“Alright hun, you have to spread those legs a little wider so I can get in there.”
I lay frozen on my back, my terrified brain unwilling to tell my legs what to do. In all the years I had been going to the gyno, I never once had a physical exam. This was because I have vaginismus, a condition that makes penetration painful for my tense vagina. Today, my doctor convinced me I needed a physical exam (despite me explaining my painful sex disorder to her), and that it wouldn’t hurt. I was doubtful of her claim and terrified at the idea of having anything penetrate me. But I complied.
She was a doctor, anyhow. She must know what she’s doing.
As she lubed up her gloved fingers, she explained that she would have to press on my uterus.
“Wait, isn’t that really far back?” I asked.
“No, not really,” she said.
As I struggled to keep my legs open, she slipped her finger inside of me and I quickly learned that the uterus is in fact Really Far Back. At least for people with vaginismus. At least for me.
Her finger created a pain so sharp that my only reaction was to yell and beg her to stop. As I lay on the exam table, her only response was to dismiss me and calmly tell me to hold on for a little longer.
I don’t even know what she was doing in there by that point — all I knew was that my paper gown was drenched in sweat and my thighs had begun to shake uncontrollably from the building pressure and pain between my legs. I was convinced I was going to puke. I tried to breathe through it. I told myself, “It’ll be over soon.” I concentrated on trying to regulate my shaky breath.
Five minutes later for her, a lifetime for me, it was done.
When her finger finally emerged from my vagina, I felt too dizzy and upset to stand. The pain between my legs was throbbing.
“That hurt so much because you’re a virgin,” she told me as she washed her hands. “It’ll feel better when it’s with someone you love.”
I felt sick to my stomach as I got up and put my clothes back on in a daze. I glared at her and never returned to her office again.
This wasn’t the first time I was assaulted — but it was the first time a doctor had violated me.
The reality is that it’s common for gynos to cross boundaries like this, especially with patients who have painful sex disorders like vaginismus. For me, and for many folks I know who have the condition, going to the gyno is anywhere from frustrating to terrifying. There just doesn’t seem to be much education surrounding vaginismus for doctors to understand that “being gentle” or “just for a minute” doesn’t make a difference.
Now, I cringe when I’m at or near a gyno office. To be honest, I avoid them at all costs. Until this past summer, I hadn’t seen a gyno in two years. I made an appointment with one in order to get tested for my hormone levels, as my mood disorder tends to get more severe the week before my period. Before trying psychoactive drugs, I just wanted to get a blood test to ensure that my mood changes weren’t the result of a hormonal imbalance.
Despite my intentions for the visit, I was asked to lay down and get a transvaginal ultrasound almost as soon as I got there. I declined after much coaxing, explaining my reason for visiting and telling the nurse I had vaginismus. She looked at me blankly and nodded.
As I waited in the exam room for my doctor to appear, anxiety washed over me all over again: would she force me to pull my pants down? Luckily I had brought my partner with me, who told me I didn’t have to do anything I didn’t want to do and that we’d walk out if she asks.
And boy did she ask. She tried coaxing me for about 10 minutes into letting her give me a Pap smear. When I told her I had vaginismus, she said she would be really gentle. “If I can do it on old ladies, I can do it on you,” she said. I started sweating as my heart pounded. I stood my ground and told her the reason I was here again.
“I can only give you a blood test if I can take a Pap smear.”
Confused and annoyed, my partner and I left her office.
It frustrates me that I can’t have proper access to reproductive healthcare because I have a painful sex disorder and now because I have PTSD associated with my experience with gynos. To this day, I’m still too afraid to go to one to discuss the abnormalities in my period or get tested for STDs, let alone ask about what they can do to help my vaginismus. My trust has been breached too many times, and I’m simply too afraid to step into another gyno office.
One day, I hope to gather the courage again to return to a gyno, this time to someone who has greater understanding for folks who have been assaulted and who have painful sex disorders. Because I shouldn’t have to worry about whether I’ll be hurt, triggered or traumatized when I visit my gyno. I want to feel as empowered and in charge of my health as every other person going there does.