Let's talk about sex. (+ vaginal pain + patient-provider communication)

My dirty little secret

Here’s a confession: I lied to everyone about how much sex I was having for years.  Surprised? You shouldn’t be.  If you Google “lying to doctor about sex,” you get about 32,100,000 results all encouraging honesty on the topic.  And most of those results tell you to not hide your sexual activity from your doctor.

But mine wasn’t a lie of omission.

For years, my pelvic pain prevented me from having the fun, spontaneous, gloriously cliché 20-something sex that my friends were enjoying. You know – the kind of sex that they gushed about at brunch.  Sex that was breaking their hearts and exhilarating their sense of liberated womanhood and adulthood.  Sex that their doctors were lecturing them about. 

I couldn’t have that kind of sex because my vagina (and vulva and back and thighs) were excruciatingly painful.  That was my dirty little secret.

Because a 20-something without sex is… weird

My inability to have sex caused me an exorbitant amount of emotional pain. 

It distanced me from my friends, since I was embarrassed and felt like I was missing out.  It caused strife between me and my romantic partners.  It made me feel weird.

And then, something really weird happened: I started lying about it.  Looking back in hindsight, the lie echoes of so many mistruths I told while sick.  For example, when I could wear nothing but maxi skirts and defended them as true to my “bohemian, relaxed style” (truth: I much prefer fitted tops and pants in various shades of black). Another example: I needed to drive the ½-mile trip to school because I was poor at time management (truth: the walk was too painful).  And finally, I started just saying that I was having sex.

Ummm. Say what?

My friends were having enough sex (and talking enough about it!) that I knew the lingo.  I essentially retold their stories, recounting how long I’d made one guy wait but how quickly I’d slept with another.  It sounds bizarre, but I actually believed my stories, in a way.  They represented the life I wanted to be living but couldn’t because of my pain.  They represented me more accurately than my actual lived experiences did.

For all the sex I wasn’t having, I actually have pretty liberal views about sex.  I think it should be something that’s a fun, frequent, and liberated part of all ladies’ lives.  Had I been pain-free, I would have been just like my friends.  In spirit, I felt just like them – I just couldn’t participate in the same way.  But, I did date through those years, so it was plausible that I was sexually active.  After a few months of dating, most guys dumped me when I couldn’t wouldn’t sleep with them, but my friends didn’t know that was the reason.  Several times, the guy actually slept with someone else, and that unleashed my friends’ full fury upon them.  See, these guys thought my vagina was open for business too, and that I was just rebuffing them.  Typically, I told them I was having some weird health problem that would go away soon (mind you, I had no idea what was wrong with my body at this point).

The suspicious gynecologists

Enter: gynecologists.  I was perpetually coming or going from a doctor’s office.  And 99% of my gynecologists disbelieved the claims of sexual abstinence from the girl with vaginal pain. 

They made ridiculous assertions: I’d repressed childhood sex abuse memories; I’d been assaulted while drunk at a college party; my vagina was “unusually snug” (yes, my medical chart contains that actual notation).  My discomfort was intensified when I told them that my pain was preventing me from having sex; they chastised me about the importance of honest disclosures to them.  They encouraged me to tell them the truth about my sex life.  Otherwise, how could they help me? 

Faced with a flurry of accusatory questions, I eventually changed my story: “Yes, I’m having sex. But it hurts, so I’ve stopped having it until it doesn’t hurt.”  Now they believed me.  And a strange thing happened: they also believed everything else I said.  They stopped running incessant STD and pregnancy screens, but unfortunately, they also stopped taking my calls.  It should come as no surprise that these wonder-doctors didn’t help me along my road to recovery.

[real!] happy endings

Things are better now.

A sweet guy who eventually became my husband was much kinder about these conversations, and he was the first person one with whom I shared my dirty little secret.  He had incredible compassion for what I’d put myself through – feeling like an outsider for years while I impersonated the healthy, 20-something girl who I longed to be.  The entire story was pitifully sad, and as I recounted the details to him, he dried my tears.

I have also, of course, found a new gynecologist – one whose gentle manner, nothing-will-shock-me glances, and incomparable empathy invite honest conversations.  During the course of one of those recent conversations, he high-fived me when I shared that I’d had sex twice the previous day.  “That’s what you should be doing at your age! That’s normal!”  It was a real, awesome, and honest moment between a provider and his patient.

As for everyone else, I’ve let sleeping dogs lie.  My stories became my imagined experiences as I sat on the sidelines of brunch conversations, my friends’ sexual escapades, and my twenties as a whole.  As strange as it sounds, my period of sexual experimentation was experienced through my friends.  So can I completely abdicate those fabricated stories as lies? No, not really.  Do I feel good about the fact that I lied for all those years? No, not really.

The lesson here, if there is one, is about compassion and pain and empathy.  It’s embarrassing to admit that you can’t do what normal people your age can do.  It’s excruciating to lose partners or friends because your behavior (which you can’t control) is perceived as weird.  And during those years, it would’ve helped just a little bit if my providers hadn’t consistently accused me of lying to them about not having sex.  While the brunch table isn’t always a shame-free place of candid sharing, the doctor’s office should be.  And, perhaps, having just one person to talk to about my very strange and very age-inappropriate experience would’ve helped me feel just a bit more supported.  And that would’ve been awesome.

© 2017 Inspire Santé, NFP