"I’m 25 & Have Never Had Sex": Shelby Hadden On Life With Vaginismus

Shelby Hadden is a documentary filmmaker whose work explores issues of gender and identity. Her film, Tightly Wound, is a 10-minute animation that follows Shelby’s experience with vaginismus, a condition characterised by involuntary contractions of the pelvic floor muscles that tighten the vaginal entrance, causing pain, penetration problems, and an inability to have intercourse. The film chronicles the various ways it has affected her life – how health professionals have failed her, men have rejected her, and shame, anger and hatred have plagued her body. This is her story...
I’m 25 and have never had sex.
I want to have sex. I want to do it so badly. I obsess over sex by constantly reading about it in memoirs, magazine articles and novels. I watch TV shows and movies to gobble it all up and learn as much as I can. I fantasise about sex. I talk about it and write about it.
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But I never have it. And I can’t "get it over with" even if I wanted to.
I have vaginismus: a condition characterised by involuntary contractions of the pelvic floor muscles that tighten the vaginal entrance – causing pain, penetration problems, and inability to have intercourse. While some men can’t get it up, I can’t get it in. Vaginismus is why I have never been in a relationship, fallen in love or ever had sex.
I knew something was wrong when I was 14 and started my period. When I tried using a tampon for the first time, it felt like I was forcing it into a hole that wasn’t there, causing excruciating, stabbing pain.

They told me to 'just relax' or to drink alcohol when I wanted to be intimate with someone… even when I was not legally old enough to drink.

For years I went to countless doctors who couldn’t tell me what it was or how to fix it. They told me to "just relax" or to drink alcohol when I wanted to be intimate with someone… even when I was not legally old enough to drink. Some doctors refused to even examine me because I wasn’t sexually active. I was given a lot of bad advice and little empathy. The mean, ugly voice inside my head whispered: I’ll never have sex. I’ll never fall in love. I’ll never get married or have children.
That’s a lot riding on one body part.
Eventually I found pelvic floor physical therapy, and after a few months I was able to use a tampon for the first time. I was 21 years old and in graduate school, and I used a tampon for the first time.
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Then I wanted to reach my next goal, because no one thinks it’s cute to be a virgin in their 20s. I was dating this guy for a couple of weeks and I decided to just "get it over with". As soon as we started fooling around I was in pain. I wasn’t ready and he wasn’t right.
"Stop, stop, stop," I insisted.
"What’s wrong?" he asked.
"So, I have this thing. I haven’t had sex before. Because I can’t."
He laughed, "That’s hilarious."
Here I was – literally, figuratively, completely naked – telling him and trusting him with my deepest, most private and painful secret. He laughed in my face.
Once our clothes were back on, he told me he didn’t want to see me anymore.
There’s nothing worse than being rejected for a part of yourself that you’re working so hard to change. Just because I can’t have sex right now, means I’m not enough for anyone? What if I never will be? Who would want to date someone who can’t have sex?
If it is going to happen, it’s going to have to be with someone who is willing to work with me, someone who is patient and empathetic. Will he show up tomorrow? Ten years from now? Six months from now? Never? I don’t know.
What I do know is that vaginismus – though it’s been painful – has saved me from wasting time on a lot of jerks.
Tightly Wound was selected for Athens International Film & Video Festival and Nashville Film Festival in May and has been selected for Annecy International Animated Film Festival in June and Filmets Barcelona Film Festival in October. Watch the trailer here...

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