“Maybe you’re just not a very sexual person,” said Dr. Fay in a slow Southern drawl. Seated before me in a gold miniskirt and bright blue eye shadow was the hypnotherapist I’d gone to see because I hated intercourse.
Her diagnosis: Hyposexual Desire Disorder, HSDD.
Now, three years later, a drug treating this condition, flibansersin, might get FDA approval by the end of this month. If green-lighted, women with low libido will be told that altering brain chemicals is a potential cure. However, at the same time this “Pink Viagra” was being tested on premenopausal women like me, I was able to heal myself of HSDD — and five other kinds of dysfunction — without pharmaceuticals. It turned out what I needed was not medication, but a married-sex education.
My problem started on my honeymoon. Finally a bride at 46, I was thrilled. Gone were the bad Internet dates and nights sleeping next to an opened container of Trader Joe’s chocolate-covered almonds. On the first days of our vacation though, coupled with the first groom I’d ever had — in romantic Rome of all places — lovemaking suddenly hurt.
Upon our return to the States, I rushed to see my gynecologist. She told me I had something called vaginismus, a spasm of the pelvic floor muscles, making penetration painful or even impossible. It was like being a virgin every single time. Once my doctor named it, I realized, to my shock, this condition was not new. It was an exacerbation of something that had plagued me, mildly, since I began relations decades before — lots of challenging entry and excessive tightness I’d never known how to label.
I’d always attributed these symptoms to childhood sexual abuse at the hands of two neighbors. Because I’d mended my psychological trauma through decades of therapy, I’d never worried about its aftermath. This physical residue seemed manageable, even normal — until my honeymoon, when slight discomfort became pain.
As a remedy, my gyno suggested vaginal weights to strengthen my pelvic floor. I begged her for fornication advice as well: “Put the penis in the fornix,” said my doctor, in a chiding tone.
Did everyone get boinking but me?
When the genital workout gear arrived — small plastic bullets with a cold metal disc inside — I tried the weights once, despised them and buried them in a drawer. I couldn’t bear having anything like that inside of me. Who would want to be married to someone like that?
Scared of jeopardizing my union, I kept the severity of my symptoms hidden from my husband, Kurt. Instead, I had coitus without complaint. It felt like being punched on the inside, as if there was acid on my partner’s member because of the burning.
Over the next few months, my condition expanded to include every female sexual dysfunction I found in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual: low libido, no arousal, zero orgasm, general aversion and at least three kinds of pelvic pain. I had to stop mingling parts; the secret was out — mostly. I found it hard to be fully truthful about my experience. Instead, I made up random no-nooky excuses (after-dinner bloating was a favorite). My bed became the setting for frequent pillow fights, and not the fun kind.
“It doesn’t seem like you care about this part of our lives,” said Kurt.
“I do.” I countered
Every day I’d contemplate a move forward before I’d get paralyzed with questions: Was this unresolved trauma? Ignorance about my lady parts? Age? Marriage malaise? I didn’t know.
Eight stuck months went by. I would have stayed like this if it weren’t for a seemingly unrelated phone call: a theater commissioned me to write a one-person play. As I put the receiver down, excited, I devised a plan. With the six months they’d given me, I’d try to solve my carnal woes by visiting as many practitioners as I could, chronicling what happened. In this way I’d organize repair, giving it a structure, giving it a deadline. I’d force myself to heal.
Dr. Fay, the mini-skirted hypnotist, was the first person on my list. After that first session when she called me frigid, I gave her another shot since I’d heard hypnosis could cure my problems. As I stretched out on her red leather couch, Fay, dressed this time in tight white pants, had me repeat phrases like “I am really hot.” When I got home, I put her aphorisms on my iPod so I could talk dirty to myself as I went running. For weeks I felt amorous toward the trees and the mid-day sky, though my late-night functioning remained low. It was time to move down my list.
Francesca, a Tantrika, or expert on sacred sensuality, was my next recovery attempt. By phone, in a lilting Italian accent, she said: “You will visit my studio with your husband so you can make love in front of me.” I told her this wasn’t possible (my hubby would never go for it), but she refused to see me solo. Nonetheless, she offered a diagnosis: “It’s sounds like a shrinking vagina.”
I tried Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, a treatment for post-traumatic stress used by the military. (While I didn’t think I had this condition in the conventional sense, given my genital hyper-vigilance, I came up with my own diagnosis: PTSD of the vagina. This made more sense than anything I’d heard thus far.) I went on a fully clothed intimacy retreat with my spouse, where we learned how to make love for ten minutes everyday — with and without privates (“without” involved foot massages and other erotic attention). I consulted with a sex therapist, briefly, from the basement of a Panera. At a sports rehabilitation clinic, behind a green door (but not that green door), a physical therapist massaged my internal muscles while answering all my questions, even really stupid ones like, “What the heck is a fornix?” (It’s a set of “pockets” on both sides of the cervix.)
After six months, the play was finished, but I was just starting to understand desire and how it interfaced with marriage. I’d only begun real honesty.
“How was it?” Kurt would say every time we were intimate.
“Ummm. Not so good," I'd reply, more often than not.
“I’m sorry. What else can we try?”
Rather than abandoning me, my spouse wanted us to work as a team — contrary to all my fears. Over the next two years I saw more practitioners (total: 15) and tried other modalities (total: 30). This time I took more risks.
At a female-only workshop, presided over by famed sexologist, Betty Dodson, I learned that women need 20 to 30 minutes of stimulation to orgasm — and in many cases, before they’re ready for intercourse. Showing us how this works, Betty coached nine participants as we masturbated, en masse, in her living room. “It’s not just the clitoris,” yelled our feisty 86 year-old mentor. “There’s erectile tissue lining the vagina and the whole vulva. You need a full hard on.”
In an ironic twist, I visited the Tantrika of the shrinking vagina. I had to find out what this meant! After convincing her to see me alone, I lay on her big brass bed, where she taught me “expansion” techniques. Then I asked this 72 year-old healer in heels where my G-spot was. “It’s here,” she said, moments before reaching right in. There was no way I was getting that from a book.
The Tantrika turned me on to new research about passion. I realized how monogamy, despite conventional wisdom, wreaked havoc on a women’s libido. With diminished novelty, wedded gals needed compensatory thrills, more physical stimulation or both. I began asking my guy for things that shamed me — vibrating dildos, ticklers, porn.
As my mate and I experimented, a funny thing happened: our conjugal life was redefined. Rather than being organized around his pleasure as a main attraction and mine as a warm-up act, my delight now held equal value. A full performance could include naked fondling, oral sex, body chocolate, erotica, massage, a little intercourse and some vibrator action — all in half an hour.
Since I could do what I wanted with our “sessions,” I began craving them. In the language of neuroscience, “doing it” released the mood-elevating neurotransmitter dopamine. A scientist I met at a conference explained my transformation this way: “Anytime something feels good, there’s an upsurge in dopamine. Afterward, a person’s whole system will scream, ‘Do it again. Do it again. Do it again.’”
This brings me back to flibanserin. All this female libido pill does is boost dopamine. Would I have taken this drug if it had been around three years ago? Definitely. I’m glad it wasn’t available, though. If I had tweaked brain chemicals, there’s no way I would have changed my bedroom practices too. I never would have learned about my body, or found a bravery that has seeped into every aspect of my life. “You’re like someone else,” my husband said to me the other day. I am. I’m now a sexual person.