Finally, I thought, things were going to change. For once, I wasn’t anxious. I was relaxed. Ready. But as soon as he inserted his penis, I screamed so loud, I’m pretty sure I woke up all of the neighbors. I started crying uncontrollably, pushed him away, and ran to my bedroom, ashamed to admit that it hurt so much.
Addressing Pelvic Pain
One year, no sex, and lots of shame later, I started to see a talk therapist after experiencing severe anxiety and panic attacks that interfered with my daily life. I was always an anxious person, but until now I’d always been able to cope with my symptoms. Maybe anxiety really was behind my pelvic pain, and it was all in my head.
About six sessions in, I decided I trusted my therapist enough to open up about my chronic pelvic pain and fear of sex. It was the best decision. She told me this was very common, even though it’s rarely talked about. She asked me if I had ever masturbated, to which I emphatically replied, “Never.” I didn’t connect with that part of my body, except when I had to put on a pad during my period. I basically pretended I didn’t have a vagina; no way was I going to try and pleasure myself. The thought alone made me tremble with fear.
Talking about the pain and shame I felt surrounding sex helped. It wasn’t all in my head. I wasn’t the only one. But after months of talking, I was talked out. While I wasn’t as fearful, I still had immense pain. I had hit a wall. So my therapist suggested I make an appointment with a pelvic floor physical therapist. I didn’t even know these types of PTs existed. Why had no one ever mentioned this before? I immediately called and scheduled an appointment.
During our second session, the physical therapist did a pelvic exam—she didn’t use any scary speculums and went really slowly, talking me through each step. My pelvic floor muscles were shockingly tight, she explained, which was why I was likely having so much pain whenever I tried to insert anything, by myself or with a partner. Anxiety did contribute to that chronic state of tension but the solution wasn’t as simple as “learning to relax.” I needed to retrain the muscles.
We made a plan for 12 sessions of physical therapy and she sent me home with a set of dilators—smooth plastic, cylinder-shaped objects that come in a variety of graduated sizes—which are used to gently stretch the vagina. She suggested I start with the smallest dilator, about 3.5 inches long and a half-inch circumference, and use it for 15 minutes each day.
Suddenly paying so much attention to my vagina felt like a chore. Pleasure had felt like such an unreachable goal for years and when I started physical therapy, it finally felt possible. But this wasn’t fun, it was clinical. I was starting to experience less pain but pleasure was still totally foreign to me.
After a year of treatment, I could successfully insert a tampon. Yay me. But after all this work, I felt no closer to sex. No closer to the toe curling sexual pleasure I’d been hearing my friends talk about for years. Just to maintain the small but significant progress I’d made, I’d have to keep using the dilators.
Owning My Pleasure
After I’d finished physical therapy, I was having a conversation with a friend from college and mentioned my experience with dilators and how I didn’t even know what sexual pleasure was. She explained that she doesn’t typically have an orgasm when she’s with a partner—only when she is masturbating. I’d realized in talk therapy that I didn’t have a clue how to masturbate—thanks to the pain, my entire pelvic region felt off limits even to me. But for the first time I realized I didn’t necessarily need to insert anything into my vagina to get off.