I like sex. I’m happy when campus centres give out free condoms, and I can take down any parent advocating for abstinence-only education before you can say the word ‘bondage.’ 

What I can’t do is actually have sex.

Rather, I can’t have sex without taking 20 deep breaths, being in a good headspace, and doing visualization exercises centred around the image of a flower blooming. The only mindblowing thing about the sex I have is the power of my vagina to create an impeneratable wall of anxiety. 

Sex has always scared me. A good therapist may suggest that a good deal of it stems back to my mother making my brother and I repeat the phrase “sex before marriage leads to poverty and suffering” from the time we could talk. 

But I thought I’d moved beyond that.I’ve questioned my mother, read Cosmopolitan, and along the way, created my own sex-positive perspective. Yet, the first time anyone tried to stick a penis in my vagina, I screamed, cried, and stopped everything before it started. I had always assumed that the only obstacle to sex I’d ever face was whether any partner could want me — never did I consider that my body would physicially reject the process.

I became obsessed with finding the answer to this problem. Every article I read in my search for answers told me to relax, use lube, and understand that sex could hurt. Believe me, I understood. But I knew that “could hurt” had to mean something different from the gut-wrenching unpleasantness I had experienced. 

Most upsetting to me at the time of this monumental ‘sex-covery,’ was that it felt like I was creating a border between myself and a boy I assumed I was in love with. I was unable to be as vulnerable as I wanted to be. We had done all the relationship foreplay. I had laid in his arms on a quiet Sunday; I had told him that when I was alone, I was worried I’d be alone forever; he had made me waffles randomly one singular time. We were perfect candidates for amazing sex! 

But at the time, I never examined what my wall was. I assumed if I just stopped squirming, it would subside. 

When I was 16, I thought I found a way to heal the squirming. I drank alcohol until my body didn’t feel real, held my breath, and focused as hard as I could on the music — mostly a disturbing amount of Elton John — until it was over. Though I figured out how to have sex, the pit in my stomach that manifested in my vagina hadn’t gone away through magic, lube, or breathing.

The technical term for the uncontrollable tightening of the vaginal muscles during penetration is vaginismus. Vaginismus happens due to a feeling of anxiousness around sex, and it seems like it can be brought about by trauma or the alignment of the stars on the day you were born. Vaginismus is officially supposed to go away with physical therapy, behavioural therapy, or dilators. 

For years, I assumed this was a problem so specific to me that there was no solution. When I learned the technical term for it, I read other people’s stories and felt less alone. Most comforting was the reassurance that I had not, in fact, ‘destroyed’ my ability to have sex when I broke my hymen on a waterslide at Disney World.

In the end, I’ve found being honest with my partner about my condition, taking time before having sex, and knowing that having penetrative sex is not the be-all-end-all of our relationship has helped me manage it the most. I’m not failing to be vulnerable; I simply need more time and effort to be ready for comfortable penetration. 

In all honesty, I can’t say that I’ve figured out how to override what is for some reason my first sexual instinct. Sex is a struggle — a struggle I fear greatly. Use this article as a disclaimer that in no way do I have the answers. 

What I do have is a perspective that I hope makes some people feel less alone. It’s okay to be sex-positive and also be anxious about sex. Whether it’s vaginismus or a general dread at the thought of romping around in the sheets, you’re not alone. You’re not undermining your beliefs by taking more time before you do the deed.