The Kind of Sex I Thought I Wanted

January 24, 2019

Purity culture trauma left me with a pretty severe case of vaginismus — I could barely insert small tampons, I couldn’t handle a gynecological exam, and I definitely couldn’t have penetrative sex.

graphic displaying the title of the article

(For more of my purity culture experience, read this post.)

When I first discovered that my trouble with tampons was symptomatic of a larger issue, my biggest goal was to finally have penis-in-vagina sex with my partner. Sure, I wanted to be able to make it through a gyno exam, but that was the least of my worries. When I got married and was unable to have intercourse because of the intense pain, I felt like a failure.

Purity culture taught me that it was my wifely duty to have sex with my partner. It also taught me that the only kind of “real sex” was penis-in-vagina intercourse. Having that kind of sex would cause me to lose my virginity (and also lead to destruction if not saved explicitly for heterosexual marriage).

So when I couldn’t make it happen after both my partner and I saved our virginity for marriage, the shame and sense of failure were overwhelming. I thought that my partner would be dissatisfied and leave me because I wasn’t giving him sex. I thought that I was being a terrible wife because I couldn’t please my partner. I thought that my body was broken and betraying me because it couldn’t do the one sex act it was made to do.

I was also in the midst of dealing with extreme emotional trauma surrounding sex. My sex drive was virtually nonexistent, I had extreme anxiety during sexual encounters, and the shame spirals I experienced were crippling.

All of this culminated in months of avoidance. I didn’t want to think about sex, didn’t want to talk about sex, and definitely didn’t want to have sex. I felt stuck in a cycle of avoiding all things sexual for months, feeling guilty about not performing my wifely duty for my husband, agreeing to do something sexual, and wishing I was doing anything else — on repeat.

A little over a year into our marriage, I finally started going to therapy. I began slowly peeling back the layers of trauma and pain. (It was during this process that I admitted out loud for the first time that “I might be into girls.”) Wounds began to heal, and I started experiencing a desire for sex again.

But despite all of the mental and emotional healing, my physical problem of vaginismus persisted.

Overcoming vaginismus became a priority. I was fixated on being able to have intercourse with my partner. So, just before our 2 year anniversary, I started going to a pelvic floor physical therapist.

Five months of therapy later, the big day arrived. We had PIV sex! My hard work had paid off. I was a ball of emotions — elated, anxious that it had been a fluke, feeling more connected to my partner than ever before, proud of myself, and crying tears of joy.

But even in the midst of feeling so much excitement, the actual experience of intercourse was underwhelming. I was uncomfortable despite the lack of pain and abundance of lube in use. I didn’t feel much of anything while it was happening, much less anything close to pleasure. I found myself looking forward to when it would be over.

We tried again, of course. And again, and again. Each time I found myself crossing my fingers and hoping that — this time — it would be different. I so desperately wanted to enjoy it. I had worked so hard to be able to do this! PIV sex was supposed to be great! My partner had been patient for so long while I worked up to this!

But each sexual experience with intercourse was disappointing. I felt the shame and fear begin to creep back in. Why can’t you just enjoy this like a normal woman? Why isn’t this pleasurable for your body? Maybe your vagina is still broken. What if you tell your partner that you haven’t been enjoying these sexual experiences? Will he be upset? What if he still ends up leaving you because you could be having intercourse but don’t want to?

I found myself consenting once again to sex that I knew, deep down, I didn’t really want to be having. All of the progress I had made with my sexual and bodily autonomy, as well as the trust between my partner and I, was fading. I was moving in the wrong direction.

It turns out that cisheteronormative conditioning is a bitch to unlearn.

Despite all of the work I had done to rebuild a healthier view of my sexuality — learning that virginity is a construct with no meaning or use other than allowing men to control my sexuality, accepting and cultivating my queerness, beginning to explore my kinks, becoming comfortable with my naked body — I still believed that PIV sex was the best, if not the only, type of sex.

Having this realization was like getting punched in the gut. I spent several weeks unable to think about anything else related to sex. I felt like I had failed, once again, at something sexual — despite the amount of work I had done in this area.

Thankfully, Jamie Lee Finch created safe space for me to process this during our phone calls, and I was finally able to admit my feelings out loud. She reminded me that it’s okay to not enjoy penetrative sex and that I don’t have an obligation to perform certain sexual acts with my partner (both things I already knew, but shame spirals are emotional quicksand). She also talked me off the ledge of feeling like a failure by pointing out that deep inner perspective changes take time — my body’s emotions won’t always be in sync with what I mentally know to be true.

After shedding a few tears, I realized that I needed to give myself permission to explore what kind of sex I actually want to be having. I had already spent months arguing with people that the definition of “sex” can include all sorts of things — mutual masturbation, oral, anal, kink, etc. But those things were all theoretical, because to me, sex was still associated with PIV. A conversation with my body needed to happen (and it is still happening!).

Now that I’m past the initial emotional chaos, I don’t blame myself for holding on to the idea of a sexual hierarchy. After all, it’s the only thing I had ever been taught growing up. My worth as a woman and a wife was almost entirely dependent on the lack of penile presence in my vagina. No wonder I placed PIV sex on a pedestal — it was the only sexual act that could completely alter my inherent value; thus, it must be at the top of the sexual pyramid.

The last few months I’ve been communicating with my body and my partner. They have both been patient and endlessly kind as I figure out how to move forward in a way that more accurately acknowledges my sexual preferences. I still feel as though I haven’t made much progress in determining what I do enjoy, but I have been making great strides in accepting my desires without judgment. The shame spiral is no longer lurking, just waiting for me to realize that I’m failing. I have accepted that PIV sex might never be something I enjoy, and the relief that washed over me with that acceptance was freeing.

Prioritizing my sexual pleasure has finally become more important than the specific sexual acts which provide that pleasure. For now, that means I mostly have sex with myself using an external vibrator while realizing that masturbation is not a “lower form” of sex. It is empowering, healthy, and exactly what my body has been asking me to do. The sexual hierarchy in my brain is slowly crumbling, and in it’s place I am building a sexual mansion in which every room is stunningly beautiful and worth exploring.