Something that didn’t happen to me: I didn’t have an orgasm.
Not just on one occasion. Every time. As in never. But maybe this isn’t about that so much as it is about what happened — what started to happen and isn’t finished yet — when I searched for the reason why.
In any quest to answer why I am anorgasmic, the top of the list has to be that I have vaginismus. During sex or attempted sex, this feels like my vagina is shaped like an hourglass, a steel band wrapped in the middle, so anything trying to penetrate is pounding against that constricted place.
Additionally, sometimes a penis feels like a squared-off peg pushing into a round hole, scraping or slicing me with its 90-degree edges. Sex became an exercise in enduring and getting past the pain. Then, after the muscle spasms were beaten away, it became just friction and waiting for “him” to finish.
While vaginimus can initiate at any time during a woman’s sexual life due to physical triggers like infection, childbirth, menopause, etc., it his has been part of my life as long as I’ve been adult-aged. It’s been there, sometimes acutely, sometimes -- in celibate marriage -- in dormancy, for over 30 years.
A Google search shows too many websites for me to show links to. Many are trying to sell the common home treatment, vagina dilators in graduated sizes, which don’t seem to address what may be emotional causes and how quickly an involuntary physiological reaction becomes psychological.
Despite “no identifiable explanation” on the cause list, the cycle has to start somewhere. My introduction to sex was mating silkworms moths in my 4th grade classroom -- they were stuck together butt-to-butt -- and a classmate told me “People do that, too.”
In 5th or 6th grade, I found a folded piece of paper along the dirt shoulder of the road where I walked to school. It contained 8 to 12 thumbnail black-and-white photos of naked men with either semi or full erections. No ordinary man need apply for that photo shoot: they were all huge, and I don’t imagine there was any Photoshopping going on.
In 1970 so much of what I wanted to do was limited to boys-only -- play baseball, have a paper route, never have to wear a dress again -- so that was one good reason I met the development of my female body with nothing but dismay. But there must have been other grounds for a rather zealous reluctance to mature. I pressed my nipples with my thumbs to try to keep them from starting to poke out. I don’t know what I did about the appearance of pubic hair, because I wasn’t allowed to shave my legs so didn’t have access to a “prevention” tool. I dreaded my mother’s prophecy that I would find blood in my underwear.
I did not try to look at my genitals with a mirror, nor touch them in any exploratory way. I was not driven, by physical urges nor curiosity, to masturbate. In a few years, when physical maturation was well under way but at least I’d been blessed with an androgynous physique, I had daily fantasies about a young male teacher rescuing me from boys who forced me to do nothing more than make out, and I almost tore apart "Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Sex But Were Afraid to Ask" looking for my question: Did it hurt?
Fear. The number-one self-prophesizing cause of vaginismus.
And then there were some experiences. Nothing outside the realm of 20th-century American middle-class-girl initiation. My first boyfriend -- and first kiss, although he never did so again -- met with resistance when he tried to get a hand into my clothes. So, to reach his goals, he played rape games. “See if you can get out of this one,” his only breathless utterance on the front seat of his van, parked on that same dirt shoulder where I’d found the page of penises.
Something led me to describe this to the next boy, even before we started “going around together,” as was the local colloquialism.
He was a popular boy for some of the right reasons: a talented musician, smart, cheerful and fun.
A week after an archetypal 1970s “date” at a high school basketball game, with an achingly simple kiss on my forehead on my front porch, I found myself in another steamed-up boy-funky vehicle, this time with all the kissing I could (but didn’t) want, plus clothes coming off (his) and sweaty writhing.
If I was also writhing, it was not in pleasure. A chant in my head went: I’m supposed to like this, I’m supposed to like this…
Consequently, there followed a second session, this one in my parents’ garage after a horseback-riding date. With the perpetual cloud of aimless flies circling overhead in the bare rafters, I was drawn onto his lap where he sat on a bale of wood chips for the dog’s kennel, his hand working its way into my jeans, pressing his thumb into my groin for leverage, until he made fingertip penetration, and I bolted.
Mark now calls this his big betrayal that led him to 30 years of secret longing.
But first, we’d resumed a friendship, carpooled to the same college, marched in the same band, got carsick on the same bus during band tours, drove together to the same high school for our student teaching. A TV show would have exploited the sexual tension of this "friendship," where one friend wants a more meaningful, intimate relationship, and the other plays dumb.
A few times Mark broached that subject, and I tried to be benign when I slid the moment aside, but each clumsy attempt at gentleness became like another carsick trip for both of us. Still, I clung to the friendship. Told him I needed it. A selfish, and probably brutal benevolence.
I entered my first sexually dysfunctional marriage. Mark tried to stick around as our drop-in-friend for a while, taking an hourly print-shop job to facilitate remaining nearby, decided it was killing him to watch me begin my life with someone else I’d chosen instead of him, so he took a husband-hunter who’d been buzzing around him at the print shop -- 9 years older who had produced two kids but no high-school diploma, who screamed and threw things and couldn’t hold a job -- and moved 100 miles away to resume his teaching career.
I could follow any of several threads to an aftermath: celibate marriages that numbed two people to gristle, harrowing sex therapy that turned sex into an affectation; pelvic floor therapy meant to ease the muscle-spasm pain but not endow ecstasy. But there was a more amazing outcome than that. Because, almost 25 sexually dysfunctional years later, I went back to find that boy.
But too many years of anticipating pain has rendered sex fraught with baggage I can’t seem to unload. It didn’t all fade away when I returned to the former 18-year-old with whom I should have learned how to feel. Some call it cell-memory, anxiety still held within my cells even when my mind desires the simple euphoria of passion, and even when all he wants is to deliver it. We’re fortunate to have our lifelong alternatives: language, and music.
Do-overs are not an erasure of the transcript, not a scrub-away of corrosion, not dynamite on a logjam. It took, and will continue to call for, resolute effort. We’re working through guilt and regret, have to pry ourselves loose from habits of clutching private isolation, have unburied some anger on both sides, wept our complicity, howled years of yearning. We’re getting closer.