My Vaginismus Story: Understanding My Pap Smear Fear
I’m a 32-year-old woman, and I have yet to successfully get a Pap smear done.
I’ve avoided gynecologists for most of my life, but in the times that I’ve tried to overcome my fears and get a full examination, there was no way that cold speculum was going in.
Until recently, I’d never experienced internal self-pleasure or penetration of any kind. It was only after my fifth try at penetrative sex that I realized my vagina wouldn’t allow anything inside. I didn’t understand what was wrong with me.
My Religious Upbringing Is a Contributor to My Vaginismus Symptoms
I’d been indoctrinated to believe that sex before marriage was a sin. I grew up in an Eastern Christian Orthodox family, one that was incredibly religious and my parents were really strict. When my father saw me hugging a male friend goodbye one day in high school, I received a huge lecture about not touching boys and that hugs were forbidden. In the years since leaving my parents’ home, I’ve become more progressive about everything, including sex, but my own relationship with it was the one thing I couldn’t let go of.
I understood the limitations of my thinking around sex, how heteronormative it was and how patriarchal ideas like purity and virginity are. I became sex-positive for everyone else but not myself. It was too entrenched in my mind that if I did it, something terrible would happen. I couldn’t get the thought of my parents’ faces, my grandmother’s face, even my late grandfather’s face out of my head whenever the thought of it came to my mind. Like many other heterosexual Christian girls, I found the loopholes that eased my conscience. I engaged in other forms of sexual activity with long-term boyfriends but always drew the line at penetration. Although I still felt guilt, I managed to convince myself that at least I wasn’t crossing the ultimate line (even if my politics around sexuality told me otherwise).
I Experienced Vaginismus in My Marriage, Even Though I Felt Safe With My Husband
My boyfriend at the time didn’t have the same puritanical views on sex, but he understood what I needed and respected that. We were together for eight years before we got married. In that time, we got to know other aspects of our sexuality and intimacy that were fulfilling.
Yet here I was, married and on my honeymoon, doing it with my husband, and something bad was happening.
I hadn’t waited all this time to have sex just to continue not having it. I was in denial for a few months about what was happening. I thought if we tried enough, I’d get it right eventually. Sex became a high-pressure activity, one that I needed to overcome rather than enjoy. Sadly, in my mind at the time, all the creative and pleasurable ways we engaged in sexual intimacy before marriage became unimportant to me. I needed to get over the line for it to count.
I Was Unable to Do a Pap Smear With My Vaginismus, and My Doctor Further Traumatized Me
I didn’t know until after a visit to the gynecologist that I had a condition called vaginismus. Vaginismus is a condition that results in a trauma response to vaginal insertion of various kinds. It’s an automatic tightening of the vagina, one that you have no control over. Unfortunately, the doctor who diagnosed me wasn’t the best person to deliver that news. During our exam, I mentioned it was my first time seeing a gyno and that I’d waited for marriage to have sex, so I’d never done a Pap smear.
“You did the right thing,” she said. That was the first red flag, but I just ignored it because I thought she was trying to be nice.
I was convulsing and fighting as she held my legs open while she tried to insert the speculum. The gynecologist was visibly frustrated and warned me that I had to relax because she didn’t want to sexually assault me—not the best way to calm someone down. When my body refused, she gave up and sternly told me that I probably have sexual dysfunction. Ashamed and in shock, I put my clothes back on. I confided that I was having trouble with sex. She asked me if I had experienced any sexual trauma in my life. I hadn’t, at least not in the capital-T sense of Trauma, but the ways I was taught to associate sex with danger had traumatized me in more subtle ways. Then she told me that if I don’t work on this, my husband would leave me.
I brushed this comment off because I knew better. I’d never let this kind of thinking get to me before. I was secure in a loving and dynamic relationship. I believed my pleasure was just as important as my husband’s, and I know that sex is more than just a penis penetrating a vagina. But hearing those damaging sentiments from a woman and her way of handling this very delicate situation was traumatizing. I walked out of there thinking I could never go back to a gynecologist again.
I Learned More Online and in Therapy About Vaginismus Than I Did From My Gynecologist
When I got home, I started Googling all the things I was experiencing and found a whole online community for vaginismus—the condition I now had a name for. Being able to name it was a relief, and finding out how many people around the world experience it made me feel so much less alone. If the gynecologist had been more informed about this, she could have helped me with information, different therapies and, more importantly, hope. Unfortunately, when I finally found the courage to go and see another doctor, she was just as ill-informed, and I felt like I was the one educating her during our consultation. Why would a whole medical specialty dedicated to helping women not be aware of something that causes so much physical and psychological pain for so many women?
Luckily, I had the internet and a psychologist at the time. Through my online community and therapy, I’ve figured out that the way my community growing up handled the topic of sex was a form of trauma and that the boyfriends I’ve had along the way who pressured me into sex had only added to it.
Dealing with the psychological side of the problem meant that I had to completely abandon the idea of penetrative sex and find pleasure in other kinds of sex again. Dilators have helped me ease the physical side somewhat, to the extent that I’ve managed to have a few pain-free and pleasurable experiences of penetration. Still, the thought of a Pap smear makes me anxious, and the worry that I may never be able to have one remains on my mind.
Confronting My Vaginismus Trauma and My Pap Smear Fear Head-On
Recently, I opened up to my GP about my condition. She’s kind and supportive in general, so it felt safe to tell her. She was sure she’d be able to work through it with me, and I felt hopeful. The next time I had a consultation, she told me we should give a Pap a try. Feeling relaxed and optimistic, I happily got on the bed and breathed deeply. As soon as the cold of the metal touched my vulva though, I seized up, and my legs immediately shut.
My doctor was incredibly patient and tried to soothe me, breathing with me and gently trying to keep my legs open as she told me to put my hands on hers. Together, we approached my vulva again with the speculum. Again, every muscle on my body felt like it was contracting. I didn’t want to give up. We’d come this far, and I was so sure we were going to get it right this time. After about half an hour of trying, she told me we should quit and that she didn’t want to re-traumatize me.
As soon as we stopped, tears came streaming down my face. I couldn’t stop crying. It was a shock reaction. I was embarrassed that I couldn’t control my emotions, but my doctor was as supportive as ever, and she helped me to calm down. “You haven’t failed,” she told me.
I Haven’t Completely Overcome Vaginismus, but I’m Not Alone in This Fight
I haven’t been back to try again, but now I'm more empowered than before. The internet once again helped me realize that I wasn’t alone. People have come up with their own therapies, bought their own speculums and developed whole programs to send to the doctor before a visit so that they can be informed about vaginismus. It’s quite amazing what people can do for each other, even with no formal organization or protocols.
The field of medicine has always ignored women’s pain. They need to catch up to us now because we’re not waiting for them. Until then, I’m continuing to explore my body, find patience with it, heal my traumas and do what I can to break the cycle so that the next generation of young people can spread awareness, prevent and treat vaginismus.