It’s not something we talk enough about now, but it was discussed even less back then: It was hard for me, as a young evangelical woman, to have positive feelings about sex. My strict religious upbringing made me feel too much shame about my sexual desires, and I was not in tune with my own body.
I did not understand it at the time, but there were layers upon layers of sexual shame in my life, stemming all the way from my childhood.
In my youth, I was treated for precocious puberty and polycystic ovarian syndrome. From the time I was six years old, routine “pelvic exams” went along with this treatment. It was always a male doctor who examined my “private parts,” and I recall the feeling of checking out from my body during the appointment, because those exams were so humiliating.
At home, my mother was vehemently negative about sexuality. She constantly warned me and my sister about the horrors of sexual immorality. I grew up believing that my dad had molested my sister, because my mother claimed the abuse was the reason for their divorce. When I was still in elementary school, my mom would warn me about the sin of “playing with myself,” long before I could even comprehend what she meant. By the time I was eight, she would tell me to “be good” before bed, then randomly wake me up in the middle of the night to smell my hands. Checking to be sure I was… good. I knew it wasn’t normal parenting behavior. But I still didn’t understand what was normal, or what she was so adamantly protecting me against. By the time I actually knew what masturbation was, I was convinced demons would possess me for doing it.
In sixth grade I decided it was time to try tampons instead of pads, but I didn’t really understand where or how to insert them. The school nurse nonchalantly said we could ask our mothers to help us with tampons if we were having trouble. When I asked my mom for help, she looked at me like I was a monster and said it was a sick and disgusting request. “What’s wrong with you?!” she yelled.
Tampons never felt right for me. They always hurt, so I thought I was doing something wrong. I also suspected I was perhaps “too small down there,” but I wasn’t sure if such a thing were possible. This was in the 90s, before the internet became ubiquitous and I couldn’t just Google it. But I tried to look up information about painful tampons and what to expect when I first had sex. Reading various Yahoo sites, I felt nauseous at the idea of having to stretch or break my hymen. Being on AOL and ICQ meant that I was exposed to men trying to talk dirty to me, and it was disturbing.
All this is to say that, as a young adult, my relationship to my body was weird. I had sexual desires, I was incredibly picky about who turned me on, and I felt guilty about having any libido whatsoever. By the time I got married, I wanted to have sex, but I didn’t really know what it entailed and the idea of it still felt dirty to me.
Prior to our wedding, I visited a gynecologist to ask about my problem with tampons. The male doctor put KY Jelly on a tampon and inserted it into my vagina. “It’s a very tight fit, but you can do it,” he said. “You just need to be stretched.” I felt instantly nauseous. When he pulled out the tampon, it felt as though my insides were being ripped out along with it. The doctor then asked a nurse to bring in a dilator. When she returned, it was to report that they only had intercourse-sized dilators in stock. They told me to make another appointment to be stretched when the clinic had the correct dilator.
I can’t completely explain why I didn’t make a follow-up appointment. I was squeamish and scared of addressing what might be a problem with my body, and I thought J and I could work it out together. I had told J what happened and, from his understanding, everything would be fine with extra lubrication.
I don’t even remember our wedding night. I can’t fully recollect any of our attempts to have intercourse, aside from knowing that every try was incredibly painful. The more I tried to grin and bear it, the more impossible it became.
So, in the months of being newly married, my husband and I fooled around in other ways, including oral sex. I felt terribly guilty. My self-esteem plummeted. I searched online some more for answers. It seemed like my problem was more than just needing to be stretched. It was impossible for me to handle the pain of penetration. Even my husband using just his fingers was too painful. And I hated Astroglide, or anything like it, with a blazing passion, because such lubricants made my vagina and labia feel like they were on fire.
Eventually, I read about a condition called vaginismus.
Back then, articles about the condition made it sound so challenging that I felt hopeless about overcoming it. Somehow, not having penetrative sex became our normal. We didn’t really talk about: I felt too guilty, and he didn’t really press the issue.
I don’t even remember our wedding night.
We were married for about two and a half years. My life languished in that marriage. We lived in family housing on campus at Southwestern Illinois University, in Edwardsville. J went to school and worked. I didn’t work because I didn’t know how to drive, and he never really wanted to teach me. I was gaining weight and struggling with inexplicable cystic acne. It was miserable. I applied for a job at a local toy shop, hoping that would help change my outlook, but they didn’t call me back after my interview. I was a smart girl with a strong work history, so I felt sure that my weight and inflamed skin were keeping people from seeing the real me.
I wasn’t just unhappy with myself — I was unhappy with J. We were growing apart, and changing fast. I was mad at him because he wanted to sit around watching MTV reality shows and listen to conservative talk radio while I had no patience for either. I felt trapped, like I was married to this roommate who grated on all of my nerves. We would argue like children. I still feel guilty about it because J got more than he bargained for. I knew I was an awful wife, but I didn’t know how to change any of our problems. Because I still carried so much Christian shame, I thought I would be damned if we got divorced.
Because we didn’t have health insurance, I asked my father to help me with finding a doctor in Minnesota. I thought that getting to the bottom of my health conditions — my acne and weight gain — would help with my depression and with my marriage. But I didn’t go to the gynecologist he suggested, which I think reflects how utterly hopeless I felt about my vaginismus. And I didn’t go to anyone about my depression. I was still a Christian and, back then, good Christians didn’t go on antidepressants.
Because I still carried so much Christian shame, I thought I would be damned if we got divorced.
I went away for a couple of months. J called me everyday and was so sweet that I truly missed him. He drove to Minnesota in December to bring me back to Illinois. After Christmas, we moved into an apartment above a Chinese restaurant — but everything felt off.
J took up smoking but tried to hide it from me. He always smelled like smoke and I’d find cigarettes and receipts for cigarettes in the car. I told him that I wasn’t stupid, that I didn’t like being lied to because even as bad a wife as I was, I was always honest. In fact, I even told him as soon as I knew I was unhappy and feeling like the love was gone. I thought talking it out could have helped. Instead, it hurt his feelings and he wasn’t willing to discuss it.
J started coming home late and making up lame excuses, like that he’d fallen asleep somewhere else. To be fair, he had narcolepsy, but I knew that wasn’t the issue. We shared a cell phone; text messages or voicemails started coming in from his high-school girlfriend. Not explicitly romantic, but definitely questionable. They had reconnected through Facebook and he told me it was no big deal. But despite how much he denied it, I knew they had begun seeing each other.
Less than a month after he brought me back to Illinois, he came home three hours late from work. It was his birthday. While I waited for his return, I called his work and was told he no longer worked there. When he arrived, he offered up more ridiculous excuses; I can’t even remember what they were anymore.
It may have been the day after his birthday or a couple of days later, but J finally came partially clean. He scribbled a note on a paper plate telling me he no longer wanted to be married to me and put the plate in our mailbox.
In. The. Mailbox.
That was my first experience of feeling, in the same moment, both true heartbreak and immense relief. I was heartbroken that he had an affair and lied about it, and, to make things worse, shoved a paper plate breakup note into our mailbox. But I was relieved that he was the one to end our unconsummated marriage. J drove me back to Minnesota and I started my life over. My mother accused me of having a sexual hangup (perversion) and told people she was afraid I was a lesbian.