Throughout most of my early twenties, my vagina felt like it was on fire.
No matter how many doctors I consulted or STI tests they ran, I couldn’t extinguish the burning sensation inside me after sex.
I’d begun to believe the pain was in my head when a female GP posed a question.
“Are you lubricated during sex?”
It was the first time anyone had asked me about sex in the context of something that hinted at my pleasure.
And it may have been a turning point, given it bought to light the fact I’d never experienced lubrication with a man. But it was quickly brushed aside after she passed me a piece of paper with the letters, ‘KY Jelly’ scrawled across it and sent me on my way to begin a religious devotion to lube.
Armed with the conviction it was my vagina – not who I was sleeping with – that was the issue, I continued having sex with men. And, eventually, over time, the problem seemed to go away.
This, I thought, was pleasure. More importantly, it was confirmation of my desirability. As long as men were fucking me, I was being chosen.
“We’ve all been taught to lose our fucking shit if a boy, any boy, has chosen us. ‘WE HAVE BEEN CHOSEN!!’ And now, we must do whatever he wants because it is so special that he has chosen us!!” says Lane Moore in ‘How to be Alone’.
Perhaps it was this social conditioning, the diet of Disney princess stories and Sandra Bullock rom-coms I grew up being fed, or the absence of a stable father figure in my life, but unless I was being chosen – something I conflated with sexual validation – it felt as if I didn’t exist.
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I waited for the void to disappear after I married a man in my mid-twenties. It did not.
When the marriage fell apart, I didn’t grieve or speak to a therapist. I slept with a stranger in a hotel room.
But even as I sobbed at the end of the bed feeling hollow when it was over, I told myself this was sexual liberation. I was crying tears of relief because I was finally free to have sex outside the restrictive construct of monogamy. Not because I’d just had a dissociative, self-destructive hookup with a man I’d never met before.
It would be the way I’d retell the story for years.
In her ground-breaking book, ‘Come As You Are’, Dr. Emily Nagoski explains why people with vulvas often experience this cognitive dissonance around sex.
“Genital response, for all humans, indicates that they’ve been exposed to a sexually relevant stimulus — something that their brain has learned, through classical conditioning, to respond to… Subjective arousal, for all humans, indicates that they’ve been exposed to a sexually appealing stimulus — something their brain perceives in this moment, as being kinda hot,” Nagoski writes, referencing a 2008 study by Meredith Chivers which found that, while men’s genital responses mostly align with their subjective arousal, women have high levels of arousal noncocordance, which means our bodily responses often don’t correspond to our arousal.
In fact, Chivers’ research noted women’s brains categorised images of bonobo chimps getting it on as sexually relevant (and it’s safe to say women don’t secretly want to have sex with bonobos).
But women aren’t taught to hone in on our instincts. We’re taught to recognise and respond to cues outside of ourselves in service of male pleasure.
“Women are constantly and specifically trained out of noticing or responding to their bodily discomfort, particularly if they want to be sexually "viable." Have you looked at how women are "supposed" to present themselves as sexually attractive? High heels? Trainers? Spanx? These are things designed to wrench bodies,” Lili Loofbourow wrote in her iconic essay, ‘The Female Price Of Male Pleasure’.
And this self-distrust has real consequences for our sex lives.
A study published in The Journal Of Sexual Medicine found that, although nearly one third of women experience pain during sex, few tell their partners about it.
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My gauge on what pleasure should feel like was additionally skewed by stories from friends who described sex as a performative task they could excel at; theatrically gagging during blowjobs for their partner’s gratification, faking orgasm to “get it over faster” and doing anal to emulate the horny up-for-anything women their boyfriends got off to in porn.
I couldn’t acknowledge, much less interrogate, the feeling of emptiness and unease that regularly followed sex, nor ask myself if I genuinely wanted to do any of the things I did in bed. All I knew was, if men weren’t having sex with me, I felt worthless.
It wasn’t until I stumbled across Angeli Luz’s viral ‘Lesbian Master Doc’ – a 30-page dissection of ‘compulsory heterosexuality’ (the pervasive cultural expectation women are attracted to men), that everything began to come into focus.
“It’s possible to recognise a man IS attractive but not be attracted TO him,” the Master Doc points out, clarifying, “a desire to be attractive to men” is not the same thing as having a physical attraction to men.
For the first time since that day in the doctor’s office in my early twenties, I found myself examining sex in the context of how my body actually felt. And like a lightning bolt illuminating a dark sky, an unseeable truth became clear: I’d never been sexually attracted to men.
All of the experiences I saw as evidence of my boy-craziness were merely a desire for validation. I was having sex not out of a craving for physical pleasure or emotional intimacy (or, as I often hyperbolically told friends, because “I love D!”), but because I enjoyed the feeling of being wanted. When I drilled down into it, I could only recall the sensations of sexual arousal during times I was fantasising about or making out with women.
It’s been three years now since I came out as a lesbian, and I’m still unpacking how compulsory heterosexuality gaslit me into believing I was a boy-crazy straight girl. At least once a week, I have a revelatory moment relearning what authentic pleasure, love, desire and romance feel like.
I’m not anti-monogamy anymore (turns out I just didn’t want long-term monogamy with a man) and while I’m certainly pro-lube (women aren’t human waterfalls, after all), I haven’t personally reached for a tube of KY Jelly in three years.
I still feel a wave of sadness wash over me when I think of all the ways I betrayed myself because I believed I needed to be chosen by a man to matter. But I also try to remember I’m choosing myself now – choosing to rewrite the script and live in my truth, which, ironically, means listening to my vagina.
Nadia Bokody is a queer sex columnist, YouTuber and professional over-sharer who recommends the Lesbian Master Doc to every woman she meets. Follow her on Instagram for more.
Feature Image: Instagram @nadiabokody.