For years, I thought I was a one of a kind freak, not knowing that there was a name for what ailed me or that twenty million American women suffering from the same condition. In my case, I can’t remember when it started, though by the time I was in my early thirties it had gone on for years and wrecked havoc with my sex life, self-esteem and marriage.
After that union dissolved, I recall crying to my therapist that as far as I was concerned, nothing bigger than a Q-tip was going to go near my tender parts ever again. As for orgasms, and their usual sidekicks like kissing, holding, touch and pleasure, my body was destined to perpetual skin-hunger.
Little did I know that healing was a few orgasms away…
Closed for Pleasure
First, however, I had to understand the etiology of my diagnosis, vulvar vestibulitis (say that three times fast), which is just one a form of dyspareunia (pain upon penetrative sex). Sex that hurts for whatever reason is more prevalent than once thought – three in fifty adult women worldwide will be diagnosed – making dyspareunia almost as common as diabetes (8.6 percent) and cervical cancer (7.9 percent), though you are pressed to find many open discussions about the causes, treatments and cures of sex that hurts.
Seriously, who wants to admit their vagina had become a Do Not Enter zone? Sonia Borg, PhD, a clinical sexologist sex educator and author of several books including the upcoming Marathon Sex: Incredible Lovemaking Experiences Hotter and Longer Than You’ve Ever Done It Before (Quiver Books, January 2012), points out that for many, talking about sex is simply taboo. When it comes to sexual dysfunctions, confessions are rarer still.
“Talking about personal problems that we don’t know how to fix or manage can bring up emotions that are simply too overwhelming,” Borg explains. “Also, some imagined implications may be that the partner is being hurtful, insensitive, or that the couple just doesn’t know how to do it, ‘right.’”
This was the hardened terrain that stymied me from seeking help. When I wasn’t grimacing during sex, I’d yelp, push my husband off of me, and learned to live without affection, tampons and tight jeans. For six years, shame silenced me, though really, I’m a lucky one. Most women’s private hell lasts an average of 10 years before they find answers and relief. Remissions are common, causes are speculative at best — sexual assault, pelvic surgery, guilt and allergies are all implicated culprits — and through it all, the agony is very, very real.
I might have endured life with VV until my labia withered, except on a lark — a rare sexual encounter — I got pregnant and could no longer avoid the speculum or the fact that something was very, very amiss with my body. My doctor, Dr. Lissa Rankin diagnosed me with the q-tip test (This involves using the sterilized tip to gently touch the vestibular glands just past the opening of the vagina. These glands produce vaginal lubrication, and just touching them with a q-tip can recreate the pelvic inferno). This was the start of a slow recovery that included buying sex toys (doctor’s orders!), and learning to be honest with myself, and future lovers.
Most importantly, my yoni was whispering something to me, one vaginal clench at a time, and it was time I paid attention to my secret erotic self if I ever wanted to experience bliss again.
I Heart My Vagina
Dr. Rankin is one of the rare medical voices who acknowledges how little medicine knows about painful sex or that the common treatments offer limited help. There is, “no quick fix, no pill to swallow, no surgery to cure the pain, no magic wand to make things different,” Rankin has written about her decade long bout with painful sex. “I knew I would have to do the work. But I also knew my condition was 100 percent curable,” she explained, “If I was brave enough to do whatever it would take.”
The scariest part of that journey was acknowledging that my body knew something long before I did — my relationship was toxic. Fear and resentment were the wrong bedfellows for any viable marriage, though these two had taken up residence before VV came knocking on the door. Spiritually speaking, I was bankrupt, and if my brain refused to acknowledge the obvious, my hooch was keen on setting the record straight. Move on, my dear, she was saying, to loving pastures.
In a world that separates the soulful from the sexual and heaps on piles of guilt for enjoying the latter, it’s understandable that for many women, one common denominator is often “some form of sexual guilt,” says Borg who has worked with clients experiencing painful intercourse.
“We all have programming buried deep in our subconscious (which never forgets) and some of that programming no longer serves us.” It could be as simple as a parent teaching a child that ‘sex is naughty,’ she explains. “The child grows into an adult, with normal natural desires for sex. The adult now lives those desires out, but there are emotionalized triggers, which can turn a normally pleasurable experience into a painful one.”
While we use different language — I view the prism of my healing through a spiritual lens — the outcome is the same. “The subconscious mind has its own language and one of the ways it communicates is by showing signs and symptoms in the body,” says Borg.
Putting Pussy First
Over the years, I’ve spoken to a number of women, many of whom were healed almost ‘magically’ by discarding a relationship that no longer served them. In many cases, these are women who, like me, developed an, ‘allergic emotional reaction’ to an intimate partner. Once the relationship was dissolved we found of inner wantonness, and learned to pay attention to our bodies, knowing that pleasure is a corporal blessing. Honor our bodies, honor ourselves could be the motto for any woman post-diagnosis seeking to keep VV in remission.
I cannot imagine how difficult it might be for women whose experiences with painful sex are a result of sexual assault, violence, abuse and surgery; though Borg points out that regardless of etiology, sexual wounds can all respond to conscious love. “We are holistic and energetic beings so everything affects everything else,” she points out.
It sounds cliché yet it’s true. Vulvar vestibulitis launched my erotic journey from sexual starvation to satisfaction. Listening to what my body was aching for helped me rediscover how important a robust sexuality is to emotional, physical and spiritual wellbeing. Against the backdrop of a culture that thrusts sex upon us, and glorifies physicality at the expense sometimes of real intimacy, VV helped me connect my primal needs with sacred sensuality.
After all, the soul craves ecstasy too and oftentimes our inner Goddess is just picky about whom she wants to explore it with.