Author: Tsara Shelton
Published: 31st Jan 2023
Peer-Reviewed Publication: N/A
Additional References: Tsara's Column Publications
Summary: Three women with separate stories of sexual issues and discoveries.
Vaginismus causes the muscles around the vagina to tighten involuntarily, which causes discomfort and/or pain. It usually occurs when the genital area is touched and can happen before sexual intercourse, before inserting a tampon, or before a pelvic exam.
Also known as 'the change of life', menopause is the end of menstration in a woman's life. It is a natural occurence at the end of the reproductive years, and is generally accompanied by a variety of symptoms: hot flashes, sleep problems, mood changes, irregular periods, weight gain, vaginal dryness and more.
Anhedonia is the inability to feel pleasure. Sexual anhedonia, also known as pleasure dissaciative orgasmic disorder, is a condition in which an individual cannot feel pleasure from an orgasm. The sex drive and arousal can still be there, men still ejaculate and women still suspect they are reaching orgasm, but they are unable to feel pleasure from it.
Empathy for ourselves and others grows when we experience stories. It is with this in mind I share three stories of women I know who taught me things I didn't.
I am not a woman with many friends. I have close relationships that are meaningful to me, relationships that I am not fully myself without, but only a few.
This is how I like it. I have been quite purposeful in designing my social self. I am happy alone, and I am happy in the company of these close others.
Alone I am free to think in any direction. In good company my thinking, though still free, is involved with the thinking of at least one other. It is encouraged to add unexpected, perhaps otherwise never considered, experiences and ideas to itself.
Hence, though I love being alone, I become more when I also spend time with others.
It is a few of these others I want to tell you about now, in hopes that you might also become more.
When Dawn was a teenager she was chronically complimented on her sexy body. She was cute. She was brilliant. She was clever and funny. She was caring, deeply so. She was talented and impressively independent. These were all things we noticed about her, and mentioned to her, but it was how kick ass sexy her body was that we commented on the most. I can’t speak for others but in my case I thought it was a nice honest compliment. I also mentioned it most because as a teenager myself I was hyper aware that I didn’t have her body. Oh, mine was fine. But it wasn’t like hers.
It was not our fault that she became anorexic, that she would sometimes hide her body because of the comments, sometimes let it show because of the comments, almost never get to just be herself among friends because too many were either commenting, judging, envying, wanting. Teenagers are not good at just being or letting others just be. Dawn probably both despised her sexiness and feared losing it.
It was not our fault, but we were complicit.
Dawn was never the type to date casually. She had a small number of boyfriends who she loved and was loyal to.
During those years, though, her body was violated. Mostly by comments and leering stares, but also people touched and abused what was not theirs to touch.
However, I don’t think it was until later in life, after becoming a wife and a mother, that vaginismus developed in earnest. Consistent and extremely painful.
Vaginismus is the body's automatic reaction to fear of something penetrating the vagina. The vaginal muscles tighten on their own and penetration becomes painful. For Dawn, it manifested as pain upon penetration in her vagina by a penis.
She had not heard of vaginismus. All she knew was sex had become too painful and she either had to grit her teeth and allow it (she is so deeply caring) or ask her husband to engage in different non-penetrative pleasures. This sounds simple enough.
Even in a relationship that is mutually loving and caring, talking about our sexual needs, kinks, pains, fears, or curiosities can be awkward. And in some relationships it can be frightening, even traumatizing.
So, I do know Dawn talked to her husband and he did listen, but I don’t know how long she went without saying anything, without understanding her own pain, without searching for a way to deeply care about herself.
I also have no idea if Dawn’s history of being sexy has any relevance to her development of vaginismus. But I know the history, I know the way people noticed and commented, I know the shame she felt over how her sexiness was treated. So it is not inconceivable that the shame (a common element in the development of vaginismus) began there and evolved into something extremely personal to Dawn.
Something she is now patiently and beautifully working through.
