielding. Like a key in a lock, this term leads you to a world of research, of self-understanding. You share the word with your partner, and together, the two of you find another doctor, one who specializes in vaginal pain disorders. She lives in a city an hour’s drive away, and you squirm at the thought of seeking treatment so far afield, of striking out so far and so often alone.
“I’ll drive you,” he offers.
“But so many times—” you object.
“Every time,” he says.
When you meet her, she listens with an open expression, nods with understanding. She tells you that you aren’t the first. She tells you there are many paths to treatment—not just coping, but recovery. She tells you it isn’t all about breathing exercises and learning to relax, as you’ve been told before, but that there are medicines made to treat the problems your body has been having. Relief wells within you; you leak tears and cling to the man at your side who has brought you here. She asks if you will consent to an exam—“Gentle,” she promises, “nothing you aren’t comfortable with”—and when she leaves the room, you take off your clothes, trembling. “This is good, right?” you ask your partner, and he nods, eyes misty. “This is good,” he affirms. “She’s good.”
She touches you gingerly, measures your pain, sensitively withdraws when you brace or suck in a breath. You may have vaginismus, she agrees, but the bigger problem is at the opening. You have a severe case of provoked vestibular vulvodynia, meaning that when you are touched in any way, no matter how slick or how gentle, you inflame, you clench like gritted teeth. The good news is that she has treated many, many women in your position, that there are a range of treatment options that will help to ease those taut muscles and improve your condition.
You can’t wrap your head around improve, can’t make sense of what it means. “You mean… I could have sex?” you stammer, unsure.
“Yes,” she says. No hesitation.
“And,” you begin again, thinking surely not, “not anytime soon, of course, but one day… a baby?”
“Absolutely,” she says.
Your partner buys you Chinese food, and you cry happily into it all the way home.
Change doesn’t happen all at once. Change comes in the form of monthly visits to your new doctor’s office, being stabbed inside with dozens of needles, clutching your partner’s hand while his head blots out the glare of the fluorescent lights above. Your instinct is to keep this private, hold it in, but the more your body opens up the more you find yourself trusting your story to friends, reaching to them for support.
“It sounds so difficult,” that same friend tells you, the one who’s always so kind to remind you that you’re valid and good and queer just the way you are. “Are you sure it’s worth the pain?”
You can see why they’re worried, how in their eyes what you’re doing might come across as unnecessary suffering in service of some suppressive heteronormative standard. You’re conscious of the ways that this whole ordeal might even look like a rejection of the queer community, that all your loving, supportive friends might feel like you’re pulling away from their values—the same values you used to find such a comfort and a core to your identity.
But what you love most about being queer is this: that everyone is on a journey of discovery, of more fully uniting their selves and their bodies in pursuit of happiness and desire. Those nights making cheeseboards in your friends’ kitchens, listening to their sex stories, you’d been too intimidated to understand that those stories were a gift, and that this was the takeaway. Now you’re the one with the intimidating story to tell, shocking your friend with the account of the lengths you’re going to in pursuit of your own goals. Your body was changed, altered, against your will. For a while, as you healed, you needed to accept the limitation as a part of yourself, convalesce inside the safety of its walls. But now, every day you let it continue to define you is another day you let someone else choose who you can be.
“It’s worth it,” you promise, but it’s more like a wish you’re hoping will come true.
After the last treatment, your doctor hugs both you and your partner. All of you are wet-eyed. “Give yourself time to heal, then try,” she instructs you. The next day, you try: your pace, you’re in control. As you sink onto him, you feel with a joyous rush the yielding of your own body, the sublime pressure you have never before this moment been permitted to know.
Rumpus original art by Madeline Kreider Carlson