Living with a sexual dysfunction at Queen’s

My vulvodynia made me wish for a more inclusive university hookup culture

Vulvodynia is a sexual dysfunction which makes vaginal penetration extremely painful.

At the end of my third year of undergrad, I was diagnosed with vulvodynia, a form of sexual dysfunction which makes vaginal penetration extremely painful. Working through this over the summer and the first half of the school year was a difficult emotional experience that made me realize how damaging the hookup culture can be at Queen’s.

Taking a first stride to start exploring sex in my first year at Queen’s, I bought a small, basic vibrator from the Sexual Health Resource Centre (SHRC). When I used it, I was met with an intense burning, stinging pain at my vaginal entrance.

I knew it was normal for women to feel pain the first few times they experienced penetration, but the pain persisted with time, and I didn’t know who to turn to for help.  During future relationships, I wanted to have sex but the thought of it caused me a lot of anxiety—if just being penetrated by a small sex toy was so painful it brought me to tears, I couldn’t imagine what sex would be like. I also didn’t want my partners to think something was wrong with me.

If just being penetrated by a small sex toy was so painful it brought me to tears, I couldn’t imagine what sex would be like. 

When the problem didn’t go away after a couple of years, I nervously took the step to seek help.

Student Wellness Services referred me to Cassie Dionne, a pelvic floor physiotherapist at Taylored Training Physiotherapy, who diagnosed me with vulvodynia. According to Cassie, penetrative sex becomes painful when the pelvic floor muscles are overactive or in a constant state of contraction. She told me that this can lead to a “complex psychological pain cycle where, after penetration has been painful, our brain recalls this feeling and then resists [penetration] in the future because of the painful memory.” She also told me that painful penetration is experienced by nearly one in 10 women, with approximately one-quarter of those women being unable to have penetrative sex due to the pain.

Vulvodynia is treated with breathing exercises and stretches to relax the pelvic floor muscles along with the use of vaginal dilators. These exercises combined take about 45 to 60 minutes, and I was instructed to do them every day. While I was glad that my disorder was treatable, it was upsetting to learn that it would take a lot of time and effort to work through it, and that sex wouldn’t be a possibility for a long time. It was difficult to make time for all my exercises every day, working full-time in the summer and then with classes beginning in September. 

Being unable to have sex made me realize the extent to which I was surrounded by hookup culture at Queen’s, from the steamy revelations on the QU Confessions Instagram page to games of “Never Have I Ever” at parties. Though hookup culture had never particularly bothered me up to that point, knowing sex wasn’t a possibility until I worked through my treatment made me increasingly sensitive to it. I became so preoccupied with wanting to lose my virginity that it took a serious toll on my self-esteem and mental health.

Despite finding a casual partner this summer who was sympathetic about my condition and willing to engage in non-penetrative sexual activities with me, I felt that not having penetrative sex made me childish, unsexy, and defective. I feared that partners would get bored of me. I became angry and frustrated at myself on days when I couldn’t find time for my exercises or when I felt like I wasn’t progressing. 

I felt that not having penetrative sex made me childish, unsexy, and defective.

My coworkers over the summer, all Queen’s students, talked excessively about their sex lives, leaving me unable to participate in the conversation and worried that they would respect me less if they knew I was a virgin. It was also hurtful hearing virgin-shaming jokes from friends who were unaware of my condition. 

I grew to detest the word “virgin.” Having experienced non-penetrative sexual activities, I was unsure if I defined myself as one, but felt that others wouldn’t ‘count’ my experience unless it included penetrative sex. I disliked the derogatory nature of the term, and felt that still being a virgin was something shameful that I needed to conceal.

Loneliness during my treatment process was another issue. My housemates offered me support, but I had no one to talk to who could truly relate to the difficulties I was going through. This sparked envy over the fact that my friends got to experience good, roadblock-free sex lives. I felt irritated when my housemates discussed their sex lives or even showed displays of affection with their significant others. To escape this, I spent less time around the house, which only added to my feelings of isolation. 

I often wonder what caused my vulvodynia. Sex was rarely discussed in my house growing up, and the messages I gleaned, though implicit, were primarily negative. I got the idea that sex was only for marriage or lengthy committed relationships, and that wearing revealing clothing or engaging in sexual activity was wrong and “slutty” for young women. Despite these attitudes, I remained curious about sex, making me feel conflicted.

When I arrived at Queen’s and sex became more normalized for me, I became ready to explore my own sexuality. However, it took work to undo the values I internalized growing up, and I wonder if those contributed to my sexual dysfunction.

Being on the other side, I found several silver linings to working through vulvodynia. First, I was forced to deal with my perception that being desirable equated to having penetrative sex. I found other ways to feel sexy: joining Diva Bootcamp, a class offered by the Queen’s Dance Club, and practicing body positivity techniques I learned from reading Come As You Are, a helpful book about female sexuality by Emily Nagoski. 

Second, the treatment process helped me better understand my body and become more comfortable communicating with others about my sexuality.

Third, I learned the value of being kind to myself. When my physiotherapist stressed the role of psychology in my disorder, I worked to reduce the frustration I felt at my slow progress by praising myself for what progress did occur. I focused on non-sexual traits that make me feel confident and worthy, such as my artwork or ability to play piano, helping me change my perception on the importance of losing my virginity. While I often wished I had the support of a boyfriend during my treatment, I’m ultimately glad that I learned to be my own cheerleader.

Sexual health education should teach women the signs of sexual dysfunction, especially considering the high prevalence of vulvodynia, and good sexual communication skills. If I had been more comfortable talking about the issues I was experiencing, and knew what signs to look for, I would have gotten help years sooner.

If I had been more comfortable talking about the issues I was experiencing, and knew what signs to look for, I would have gotten help years sooner.

As a society, we should be more careful about the messages we teach women about sex, as these can affect sexual functioning. We should also avoid passing judgement on those who don’t partake in sex, because they could be struggling with a condition like mine. While sexual dysfunction is fairly common, it’s difficult to open a conversation about the topic in an environment where hookup culture is so pervasive.  

While we’ve come far in terms of empowering women to take control of their sexuality, experiences like mine show that there’s still a long way to go.

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