After how many dates do you bring up the medical condition that prevents you from having vaginal intercourse?
I was supposed to be at the restaurant in 30 minutes. I opened our text conversation and, for the fifth time in a half hour, typed then deleted my excuse for canceling on him. I scolded myself for thinking I wanted to date. I looked in the mirror and tried to regain my composure.
I imagined what it would be like to tell this cute, blue-eyed stranger that no matter how loud he made me laugh or how attentively he listened to my childhood stories, I may never be able to have sex with him. I felt like I was going to be sick. I pushed the thought out of my head, erased the text, grabbed my keys, and walked out the door. There was no turning back now.
Dating isn’t easy for anyone, I assume. But it feels a lot more complicated when you’re a straight woman with medical conditions that prevent you from having vaginal intercourse. When, exactly, was I supposed to bring that up? Women’s magazines and online advice columns never taught me how to handle this.
As I parked my car, I could feel beads of sweat dotting the back of my neck. When I met his eyes in the restaurant, my anxiety skyrocketed. All I could do, during our routine discussion of our jobs and our interests, was nod my head at the right times and laugh when it seemed appropriate. The cocktail menu boasted a tequila drink “known for making your clothes fall off.” My date made a joke about it. My hands started to shake. I barely remember the rest of the night but I do remember that I never heard from him again.
Up until then, my sex life had been defined by the question “What’s wrong with me?” About two years ago, I was given an answer. I was diagnosed with endometriosis, vulvodynia, and vaginismus—aka Vagina Problems. The diagnosis means a lot of things for my reproductive organs, but the main takeaway is that my genitals are often in a lot of pain—inside and out—and especially when penetrated. I may never have sex and I will have pain in that area indefinitely.
My “sexual experience” consisted of doctors poking and prodding me and men looking disappointed at me for something I couldn’t explain or help. My doctors told me I could have a sexual experience in other ways. But I never bothered to ask them how that would work when I flinched at the mere touch of a man. They told me there was more to relationships than just sex. I figured that was pretty easy to say when you were able to have sex.
In the past two years—in the hopes of alleviating my pain—I have been to physical therapy, psychological therapy, and started support groups. I have slept with ice on my vagina, tried electric shock therapy and acupuncture, brought my heating pad with me everywhere I go, and used a dilator every morning before work. I have tried to cut out red meat, given up gluten, signed up for more yoga classes, and bought exclusively cotton underwear. I also started to date again.
I’d had boyfriends in high school and dated some in college, and I enjoyed it. I was as shocked and disappointed as they were when—after happily rounding first and second bases—the actual sex stuff turned out to be so excruciating for me. And the pain and humiliation of my first two attempts at sex made the prospect of any kind of intimacy (even self-exploration) extremely unappealing. In fact, by the time I was diagnosed, I recoiled even when a man flirtatiously touched my arm or complimented me in a suggestive way.
Over the years, people have been quick to write off my vaginal pain conditions as me being a tease or as anxiety stemming from past sexual trauma. But who wouldn’t be anxious about having sex when it had been so traumatic every single time I tried?
It doesn’t help that, since I last had a boyfriend, the line between dating and dating app–enabled casual sex has become very thin. When I say I started dating, really it was just joining Tinder. I work full-time and after work usually head straight home to watch reality TV, so Tinder seemed like the only way to meet someone in Los Angeles. As I swiped left and right one evening after another while lying alone in my bed, I felt the pit in my stomach grow. I wasn’t sure what I wanted, other than to feel like a normal 23-year-old going on dates.
I studied each guy’s five-picture collection and tried to look for clues in them as to whether or not they would be accepting of my issues. Each match made me panic as I imagined explaining my situation to someone. Should I tell him upfront? On the first date? Over text? After several dates? Was it unfair to hide it? When it actually came time to plan a date, I almost always made up an excuse.
There was a possibility I could climax in other ways. As several friends and fellow sufferers over the years had pointed out, oral sex exists. But the feeling of arousal was so often accompanied by emotional distress that I never wanted to try. I could hardly even listen to friend’s stories of sexual escapades without feeling like my stomach was going to fall out of my body. All I could think about was the disappointment that I would cause and the disappointment that I would feel after yet another failed dating attempt. I wanted to date and feel normal, but the problem was that I wasn’t normal…not in the sexual sense anyway.
It was a Saturday night, and I had somehow convinced myself to go on another date. My eyelashes were still damp from the tears I shed while talking on the phone with my best friend. “I’m just not someone who is supposed to be loved,” I told her. She reminded me my Vagina Problems were not the end of the world and there were ways around them: oral, toys. I believed she was right. But as I sat at the café table with my tea growing cold in front of me, I began to lose faith.
I looked at his big brown eyes through his glasses while he told me about the love he had for his dog. The guy seemed nice enough, but I was so preoccupied with my big secret, I could hardly decide whether or not I liked him. And as I tested the waters for spilling the big secret, I became more and more anxious.
