I thought I already knew every important thing about sex. I knew the importance of asking for what I want in bed, listening to a partner’s needs, and luckily, learning where my clitoris is. I was on Tumblr around the time that I was trying to understand my body sexually, and I had learned that, before penetration, building arousal through kissing and non-genital stimulation would be key to avoid potentially painful sex with a “tight” vagina. So I was very confused when I had sex for the first time and being fingered felt like being entered with a knife — not like the mythic pleasure I’d always heard about in my favorite songs.
“Did he have long fingers?” my gynecologist asked. I had been bleeding for a few days afterward. Penetration with anything wider than a finger was impossible (a later partner once told me that my vagina was “like a wall”), but she reassured me that nothing was wrong. She told me that sex was “painful for everyone.” Although I wasn’t completely convinced, I walked away from the appointment wanting to believe that there was really nothing for me to worry about. I let my subsequent partners finger me, but I still shied away from penetrative sex involving anything bigger than a finger. I think part of me knew that my body was different from other bodies, but I didn’t want to immediately admit it. I disguised my feelings as just being “cautious” with the kind of sex I had.
When I returned for an exam a year later, the gynecologist used a speculum, and I felt like I was being ripped open. Because of the pain, she switched to using one long Q-tip, which still hurt, so she finally conceded that I might have a “thick hymen wall.” She recommended I use tampons during my period to try to help expand my vagina and, if that didn’t work, assured me that surgery would be an “easy fix.”
But I was afraid. My vagina was already in pain — how would it feel after surgery? Why did I even need surgery? Is penetration that important?
I was extremely put-off by how quickly she jumped to that conclusion. The idea of surgery made me feel like my body was a machine with only one function: being able to have a penis inside of it. I was very aware that my body was much more than that, and I was great at giving myself orgasms through clitoral stimulation alone, so I knew I could have a fruitful sex life without penetration. I bought tampons as the doctor suggested, but they stayed at the bottom of my closet, unused for the months following the appointment. I took this as a sign that I just didn’t want to be in pain, and I definitely didn’t want surgery. I wanted to take care of the body I had, not force it to fit someone else’s standard of what it should be.
But it’s hard to defy society, and questions about my body’s validity still pinged around in my mind. When I heard people talk about “sex,” they usually meant penetrative sex. Would I ever really be able to have sex? I worried that a partner could never really be satisfied with me because of what I had affectionately started calling my “broken vagina” — a crude, deprecating nickname mostly borne out of my shame and a lack of a better word.
I wouldn’t hear about vaginismus until three months later, when I watched Sex Education for the first time.
Netflix’s Sex Education follows Otis (Asa Butterfield), a 16-year-old boy who is uncomfortable with his sex therapist mother yet winds up acting like a sex therapist himself, giving unlicensed sex advice to his high school peers in exchange for money. In the first season, Lily (Tanya Reynolds) is a girl at Otis’ school who enjoys elaborate alien cosplay, writes intergalactic erotic comics, and really, really wants to have sex. But the first time she tries it, she screams in pain. “Why won’t it go in?” her partner asks. Disparagingly, she replies, “I don’t know.”
It was the first time I watched a character experience the stress and confusion I’d been feeling.
Lily seeks Otis’ advice, bemoaning the fact that her “vagina has betrayed [her].” Despite having only the experience of an unlicensed teen sex therapist, Otis attributes Lily’s problem to an unconscious halting of an uncontrollable situation, and tells her that she might have vaginismus. This is not awful reasoning on Otis’ part; medical researchers have said vaginismus can be a sort of a physical response to emotional stressors like anxiety, trauma, and fear of penetration, though it can also be related to pelvic floor problems. By definition, vaginismus is a condition that causes involuntary and painful muscle spasms in the vagina, to the point that penetration becomes extremely difficult — or outright impossible.
Despite approximately 5-17 percent of women living with vaginismus and the concerns I shared twice with my gynecologist, Sex Education provided my first exposure to the term.
Like many other women’s health issues, vaginismus is often unreported by sufferers because of lack of knowledge or lack of support, and ignored by the medical field. Even after I discovered the term, I still had a lot of difficulty finding out information about the condition and ways to treat it beyond “just stretch out your vagina.” Treatment options already seemed scarce, let alone a treatment option that took into account the emotional effects vaginismus had on me and my life.
