In my last post, I shared my battle with comparing the aesthetic of my vulva to other vulvas. My preoccupation with my vulva, however, was not purely aesthetic; it was also about its functionality. Namely, I was focused on my ability to self-lubricate, have pain-free sex, and orgasm. In this post, I focus on the functional aspect of my vulva and vagina and discuss comparing my sex life to others. Furthermore, I discuss how I began to make the shift from feeling broken to empowered.
Don’t forget to read until the end for my #TuesdayTipbyLLC
Why Doesn’t Sex Work For Me?
As I noted in my blog post ‘Painful Sex: My Journey to a Diagnosis”, painful sex was one of my first Lichen Sclerosus symptoms; (you can read about my diagnosis story here). My sex life from my early 20’s onward is characterized by increasing discomfort and pain both during and after penetrative sex.
It is important to note sex was not always painful for me. However, unlike many of my sexually active friends, sex seemed to require a lot more planning and forethought on my part.
For example, I had to be mindful of the frequency with which I had sex. The more often I had sex, the less it would hurt.
Moreover, I had to factor in recovery time after engaging in penetrative sex/after having sex. In an ideal world, I would have sex roughly every other day to allow my vulva time to recover. I wasn’t aware then what I needed to recover from, but I knew I needed time to recover from something. My vulva needed to heal from a mysterious ‘pain’ that seemed to have no real cause. In retrospect, I now know I needed time to heal from tearing. Tearing was my mysterious something I needed to recover from, but didn’t know its name.
Later in my 20’s, I also needed to be mindful of things like lubrication. Natural lubrication was something I also struggled with, so using lube when engaging in sex was a must.
While sex was not always painful, I knew deep down something wasn’t quite right. My anatomy did not seem to function optimally.
Putting the Pieces Together
Finally, when I was finally diagnosed with Lichen Sclerosus, I understood why my sex life felt off.
Looking back, I realized that quietly, in the basement floor of the skin in my vulva, inflammation was building up and causing my skin to thicken. This thickening caused tearing during sex and fissures. This explained the stinging/burning pain I often felt, as well as my need for recovery time. As my Lichen Sclerosus progressed, the skin turned wax-like and started fusing, unbeknownst to me at the time. This fusing and scaring changed my anatomy and contributed to further pain and discomfort.
When I read about how Lichen Sclerosus can cause painful sex after my diagnosis, I spiraled mentally. I had no idea what it meant for my sex life.
“Could I even have sex”?
“Will I always tear”?
“What are the medical implications of tearing”?
These thoughts bred a new habit. Specifically, I began to compare myself and my ability to have sex, or lack thereof, to others.
Who Was I Comparing Myself To?
Interestingly, I didn’t compare myself to anyone I know!
I wasn’t surveying my friends and compiling data to then compare against my own. I also wasn't comparing myself by reading stories online by real human beings.
Instead, I compared myself to fictional people I made up. In my mind, the people I compared myself with had perfect vulvas. Anatomically, they had no scarring/fusing and they could lubricate naturally when aroused. These people were able to orgasm easily, either on their own or with other people. Furthermore, they were having a lot of uncomplicated, pain-free sex almost every day.
When I did compare myself to people I knew, I made assumptions about their sex lives. I assumed their anatomy looked and worked perfectly, and that they were having a ton of pain-free, uncomplicated sex.
The Devastation Caused by Comparing Sex Lives
Comparing my sex life to that of others caused me significant mental distress. This distress was similar to how it felt when I compared my vulva to others.
I was never one to reduce sex to penetrative, vaginal sex, but when I was diagnosed it was as if I forgot that. Crucially, I became fixated on this one particular way of having sex; it was as if I had complete tunnel vision. All the other magnificent things under the umbrella of sex, sexuality, and intimacy disappeared from my line of sight.
Convinced I may never be able to have and enjoy this kind of sex again, I became insecure and depressed. I became so absorbed by this limited narrative in which I existed as a broken woman. I was angry at my body for failing me, I felt guilty because my anatomy wasn’t functioning properly for my husband, and I was sad I may lose part of my sex life, the part I enjoyed and wanted so badly
It didn’t help that at the time of my diagnosis, I did not know how Lichen Sclerosus impacts your sex life and how I could engage in sex safely (i.e., minimize tearing). I didn’t know that in fact, there are many individuals out there who have a happy and healthy sex life.
The Beginning of Breaking the Habit
Soon after my Lichen Sclerosus diagnosis, I started seeing a sex therapist. I confided in her about how I would compare my sex life and myself as a sexual being to others. I sobbed through that entire session. Nonetheless, it felt good to get it off my chest; I had been spiraling for weeks, making myself feel worse and worse with each passing day.
Although I knew comparing myself to others was irrational, I couldn’t help it. When I fixate on things, the force fueling my fixation is powerful. Through my conversation with my therapist, I realized I was being unfair to myself. It wasn’t my fault for having Lichen Sclerosus and comparing myself to a fictional group of people was even more unfair because such people do not exist. No one is perfect; there is no such thing as the perfect sex life and no such thing as a perfect vulva.
The Importance of Hearing the Truth From Another Person
I needed to hear another human voice tell me what my subconscious already knew, and, because I trusted her, I really heard her when she told me I wasn’t being fair to myself. After our session, I took a few days to let that sink in: I wasn’t being fair to myself. I reminded myself every person on this planet is unique, and accordingly, I am my sexual being as is my husband. What other people do has no bearing on what we do; other people’s sex lives don’t invalidate ours.
I always debrief with my husband after therapy sessions, it’s part of my healing process. After this session, he reminded me of all the other sexual acts we can continue to do while we put vaginal penetrative sex on hold. This comforted me; I knew I needed to use this narrative as a defense against intrusive thoughts comparing my sex life to that of others.
An Unexpected Gift: Reclaiming My Sex Life and Myself as a Sexual Being
I realized reclaiming myself as a sexual being would be a challenge, but I was greatly invested and up for the challenge. I also recognized I was in a unique position to relearn my sexuality, something I chose to see as a gift instead of a curse.
That is not to say I suddenly stopped comparing myself to others. I still broke down in tears often in the early stages of my journey because of this, but in time, the weight of the guilt, fear, and insecurity slowly lifted.
In sum, through some very vulnerable and honest conversations with my sex therapist and my husband, I slowly moved away from the habit of obsessively comparing my sex life and myself as a sexual being to other people.
The next part of this journey involves more sex therapy, pelvic floor physiotherapy, dilators, an important dialogue with my gynecologist, and finally, getting proper education about Lichen Sclerosus through the Lichen Sclerosus Podcast and Kathy’s virtual meetups. I will discuss each of these in future blog posts, if you are worried about your sex life and you have Lichen Sclerosus, know there is hope.
Do you or have you struggled with comparing your sex life to others? Are you afraid of what Lichen Sclerosus means for your sex life? Let me know in the comments below or feel free to contact me via social media. I would love to hear from you!
#TuesdayTipbyLLC: Remember that everyone's sex life is unique. Try not to compare yourself, but do not beat yourself up if you cannot stop this habit right away. It takes time.