Sex has always been painful for me. Since the day I lost my virginity at the age of 16, having sex has hurt. The first few times the pain was almost unbearable, but that didn’t strike me as terribly unusual; I knew that losing your virginity often hurt and, frankly, I was just grateful that I didn’t bleed, which would’ve meant sneaking into the laundry in the dead of night to scrub my sheets. I knew that first-time sex would hurt, and wasn’t surprised when the second and third time hurt as well. I figured it would take time for my body to get used to what was going on, and for me and my boyfriend to figure it out, too. For something that’s supposedly the most natural thing two people can do, sex sure takes a lot of maneuvering, negotiating and post-game analysis. After a few tries, I thought, it would start feeling good.
I was wrong. Sex — I’m talking penis-in-vagina sex — never felt good. It often felt nice — nice to be so close to someone I loved, nice to share that kind of intimacy and trust — but it was never pleasurable the way other sex acts were. It never felt like something that could even approach orgasmic. On the contrary, it hurt like hell. It made me grip on to my boyfriend’s hips and bite into his shoulder in pain rather than in pleasure, praying that he would finish soon, longing for it to end. And when it did, I would lie there feeling raw and torn, wincing, while he came down from his orgasm, grinning.
Was this it? Was this the sex everyone — my girl friends, my guy friends, hell, my entire culture — had been obsessing about? I felt so let down. Sex, after all the hype, had turned out to be anti-climatic, in more ways than one. I felt confused — did all women feel this way? Or was I the only one? Was there something wrong with me?
When my boyfriend and I talked about it, we decided that it was probably a case of our needing more practice. (In hindsight, I see that this solution probably appealed to him not only for altruistic reasons.) I went to the OB/GYN — something I would absolutely recommend you do, if you have similar pain — where a full STD scan and a rather unpleasant exam left my gynecologist scratching her head. My boyfriend and I tried lube. We tried different positions. Nothing helped. When he was on top, it felt like he was hurting me. When I was on top, it felt like I was hurting myself. Sex was something I endured, because I loved him and I wanted him to be happy.
When that relationship ended and I started dating other people, I kept my standards for who I slept with rather stringent: I only slept with people I was in love with. This was partly because sex was, and still is, a big deal for me. But it was partly because I knew that no matter how I felt about the person, sex would be physically painful. If it was never going to be good, then I could at least ensure that it was nice, that I trusted and cared about the person, and that he cared about me. And as screwed-up as it might sound, I was only willing to let someone inflict that kind of pain on me if they loved me.
Even though I was committed, in theory at least, to a fair, equitable and mutually pleasurable sex life, I always dreaded telling my boyfriends about how painful sex was for me. If there was no solution, I figured, what was the point in taking away their enjoyment? There was no reason for us both to be miserable. When I did tell them about it, or when I was unable to conceal my pain or my frustration, they were disquieted, and sometimes told me how guilty they felt that something that brought them such pleasure was causing me such misery.
Could they tell that I was in pain? Some of them could. But it never seemed to bother them enough for them to forgo an orgasm.
I should note that, yes, I understand that the sex I was having wasn’t very feminist, in that the distance between what I wanted — sex that was pleasurable, not just bearable — and the reality was huge. The gap between what everyone else said sex was like, what it was supposed to be like, and my reality, was even bigger. Sometimes, I would cry with the unfairness of it all. I was a sex-positive feminist, for f**k’s sake! I performed in “The Vagina Monologues” — twice! I blogged about the importance of comprehensive sex ed and the need for more realistic depictions of sex in pornography! If anyone deserved to have good, mutually pleasurable sex, it was me—dammit. Feminism had taught me that sex was not supposed to be like this. But I had never known anything different.
And then I started dating someone who wasn’t content to have bearable sex with me. He could tell that I was in pain, and he couldn’t stand it. He was perfectly willing to sacrifice his own orgasm if the alternative meant knowing that I was suffering. And when I told him that I’d tried every solution imaginable, he insisted that we be more imaginative. Without knowing it, I had signed up to date a sex-positive male feminist, a compulsive problem-solver who wouldn’t take “ow” for an answer. Someone who realizes that penis-in-vagina sex isn’t the be-all-and-end-all (after all, queer folks can go their whole sex lives without doing it), but really wanted it to feel good for both of us.
A few weeks ago, the two of us headed to Babeland in New York City, where I live. For those unfamiliar with Babeland stores, they are woman-friendly sex shops designed to make shopping for sex toys and related products pleasant and judgment-free, and they are staffed entirely by sex educators. My boyfriend and I were incredibly upfront with the sales person: “Sex hurts for me.” I said. “A lot. I’m really, really sensitive.” The sales person, a woman whose tattooed feet I now want to repeatedly kiss, walked us through a variety of lubricants and recommended an organic silicon-water blend from the Sliquid line that contained aloe. We bought it, along with a few other lube products, and walked out of the store with high hopes.
That night, something amazing happened. For the first time ever, I had painless sex. For the first time ever, I wasn’t just enduring it. There wasn’t anything medically wrong with me at all — I just needed a little liquid courage, so to speak. The idea of resorting to lube for mere vaginal sex had always bothered me; using it had always felt like an admission that my body wasn’t good enough, as though it wasn’t properly performing this most basic of functions. But this time, I shelved my pride. After six years of nice but bad sex, what choice did I have?
Finally, after six years of pain, a breakthrough. It was as though, after all these years, I had finally lost my virginity. I wouldn’t exactly say I enjoyed it; after all, who really enjoys their first time? I was too shocked by the fact that I didn’t feel pain to actually feel any pleasure — yet. That will come later. And perhaps, if we’re very lucky, so will I.