When Sex Won’t Work

When my first boyfriend literally couldn’t penetrate me, I assumed we were just doing it wrong. But I was actually living with a rare and confounding condition that made sex impossible.

When Sex Won’t Work

Having developed a paranoia-inducing “Law & Order” obsession, I used to imagine a medical examiner describing my thirty-two-year old corpse: “No, there are no signs of a sexual assault. The victim is a virgin.” Da dum dum.

I didn’t make love to the first boy I made out with — not when I was sixteen, as we kissed on a stone high-school bench; not six years later; or when the two of us lounged in the turquoise seascape of our Turkish Riviera honeymoon; and not at any time in between.

We tried dozens of times to have sex, but I was impenetrable. Romantic, lusty, playful, slow: Neither setting nor method seemed to make a dent. He’d conquered lovers before me, but I was a fortress.

I wondered if my conservative Hindu upbringing could have made me fearful of intimacy. I devoured Anaïs Nin and Henry Miller, admired the erotic Hindu temple sculptures of Khajuraho, and earned hundreds of frequent-shopper points at Victoria’s Secret. I was curious about sex, but my own body seemed to be vehemently against it.

Couple’s therapy, to deal with our disaster in the bedroom, flopped. We began to find ways to avoid each other. In public, I played the role of a gregarious and impassioned feminist artist, just starting my art career. At home, my body rejected what my heart desired.

In therapy, I confessed I’d never consummated my four-year marriage. My therapist sent me to an experienced gynecologist, to whom I confessed that I’d never endured tampons, intercourse, or pelvic exams. Whenever I tried, it would be fine for the first centimeter, and then my body would shut down and squeeze tight. After my first exam with the new gynecologist, the doctor she sat me down and said, “Nothing is physically wrong with your anatomy.“ She asked if I’d ever heard the word vaginismus —involuntary contractions in the vaginal opening that make penetration, in my case, impossible. At last, I had a name for what was happening. As I learned about the condition, I discovered it could be the result of trauma, fear of penetration or pregnancy, or cultural taboos on female sexuality — there was no definitive cause, and it could happen at any age or any stage of a woman’s sexual life. For example, some women experience vaginismus after childbirth. Unfortunately, the diagnosis arrived too late to save our marriage.

Finalizing the end should have been straightforward: no property, no children to fight over (obviously) and no consummation. We would have qualified for an annulment, but the label terrified me. To have an annulment would be admitting I was a sexual failure. A divorce would be admitting things didn’t work out. I was oddly thrilled when the divorce papers were signed: I could keep my secret.

I emerged into the post-divorce-apocalypse of New York City a twenty-seven-year-old neophyte who had never been on a first date. Feeling branded with an invisible “V,” I worried I would never feel the confidence exuded by other New York women — on the small screen and in my life —never build a fulfilling relationship with a man, and never bear the children I desperately wanted.

Close friends and family counseled me to just “get back out there.” How was that even possible?

When I did, I met an Italian epicure. He was romantically inexperienced; I was physically inexperienced. He surprised me by baking chocolate lava cakes while I was washing my hair in the shower. Wounds from the harsh words and humiliations of my marriage were fresh, so I sought solace in kindness and those fudgy pastries. My heart and waistline grew. Yet progress on the sexual front was still slow.

The epicure had to move to California to care for his ill sister. Our relationship continued long-distance while I was waitlisted for an appointment at the Women’s Therapy Center, a specialized practice with two female doctors in Long Island. The timing seemed tragic. Just as I identified the treatment I needed and had the strength to pursue it, the Italian was far away.


Alone, I went to appointments and used “dilators” (dildos, actually) of increasing size, from the first one, which looked like a pinky finger, to the last one, which looked like a prop in an adult movie. The physical therapist helped me retrain muscles, while the psychologist advised, “Relax. Instead of thinking ‘painful,’ think ‘different’ and ‘new.’” Midway through the therapy course, I began to use muscle relaxants just before the physical therapy. Even so, I feared I wouldn’t be ready by Valentine’s Day weekend, when the Italian was coming to visit.