In Sex Education, Otis attempts to “fix” Lily’s problem by instructing her to ride her bike down a large hill to “face [her] fears” and let go of control. As this episode was my introduction to the condition and to a potential cure, I began attributing my penetration problems to anxiety, too. I started informing sexual partners I had this thing called “vaginismus” and to take things slowly, but even with my warnings, those partners still focused on penetration. Once, a partner attempted sticking two fingers inside me without any lube, play, or even any warning. I screamed in pain, then acted like it wasn’t a big deal. Even with the name I now had for my condition, I was still ashamed I couldn’t live up to the image of the “sexually empowered” woman that I wanted myself to be.
I was worn down by all my uncomfortable, unfulfilling sexual encounters. I felt listless and empty most days. I didn’t want to keep being so sad. I was not a girl who prioritized her own needs sexually, and I began to understand that I needed to be. I began exploring non-penetrative sex on my own. I started focusing on pleasure instead of pressuring myself to endure painful penetration. I’d interpreted Otis’ advice to “let go of control” to mean lowering my expectations and carrying on with a sexual encounter even when it hurt me emotionally and physically, but I knew that was not right for me. I needed to be in control of my pleasure.
Prioritize my pleasure wasn’t easy. I still struggle with it. The biggest motivator for me was finding Lara E. Parker’s Instagram, where she documents her experiences with endometriosis, vulvodynia, and vaginismus, and share how she copes while still feeling sexy and powerful. It was helpful to see a woman being vocal about claiming her body and pleasure, especially on a visual, perfection-obsessed app like Instagram. Now, I buy myself lingerie just because I like it. I consider masturbation to be an opportunity to connect with my body as it is and stopped trying to force my vibrator inside of me. I have a long-term partner who actually cares about whether or not I orgasm (yay!).
When Netflix released Season 2 of Sex Education on January 17th, I was eager to hear from Lily again.
The last time that we saw Lily in Season 1, she was riding down that hill. Viewers weren’t given any updates about her understanding of vaginismus beyond that final, symbolically liberating scene. Later in Season 2, Otis makes a comment about how he helped Lily “open” her vagina, so I expected an unrealistic end to Lily’s vaginismus storyline. I figured the show would imply that this complex issue actually had a “quick fix.” But I was pleasantly surprised.
This season expands more on the character Ola (Patricia Allison), who briefly dates Otis and thinks she is straight until a lingering hug with Lily and a subsequent sex dream makes her think otherwise. Ola knocks on Lily’s door to kiss her, and they do kiss, but their friendship briefly goes sour as Lily grapples with the fact that she also might be gay. Eventually Lily admits that “this wasn’t in [her] plan,” but she doesn’t “think she [wants to be] just friends.” The next episode opens with Lily decked out in an orange wig and futuristic silver dress as Ola tries to finger her. When Ola attempts to insert a finger, Lily yelps, an immediately recognizable moment to me. But this time, unlike my experience, Ola stops what she’s doing and asks Lily if she did something wrong — prompting Lily to explain vaginismus. “If it makes you feel any better,” says Ola, “I’ve got one hairy nipple.” Lily then shows Ola her tiny forest of dilators before they have sex for the first time, explaining that she is only able to insert the smallest one inside of her vagina for now. Ola asks, “So, you can’t even walk then?” Ola laughs, “No, I do,” and explains how she masturbates by focusing on “the outside” of her vulva, resulting in the two of them engaging in simultaneous masturbation.
This scene was eye-opening for me. When I had started exploring sex with vaginismus and chose to prioritize pleasure, I was caught between wanting to completely rebel from the penetrative sex-only narrative and genuinely wanting to experience penetration. This disconnect between my desires and my body’s abilities contributed to my lingering shame.
Sex Education made me realize that I didn’t have to choose between them. I could still work on alleviating my vaginismus while continuing to prioritize my pleasure.
I have started researching dilators to find a set that feels right for my body, and I have been more forthright in asking my partner to support me as I continue on my journey with vaginismus. He continues to ask me what I want when we have sex, and always listens to me when I need to stop, feel uncomfortable, or want to try something new. I’ve also been experimenting with non-penetrative sex positions beyond the usual lie-on-back oral sex session, reminding me that I can have an exciting and varied sex life without penetrative sex.
While Sex Education has inspired me to explore dilators, as of now, I don’t yet plan on speaking to another gynecologist about it. There is a part of me that is still a little burned from my past experiences, so I feel very guarded over this intimate condition that has shaped how I see myself, sexually and mentally. I do regularly go to therapy, though, and I am focusing on unpacking the psychological effects vaginismus has on me before seeing a medical doctor to unpack the physical effects.
Vaginismus is an under-researched condition, which makes Sex Education’s portrayal of it all the more important. Every human body is different, and media representation of all our weird, wild, and at times, frustrating differences can reach beyond the screen to spark change in someone’s real life. It did for me.