But there was clearly a larger issue at play. I was not in touch with my body, and I didn’t have the language to talk about it — which meant I wasn’t fully aware of or expressing my needs.
Each time I went to a gynecologist’s appointment, I waited until the very last instant — the moment when I was sitting in my gown, waiting for the doctor to open the door — to try and relax. I made it through each exam as best I could (naturally, not very well) and didn’t talk about my discomfort until the next time I needed to schedule an appointment.
And when I did discuss my problem with friends, I usually used humor to skirt around the real issue. In therapy, I finally talked through it, and my therapist suggested that my body was trying to protect itself from what I perceived as harm.
Of course, no one really enjoys the experience of propping up her legs for an examination by a doctor she just met a few minutes earlier — let alone trying to relax and breathe while said doctor uses a cold object to complete an internal exam. But I started to realize that my fear went beyond that uncomfortable situation. I grew up in a strict Catholic family, and I never got a real "sex talk." The only discussion had been a non-discussion: a warning not to get knocked up. Many of my family members had gotten pregnant young, so they repeatedly made sure the girls in our family knew not to make the same mistake.
In high school, my hope of getting a real sex talk in health class was quickly destroyed. I sat in a room packed with uniform-clad girls as a woman showed us slides with photos depicting the effects of STIs on the body. We weren’t taught how to use condoms, and we definitely didn't learn anything about female orgasms or having sex for pleasure. After that, I viewed sex as a scary and dangerous activity — not something to be talked about or explored.
I remained a virgin until I got drunk one night, and one thing led to another. I went through a string of bad relationships and even worse sexual partners. Not everyone was horrible, but I often felt like I couldn’t speak up about my real wants and needs. I didn’t say anything when I was in pain during sex — which was most of the time. Even in a committed relationship with someone I trusted, I started to notice that I would tense up for no reason, and I couldn’t enjoy myself.