By Hannah Renee Paasch
I sat there, staring blankly at the doctor in front of me trying to tell me that my body was okay.
I knew my body was not okay.
I’d been having sex with my husband for months now, and every single time felt like the first time. Tears would stream involuntarily out of the sides of my eyes, and I’d try to close them and concentrate on not ripping. I’d try and wipe them away any chance I got, but I knew he knew and I knew it was killing us. I couldn’t understand why my body couldn’t seem to settle into some sort of rhythm – why these overwhelming sensations of pain and panic were washing over me when I should be feeling the safest and the most connected with the person I loved.
Feebly I tried to describe to this strange man the most vulnerable, nerve-wracking details of my sex life. My voice caught.
I studied his eyebrows, trying to avoid looking at him straight without him knowing I couldn’t.
He mumbled some nonsense about how at least I’d waited to be sexually active till I was married (yes, a real-life medical professional said that to me in his office), and I felt myself wince. So I did everything right, huh? What if I hadn’t? Would you still be sitting here, trying to hear me out?
That was the last word I heard him say.
A really scary-sounding something tacked on the end of a bunch of gibberish I couldn’t decode. It was both alarming and strangely relieving to be told what I already knew—that I was not okay—and to have a word for it. I fled the sterile place that seemed overflowing with more sets of eyes than any respectable doctor’s office should have and blindly made my way to CVS to fill all his prescriptions, including a form of birth control that would eventually leading me to the brink of suicide…
…but I digress.
Vaginismus is a very medical sounding word for this weird psychosomatic thing that your body does when your brain wants to do it and your body decidedly does not. Everything stiffens and tightens and no amount of heavy breathing and foreplay can seem to release it. The sensation of ripping is omnipresent. You learn to power through. Choke back the tears. Make it work.
Months later, after my husband left me, I began to wonder if I ever really had it after all.
When I was ten years old, I was handed a copy of Boy Meets Girl by Joshua Harris. Just slightly on the younger end of the I Kissed Dating Goodbye generation, I was becoming a precocious pre-teen when BMG was released. I remember picking up a copy at the local homeschoolers’ convention and desperately wanting to know what was inside. The cover looked so romantic and sounded decidedly more hopeful than the monochromatic and negative undertones of the IKDG cover, and at ten, I was definitely judging books by their covers.
My parents bought me a copy and I hungrily scarfed down its contents in a matter of hours.
I’ll get into the trouble with reading BMG first in another piece, but here I’d like to focus on the role that BMG played in my future sex life. At the tender age of ten, I hadn’t discovered masturbation and I certainly had no idea what it felt like to be sexually attracted to another human. What I did understand was romance, and early on I learned that romance was a conduit to marriage and should only ever be experienced in that context. Sexual feelings were to be avoided at all costs—not hated, because they were gifts from God—but avoided. The trouble is that at ten (or maybe at any age), the most effective way to avoid something is to learn not to want it.
In other words, to hate it.
You’d think that the most damaging passages in BMG would be the guidelines Harris lays out for physical and sexual interaction that, unless you are extremely repressed, are heavy, heavy burdens. You’d think that the fear-mongering he spreads thickly throughout—the horror stories of the lusty missionary acquiring AIDS because of one unfortunate encounter with a prostitute or the single mother wracked with guilt and debt after “one night of pleasure”—would have effectively rid me of any sexual desire by the time I was a teenager. That’s not what got me though.
I did grow up hating myself for my sexual urges, but, you know, everybody halfway grows out of that eventually. You meet a human you like okay, you feel safe, you try some stuff (though never, ever all the way, of course)… and you begin to feel like maybe you’re a normal person after all.
No, what really got me were the passages that engrained in me at an early age that my heart and my body were not effective compasses for deciding who and when to be with someone. Oh I had sexual experiences, sure, but looking back on all the people I dated before my husband left me, there is maybe one that I was ACTUALLY, ACTIVELY ATTRACTED TO. How fucked up is that? Most of the ideas that BMG espouses are blatantly self-contradictory, but this idea that you could pick a life partner based on “reality and wisdom”—Harris encourages selecting someone not for their “image or personality,” but for their character.
This sounded great to ten-year-old me, ever the perfectionist, ever the child lying awake at night begging and sobbing for God to accept the sacrifice of herself if only her family could get into heaven.
It sounded wise. It sounded godly. It sounded selfless and holy.
Today, for me, it sounds like divorce.
The reason that my body couldn’t “get there” in my marriage is because I was never attracted to my spouse in the first place. That’s not his fault, and that’s certainly not mine—but it is the cold, sad truth. For those of you out there who will say, with all the Christian romance novels (which I’m not entirely sure is not actually the genre that BMG actually belongs in), that “love comes softly” or “attraction grows” or some shit like that, knock it off. We all know this isn’t actually true. That’s not how you picked your spouse out, baby boomer. I call bull.
The reason I share this story with y’all today is because I want you to know that you are okay, the way you are.
You are going to be okay, anyway, if you’re not yet.
Your body is okay.
Your feelings are okay.
Your needs and your wants are okay.
Listen to them.
If your mind or your body is afraid or hesitant to do something, there is a good reason why. Don’t fight them. You do not have to beat your body and make it your slave. You don’t have to make yourself want things.
Your joy is important.
Keep digging. Keep questioning. Just because you have found healing from one aspect of purity culture, please don’t assume that your work is done. Don’t forge ahead half-baked, half-healed. The roots reach deeper than you imagine them to, but take hope as I do in knowing that you are not in this alone, that there are others like you who are reaching for the light.
Sometimes dawn comes slowly.
Don’t rush her.
Hannah Renee Paasch is the co-founder of The Flawless Project and lives in Nashville, TN with her two cats Ruth and Earl. Hannah is also the housing outreach navigator for a local non-profit that helps people experiencing homelessness, and the frontwoman of feminist-blues-rock ‘n roll outfit Ida Grey, whose work can be found here.