It's Endometriosis Awareness Month and so I'd like to highlight this article by guest writer Lara Parker. After years of excruciating levels of pain during intercourse, Lara was diagnosed with endometriosis, vulvodynia, vaginismus, and overall pelvic floor dysfunction. These health conditions make it impossible for Lara to have penetrative sex which has forced her to redefine what she thought she knew about sex and dating.
“I can’t have sex.”
When I began trying to date again after my diagnosis of endometriosis, vulvodynia, vaginismus, and overall pelvic floor dysfunction, I felt like I had to start a lot of conversations this way. If I typed the words via text message to a man from Tinder or Bumble, I would feel my entire body clench as I watched the three little typing dots pop up and then disappear again over and over. I was never quite sure what to expect, and I wasn’t sure what the correct response to this would be, anyway. “Hey! I’m sorry you can’t have sex. Do you wanna get a drink on Thursday night?”
If it was a situation where I found myself actually saying the words out loud in person, it always felt too heavy, the same way it felt as the words came out of my mouth — uncomfortable, weighed down, and dry like cotton. It seemed the words hung in the air like the smell of last night’s takeout that you didn’t have the energy to clean up. But before even saying them out loud, or typing them to a potential date, even thinking about uttering these words made me feel like I couldn’t breathe, as if the tightness in my pelvic floor muscles had somehow transferred itself to my esophagus. If I was actually able to get the words out in a clear and concise way that the other person could understand what I was saying, I always waited with baited breath as I studied the other person’s face waiting for any sign of reaction. I always expected disappointment. And often, that’s what I received. As a straight woman living with endometriosis, vaginismus, and other pelvic floor conditions that cause penetration (and sometimes orgasming in general) to be excruciatingly painful, I believed for a long time that I couldn’t have sex. For most of my life thus far, the idea of sex to me was synonymous with the idea of penetration. And since I couldn’t have that, I believed I couldn’t have sex. Period.
In college, before my diagnoses, when I made the decision to have sexual partners but experienced mind-boggling pain instead, I began to feel like I wasn’t allowed to be a part of the world in which people had sex. I felt like I was an outcast in the cafeteria of middle school. Every table was reserved for people who could have sex without screaming out in pain because it felt as if their insides were being ripped open, and then there was me, walking alone with my lunch tray headed to the bathroom stall to eat alone.
For a long time, I didn’t talk about the pain I was experiencing during sex to anyone. In fact, I did my best to convince myself it wasn’t happening at all. I wasn’t sure how to bring it up in conversation. And when I did find the strength to bring it up to a doctor, I was shamed for having sex and told to use lube. I was shocked, embarrassed, and confused. I had been using lube. I knew that wasn’t the problem. I didn’t know what was wrong with me, but I knew something was. I just didn’t know how to talk about it. So I didn’t. And instead, I just began to avoid contact with the opposite sex altogether. It wasn’t that I wasn’t interested in sex, or dating. I was. I absolutely wanted to have sex. I wanted to orgasm. I wanted all of it. But every time I thought about trying to date the guy from my Econ class or talk to the guy wearing the funny blue shirt at the bar downtown on a Thursday night, my brain would force me to remember every single time I had tried to have sex, and how painful it had been. And then it would zero in on the faces of the men who I had tried to have sex with.The disappointed look haunted me.
It took me several years to get diagnosed with vulvodynia and vaginismus — two conditions that mean my vagina hurts a lot, but especially with insertion of any kind. I began pelvic floor physical therapy shortly after, and began using dilators (an instrument used to stretch the vaginal muscles — often in the shape of a penis) every night while watching reruns of The Real Housewives of New Jersey and trying to imagine what it would be like to approach dating now, armed with my new knowledge of what the fuck was going on with my body. I had some answers, sure, but I still hadn’t found a solution. And although I made progress in pelvic floor physical therapy after several months — like being able to insert a tampon, orgasm, and being able to wear underwear again without the fiercest burning sensation on my vulva — penetrative sex was still out of the question. I desperately wanted to date, but I didn’t know how to. Especially not as a straight woman who didn’t believe I could have sex.
After years of failed attempts at dating and disappointed looks from shitty men after finding out they couldn’t have their penis inside me, I realized that what I needed, more than anything was to re-frame the way I thought about sex. After all, there are literally millions of people on this earth who don’t have penis-in-vagina sex and that certainly doesn’t mean they aren’t having sex. So why did it have to mean that for me? Not to mention the fact that there have been studies that concluded that only about 18 percent of women said that vaginal penetration alone was enough to orgasm.It’s not that I couldn’t have sex — it was that I couldn’t have penetrative sex. And when you really think about it, that’s just a small part of what sex is or what it can be. And if a man couldn’t figure out how to have sex with me without sticking his penis inside my vagina, well then…was he really worth having sex with anyway?
The change didn’t happen overnight. But slowly and surely the more I began to think of sex as anything that felt good to me and could potentially make me orgasm, the more comfortable I began to feel experimenting on what exactly my new versions of sex could be. Every time I felt the urge to utter the words “I can’t have sex” to a new man in my life, or even on the internet where I’ve written about my pelvic pain countless times, I would stop myself. “No Lara,” I would say in my own head. “You can have sex. You just can’t have penetrative sex. That’s a very small part of what sex can be.” It’s been over a year now since I made the change in my life around how I viewed sex. I’ve had to stop myself countless times from saying, “I can’t have sex” or “You can’t have sex with me” and instead re-frame it to something like, “I don’t do penetration because it’s painful but you can definitely still eat my pussy.” These days, sex to me means so many different things. I’ve had sex with people by dry-humping them on my couch until I came from clitoral stimulation. I’ve had sex with people by using sex toys on one another. I’ve had sex with people just by intimately touching one another while taking a bath. And on the days when the pain from my endometriosis and pelvic floor dysfunction makes it too painful to orgasm at all, I get intimate by lying naked with my partner in bed and feeling our bodies intertwine.
We have to stop thinking about sex as a penis going into a vagina. Because that’s not what sex is. Millions of people on this earth cannot and do not have sex that way. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t having sex. And it certainly doesn’t mean that for me, either. I no longer think of myself as a person who can’t have sex. And most of the time these days, I don’t even yearn for vaginal penetration the way I used to. I no longer feel like an outcast — someone who isn’t allowed at the “We have sex” lunch table. Not being able to have penetration has forced my partners and I to communicate and experiment. It has forced us to never rely on just one thing. And in a weird, maybe slightly fucked up way, for that….I am truly grateful.