Earlier this year, there was an issue of Oh Comely which had a call out for personal stories about sex and it got me thinking. Whilst I have long championed the need for comprehensive sex and relationship education in schools and youth clubs and seen the value of it first hand, and whilst I have post after post on my blog about sex, I haven’t had a particularly great sex life. And to say that feels like I am invalidating myself when I’ve previously stressed the need to speak about sex.
To say that you haven’t had a particularly great sex life feels like you are openly telling the world you are a failure. And I have felt like a failure because of my sexual experiences. I want to make it clear here that this isn’t an attack on my partners. That said, the first (consensual) fumble I had was pretty horrific and came an hour or so after my first, also not great, kiss. The latter was a little like an octopus had attached itself to my face, the former was in the dark in an empty outdoors shopping centre. Cold hands forced themselves under my clothes, my breasts were grabbed like they were pieces of meat and then a security guard turned up. I stayed with that partner for far too long. But aside from more fumbling and a pretty horrific experience where I blacked out during oral sex, we never went “all the way”.
Enter partner two. A much better person, much better kisser and someone I still love, platonically, today. Partner two showed me just how bad partner one had been… Although partner one did, over time, become better at kissing. I hope their spouse is grateful to me. And yes, facebook stalking does reveal they are married.
Partner two was the first person I really wanted to have sex with. And things were great. Right up until penetration. It just would not work. And as sex is such a natural behaviour, and as no one ever tells you about the problems (aside from erectile dysfunction), I thought I was broken. I felt great shame and I felt like I was letting my partner down. I felt like I wasn’t a “proper” woman. I was a failure. Guilt ate away at me – I wasn’t giving my partner the full sexual experience, it wasn’t fair on him – and I was so ashamed of myself and my inability to do this one, supposedly easy, thing. I mean teenagers can do it so why, at 21, couldn’t I?
At the same time as I was failing at sex, I was telling people about how important high-quality sex and relationship education is. I was advocating for pleasure focused information. I was championing the need for women to stand up for themselves and get what they need out of sex. And here I was, a failure.
At one point during my relationship with partner two, I was volunteering at a youth club. We had a night where we got out the demonstrators and condoms and other forms of contraception and we sat down with a small group of young people and talked sex. We were really open, we answered their silly questions whilst they relieved themselves of some of their nervous energy. And in answering the questions honestly and openly, they started to ask some of the more pertinent questions. The group included some lovely girls who were reasonably informed but also some lads who had probably been kicked out of their school sex ed class for being rowdy. They were also the same guys who regularly boasted about buying condoms. Yet when the demonstrators came out, they put the condoms on inside out. They didn’t realise there was a right and wrong way. And so we sat there, casually explaining why you needed to put it on the right way and why you pinch the end. It was a low pressure, really open discussion and I really think that everyone of those young people took something valuable away, whether it was knowledge or the notion that it is ok to ask questions and to talk about sex.
And then, I went home to the partner I could not sexually fulfil.
By this time, I had seen a doctor who gave me a word – vaginismus – which made me feel a tiny bit less like a freak. She had advised using vibrators, starting small, and working my way up. This is sound advice and it chimes with everything the internet had to offer back then, which was incredibly limited, but we didn’t really get anywhere. Later I would learn that my genetic condition – Ehlers Danlos Syndrome – was likely contributing to my troubles. Essentially some of my muscles work overtime and some don’t do very much, the muscles around my vagina are some of those which work overtime. Every time anything comes near it, they clamp down. Tampons, smear tests, coil insertion, they are all out of the question. For a long time, I thought there must be something physically wrong with me down there. Alongside this I was anxious that I might have been sexually abused and blacked out the experience*.
I was too embarrassed to talk about this with my friends and when sex was discussed I sort of nodded along as if I could relate. Penetrative sex is a normal, natural process, without with humans would have died out millennia ago. For thousands and thousands of years, women have been able to do this one thing that I could not.
Things are different today. Today I am more confident about speaking up, I am more confident and I live by the words I’ve preached for the last couple of decades – sex is not defined by penetration. We live in a world where penis in vagina sex is privileged above all other kinds, a world where penetration is seen as the end goal, a world where other sexual activities are labelled foreplay. Today I am much more confident about shouting this from the rooftops. I am much more confident that my assertion that there is no right way to have consensual sex is correct. I am much more confident that my version of sex can be just as pleasurable.
Today there is more information out there. Vaginismus even has a page on the NHS website which it didn’t when I was trying to figure things out ten years ago. In some ways things have changed a lot, there is more information out there, but in other ways, things haven’t changed at all. We still assume that sex is about penetration and we still don’t discuss sexual issues beyond erectile dysfunction. Our view of sex is still filtered through a patriarchal, heterosexual lens. I hope by sharing my story, by speaking up, that I can help someone else who is going through a similar experience.
I haven’t had a particularly great sex life but I am incredibly proud of the journey of self discovery that I have been on. I have grown so much and I have a much more secure sense of self worth these days.
I haven’t had a particularly great sex life but everything I have to say about sex still stands up to scrutiny.
*I was abused, as far as I know I didn’t black out and as far as I know I wasn’t penetrated. It took me years to accept that what had happened was abuse. But that is a story for another day.