By Lead writer: Louise Sloan
Updated: May 11, 2008

woman-manual-sex-bookJamie found her diagnosis in a sex manual.(VEER)Jamie, 26, of Santa Cruz, Calif., experienced vaginismus—involuntary, painful tightening of the vaginal muscles—the very first time she had sex at age 15. "I knew it would hurt to lose my virginity, but the pain was ridiculous," she says. "After about five minutes I was like, 'Ow—OK, neat, we're done now.'" Still, she continued to try sex. For the first couple of minutes it would feel fine, she says, but then she'd start to feel like she was "getting ripped in half."

At first Jamie thought these feelings were normal. "I figured, 'A foreign object is in my body. My body is rejecting it,'" she says. She didn't realize just how big her problem was until, on her 18th birthday, she had sex with her boyfriend and the pain was beyond excruciating: "regular, gentle, 20-minute sex that left me so swollen and in so much pain that I could barely walk."

This time she went to a doctor who, Jamie says, "was afraid to touch anything, because she didn't know what caused it. Had I been stabbed in the vagina? Was the sex violent? She said she'd never seen anything like it, except with women who had just given birth."

More about sexual pain

The doctor told Jamie not to have sex and to come back in two weeks, after the swelling went down. When Jamie returned with a normal-looking vagina, the doctor said nothing was wrong and sent her home. Jamie talked to friends about it from time to time, but it was embarrassing, and everyone assumed it was just a problem with Jamie's sex skills. "'Try lube,' they'd say, or 'You just need more foreplay.'"

Next Page: Could it be psychological? [ pagebreak ]Could it be psychological?
At last Jamie found her diagnosis in a sex manual she'd owned for some time. "I would look at the pictures, read about foreplay, the fun stuff," she says. "One day my cousin was visiting me and she started reading the articles in the back, the boring ones about STDs and sexual disorders. She found a paragraph about vaginismus. It felt like she was reading my life story."

The book gave a name to Jamie's problem, but the cause and cure were still a mystery. "The articles I read said that vaginismus was caused by repressed guilt, and was most common in women who had been raised religious. My parents were liberal hippies who spoke openly with me about sex since I was very young."

The explanation didn't make any sense to Jamie, but she tried to apply it to her situation anyway. "Based on the articles, I was worried that I was unsure about my boyfriends," Jamie says. "Had I never been in love? Had I really never been sure?"

Then one day, her pain finally went away
Confused, Jamie started having casual sex with strangers—and the vaginismus disappeared. After several incidents like that, she felt she'd found a pretty solid theory for what was causing her problem: She has been so afraid of falling in love with one of her boyfriends that her body rejected having sex with them.

Jamie explains the logic: "As a child of freewheeling hippie parents, I related sex to love; as a free-spirited child of the eighties, I was afraid of love. Ironic, eh?" She felt she had the answer, especially as the vaginismus did come back whenever she had a sex partner she cared about.

Falling in love for real (perhaps with a little maturity under her belt?) has finally done the trick for Jamie, however. "I decided—sex aside—that I was going to treat this one like a junior high romance: innocent, wholehearted, idealistic, sappy, smitten," says Jamie, who has been with her boyfriend six months. "I never felt pain with him, and never have since."