Vaginismus: Vaginismus causes the muscles around the vagina to tighten involuntarily. This can cause some pain and discomfort. Vaginismus can occur whether you have had sex or not. Vaginismus usually occurs when the genital area is touched. This can be before sexual intercourse, before trying to insert a tampon, or during a gynaecological examination, for example. (Definition from: https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/vaginismus )
Marley has been married to her high school sweetheart for over thirty years. Together they have raised three sons, built a few businesses, traveled the country both separately and together. Through it all they’ve maintained a comfortable, fun, and free sex life. They have worked through a variety of sexual challenges and emotional hardships, of course. Always, though, a healthy and exciting sex life has been both their blessing and priority.
Many things can cause interruptions and hiccups in a romance. Parenting, finances, and medications are a few common nonsexual issues that often bleed into our sexual lives. These and more my friend and her husband have come across. With patience and a willingness to seek ideas from others they have always managed to find their way back or forge a new way. They believe it is doable and worth it.
Lately, it is age. Along with other age-related changes affecting both my friend and her husband, menopause has dealt my friend a sexual blow. The changes we know to expect (vaginal dryness, hot flashes, mood shifts, sleep challenges) aren’t as simple to address as expected. My friend has been near tears trying to get across just how REAL the feelings are and how insidious they can be. And I confess, because I feel the whisper of menopause calling me into it’s embrace, I’m listening in a special way.
The most impressive thing I’m learning from her is: attitude. Yes, she has been seeking, trying, and sharing with me a variety of solutions for a variety of symptoms, and I am taking note. But it is her style I want to remember most. It is her style I wish the world could adopt.
She isn’t shy about how much she enjoys sex with her husband, or how important it is to her that they are able to have such great sex for as long as they can, yet she also never puts her private life on display. She is considerably private in that way and it’s beautiful. She isn’t shy about the joys and challenges of the activity, but she keeps the intimacy for her and her husband alone.
It is a balance I believe in with all my heart. Be candid about sex. Be honest about the emotional, physical, confusing challenges it can present. Be forgiving and inclusive and clear about what is and what isn’t safe, kind, sexy. Encourage sexual growth and exploration and be open to both guiding and being guided.
But, also, sex is private. It is intimate. Sex should be accessible, not an ambush.
Also, I love that her attitude about sex after menopause is an adventurous one. She sees doctors, asks close friends for ideas, reads and listens to people who have been through it and have found answers. She does not sit in sadness or remorse for what she has lost but rather wears an attitude of discovery and treasure seeking. Not by pretending it isn’t a hardship but by confessing the hardships and examining them. She tries natural remedies and hormone shots. She pays attention to her body and talks and plays with her husband as they adventure together knowing that, eventually, they will find where X marks the spot!
In partnership with her husband, they engage in honest intimate communication. It’s not always simple, they do have to be brave at times, but they are practiced. They know how to have these conversations and they know they’re worth it.
When it comes to sex, we could all learn from my friend and her husband. A healthy fulfilling exciting sex life is something that changes over time and is worth continually pursuing. If you have it and then lose it, don’t presume you cannot have it again. Don’t be afraid to admit you need ideas or help. Don’t be ashamed when you are having problems in the bedroom. Shame and sex should never go together unless it’s the game you are playing. Be brave and honest. Be adventurous and resourceful. Be uninhibited. Be careful. Be true to your own values and morals.
Menopause: Menopause, also known as ‘the change of life’, is the end of menstruation (having periods) in a woman’s life. It is a natural occurrence at the end of the reproductive years, just as the first period during puberty was the start. (Definition from: https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/conditionsandtreatments/menopause)
As many of us are, she was curious. What is this between my legs? She took a still picture of it with a family camera and was yelled at, called dirty, told it was nasty to play with or display her parts. Yelled at by a mother who was probably trying to scare her, even shame her, into being safe. She was about eight at the time.
Over the years more moments with similar messages occurred. Sexualized touching, looking, and comments from some of the people around her as she grew; stories of sickening sex-crazed men and the shame of trampy women from others. Along the way she grew to hate men so passionately it is almost an obsession. As a young adult some of her favourite stories are ones where women manipulate, and even murder, men.
Conversations with her can be challenging for me because I have four sons. They are men and I adore them. But the points Margaret holds onto so tightly are not entirely untrue. Like any good conspiracy theory, she takes truth and mixes it up into a mess of confusion and creates a lie in conclusion.