The day he arrived, we had a therapy session together. The doctors told him, “Now, this intercourse, it is not to be the longest. Short and sweet is perfectly sufficient.”

That sufficiency took three nights, two calls to the clinic, and medication. Focused on managing my own sensations (relax, different, new), I underestimated how much pressure he would be under. I was working so hard not to tense that I almost missed the key moment, and couldn’t remember it even immediately afterward.

The act lasted just a few minutes. His visit was a few days. Our relationship ended two weeks later — a silent decision at which we had both arrived. I wrote him a letter thanking him for his kindness and acceptance, for changing my life, but acknowledging that long-distance was too difficult.

My first “real” affair was with a married man I met at the Casablanca airport. Our flight to New York had been delayed, and I helped him use a phone card. He was planning to visit New York at the end of the summer, so we exchanged email addresses.

Six weeks of phone calls, photographs, and poetry served as a preamble to his visit. I was not his first tryst. On the first night, in perfectly flowing Senegalese-accented French, he read me a poem he’d written and then finally, fully deflowered me, twice, as if he knew to make sure it happened. Two nights later, I dropped him off at the airport. It was the last time I saw him.

I wanted to get busy, to put some notches in my belt. But in my search I found a stalker, three creeps and an assaulter, and slept with none of them. How was it that I made better dating choices when I was a virgin? After setting up an online dating profile, I decided to take a break. I lost forty pounds on a detox diet and went on a sculpture-making binge. Creating my bravest work to date, I thought a lot about love, as I strung a decade of love letters I had sent to and received from my ex-husband into birdcages. I had also transcribed text messages and emails from six years of dating into hand-written scrolls. With both the original love letters and the scrolled text messages, I used red thread that evoked Hindu rituals. What would these fragments of sentences reveal about what my life had been? Alone by choice and finally freed from obsessing about sex, my artistic energy bloomed.

"Particle Accelerator 1" by Swati Khurana
“Particle Accelerator 1” by Swati Marquez

Just before my membership expired, a handsome man “winked.” I winked back. We exchanged emails, mine to a private address without my real name. Two weeks later, I called him, blocking my number. We spoke on multiple phones with dying batteries for six hours that day, culminating in a sushi-and-stroll date. A second-generation Puerto Rican Bronxite, he had broad shoulders and a confident stride, while I teetered in small heels on cobblestones. Looking up at him, I hoped his self-assurance would be contagious.

One month later, he called me his girlfriend. But I was distraught, as we hadn’t done much more than kiss. He didn’t know my story. When I did confide in him about my past, I assured him, “This is a lot to deal with. No hard feelings if you decide this is not for you.” I asked if he had any questions.

“Would this affect your ability to bear children?” he wanted to know. “Not that it would matter. There are other options.”

I loved that he was thinking of me as a “normal” woman with whom he might start a family. Looking into his eyes, I strove to become the self-assured woman reflected back. Relaxed. Different. New. When he whispered that he was falling in love with me, I felt my body loosen. Finally, I experienced the full joy — not just the pain or relief — of intimacy.

Two years later, I was pregnant. At our wedding, wrapping my red sari calmly, holding my bright, casual bouquet of sunflowers over my growing belly, I was a much different bride the second time around.


I was giddy, finally feeling free of dysfunction. I imagined all my exes saw me, gliding like a Russian figure skater, in a perfect empire-waisted Grecian gown, protruding belly, cascading hair, and glowing skin. “You? Pregnant?” they would ask. “Yes!” I would say, blowing kisses.

That euphoria was a glimmer, soon replaced by a new reality. After my amniocentesis, when the genetic counselor told me I was having a daughter, the terror returned.

How would I summon the emotional capacity to parent a girl, given my own shame? What if I passed my dysfunctions on to her? Could I handle childbirth, or would that be another impossibility?

My obstetrician, who knew my history, thought that trying for a vaginal delivery would be best for my own healing. I wanted that victory desperately. After five days of inactive labor at home, forty hours of active labor at the hospital, and three hours of pushing, my daughter was born.

When I saw her face, I felt in awe of my body.

The first time I put her in her bassinet, I whispered, “I’ve always wanted you, before you were even possible.”