“I get sick a lot,” I said. He looked confused, and changed the subject. I couldn’t blame him. As he walked me to my car, he placed one hand on the small of my back. My body began to shake. He thought I was cold, even though it was a hot night.
When we got to my car, he tried to kiss me. I turned my head, got into my car, and cried the entire way home. I texted him later in a desperate attempt to explain myself.
“Basically, I have a condition that prevents me from having any sort of sex, and I’m still learning how to deal with it…It’s hard to explain.”
“I’m really sorry but I don’t think I can do this,” he said.
I couldn’t either. Since my diagnosis, I suddenly had a lot of baggage, and I was finding it difficult to carry. I no longer felt as if I was worth loving. Writing this now, it seems ridiculous to assume that no one would love me because of something out of my control. But if years of watching TV and reading magazines had taught me anything, it was that men need sex. And when I couldn’t give them that, there were millions of other women who could.
In my mind, I believed there was nothing else about me that made up for the fact that I did not have a functioning vagina. All my girlfriends’ and doctors’ reassurances weren’t enough. I needed a man to tell me that my conditions weren’t a deal breaker. I wanted it so badly I began practically screaming it from the rooftops. I told a guy I went to college with, and one that I’d never met in real life. I told my high school friend, and the guy from my math class. And I also told a man we’ll call T.
I told him about my conditions one day over Gchat. We were co-workers at the time, and strictly just friends. I felt safe coming clean to him because there were no expectations and no hopes of romance. I so desperately wanted a man to know about my conditions and tell me that it wasn’t a deal breaker. He didn’t respond at first, and I immediately closed out of the little chat window and tried to distract myself with Twitter. I heard the familiar ping of Gchat and braced myself.
“I’m so sorry you have to deal with that,” he said. He began to ask me questions about my conditions. I felt tears start to form in my eyes. It wasn’t until months later that we talked about my Vagina Problems again. I went to his department for a two-week stint and found myself on a long photo shoot with him. We were cleaning up after everyone else had left.
“How are you feeling?” he asked. “Have you seen any improvement?” I looked at him, for hints of indifference, but saw only concern. He waited for me to answer, stopping what he was doing to give me his full attention.
“I’m fine,” I replied—a sentence that was both a lie and a wish. I assumed he was asking just to be polite, but he then asked me to explain my conditions to him more.
I told him mostly everything—about how I’d tried dating, and what it felt like to go through shock therapy—leaving out the parts about how I still cried in my bed when a guy made any sexual reference in my presence or how I could barely watch any movie with a sex scene without wanting to break something. And when I was finished, he didn’t run away or look at me in disgust or fear. He carried on like I hadn’t just told him my deepest, darkest secret.
We started texting, and as days turned into weeks, I began to divulge more and more to him. It felt so easy, and I never once felt ashamed. He didn’t press me, but never hesitated to ask for more information. And one day, as we were sitting in my car talking, I looked at him and saw his smile. I thought about his sense of humor, and the way he could make anyone laugh. And I thought about the way he was able to touch me, without laying a finger on me. When he kissed me for the first time in my car before his improv class, I didn’t feel like running away. I felt safe.
I thought I wanted to be able to have pain-free sex. But what I needed was to feel accepted for the way that I am. And being accepted meant being able to have my own kind of sex. It didn’t come easily—there were many failed attempts, lots of shutting down, and countless tears—but each time we began to explore, I felt a little more comfortable.
It wasn’t pushing through the pain to make vaginal intercourse work; we were taking the time to explore each other’s bodies to figure out what did work. It was about going slow, but refusing to give up and realizing there was always another way. We were determined to figure out what worked. And we did.
For years, I believed that pleasure and vaginal sex were synonymous. Sex and the City taught me that women were almost always able to enjoy AND get off from regular ol’ penetration. And when I realized I may never be able to, I felt like less of a woman. I always assumed literally everyone was orgasming from sex except for me, but multiple studies show that only around 25% of women are able to orgasm from vaginal sex alone. Regardless of my medical conditions, I am not alone in this. And when I realized that, it was easier to let my body off the hook.
A lot of people tried to convince me that vaginal intercourse is not all there is to sex. And that sex is not the most important thing in a relationship. They also told me people find love in the most unexpected places, and that when someone loves you—truly loves you—nothing else matters. And now, I finally believe them.
I thought my Vagina Problems would be the thing that tore any of my relationships apart, but in truth it’s brought me and T so much closer. I won’t pretend that finding him guarantees me a happily ever after, but it has shown me that, like everyone, I deserve one.
Sex is just one of many ways to express the intimacy that I found with T. I feel equally close to him when we have our own version of sex, and when we lie down next to each other, holding hands while I use my heating pad.
Lara Parker is a staff member at BuzzFeed.
This originally appeared on Buzzfeed. Republished here with permission.