Men are not - as she argues they are - walking around looking for someone to rape, or holding themselves back because they want to rape but know they should not, or helping a woman out only because he thinks she might then give him sex. This is not the measure of men.
But it is true, men do this. Using that as fuel for her hate and ammunition for her arguments keeps the focus there. Not only her focus, but the focus of conversations with her.
Margaret struggles, also, with the idea of sex. She feels it’s icky and shameful but also believes women should enjoy sex, should have the right to be sexy when they want and explore their sexuality. She herself tries to enjoy sex when alone and wants to one day enjoy sex with a partner.
When alone she can get excited, but she has not yet been able to experience an orgasm.
She has wondered if it is shame, fear of addiction, fear of her sounds carrying, that keeps the pleasure from being hers. But after a few years of purposely exploring herself, her worries, her body, and her mind, she has a different idea.
She suspects she has sexual anhedonia.
Sexual anhedonia is a disorder where the person cannot feel pleasure from an orgasm.
This, from what I know of her and the disorder, makes sense.
If she is struggling with anhedonia, for how long has it been influencing her feelings about sex? Informing her curiosity and desire which is mixed with ickiness and shame? She is able to get excited, to feel a sort of building toward a promise, but the orgasm – if it arrives – does not bring the much talked about pleasure.
I wonder, how might this also influence her feelings about men?
My mom was part of a clinical trial where she took extra testosterone, and it was eye opening. She felt such strong sexual urges, and she felt slightly violent and angry, and we wondered how much like a boy going through puberty those feelings were. Empathy grows from experiencing the stories of others.
If pleasure is never yours from sex, and you have been taught to see men as mainly sex crazed, it would be challenging to respect them holistically.
And if you are taught from your youngest years that women need to hide themselves or they will be controlled and raped by men, how could you not hate them?
She is young. Still in the early stages of gathering and learning from experiences. It is my hope she discovers pleasure, and lets go of some hate, as she continues to explore herself and the world.
Sexual anhedonia: Sexual anhedonia, also known as pleasure dissociative orgasmic disorder, is a condition in which an individual cannot feel pleasure from an orgasm. The sexual drive and arousal can still be there, men still ejaculate and women still suspect they’re reaching orgasm, but they are unable to feel pleasure from it.
Despite it being true that I have few friends, I do have yet more friends who are living with sexual challenges. One friend of mine with cerebral palsy considers going back to the man who hits her because he at least sees her as a sexual woman, another friend of mine has herpes and – though she really wants to date and often is interested in someone – she is so uncomfortable about her herpes that she avoids potential dates and cries about a future alone.
It’s not that I have a habit of making friends who have sexual issues. It’s just most of us have sexual issues now and then that we might want to work through. This is why I think it’s so important to find a balance, like my friend, between being open as well as private. Seeing too much sex without the complex and honest context merely feeds the insecurities and issues we have to work through. Superficial images and stories of sex can be dangerously misleading and misinformed. Sophistication in this area is necessary, and sexy. Finding a balance between talking about sex freely and keeping sex private is worth doing. It is why I love the idea of this Sexual Diversity site. It is here to discuss diversity in sex without ambushing visitors with sex itself. We won’t always get it right in everyone’s view, but the pursuit is worthy.
The stories of these three women are not complete, are not good representations of who the women are, are not even exactly true (I wrote them, they didn’t) but they are honest.
(I wonder how Margaret would feel about men if she knew more of their honest stories?)
Three different women.
Three honest stories.
Keep them coming.
Tsara Shelton, author of Spinning in Circles and Learning From Myself, is a contributing editor to SexualDiversity.org Tsara's personal blog can be found at tsarashelton.com Keep up to date with Tsara's latest writings by following @TsaraShelton on Twitter.
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• (APA): Tsara Shelton. (2023, January 31). A Tale of Three Women: Vaginismus, Menopause, and Sexual Anhedonia. SexualDiversity.org. Retrieved September 23, 2023 from www.sexualdiversity.org/tsara/1137.php
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