We posted about our sales earlier, but we have some additional deals, and some of them have even taken us by surprise! Amazon has put some of our books on sale, including Monologues from the Makom: Intertwined Narratives of Sexuality, Gender, Body Image, and Jewish Identity edited by Rivka Cohen, Naima Hirsch, Sara Rozner Lawrence, Sarah J. Ricklan, and Rebecca Zimilover – at a breathtaking 70% off! (This is an associate link, which means if you buy the book through it, we get some additional $ too.) We don’t know how long this deal will last, so make sure to check it out.
This book has been called the Orthodox Jewish Vagina Monologues, and it is one of the first volumes to openly discuss traditionally observant Jewish women’s sexuality, from a first-person perspective. Many contributors – some of them anonymous – share their experiences in poetry and prose.
We offer you a sample chapter here, focusing on the author’s difficulty in having penetrative sex with her husband. This is definitely 18+ content, but we really recommend it to our adult readers – even among secular people, there is little awareness of related health conditions.
Growing Pains by Anonymous
We were married for a month before we successfully had penetrative sex. Not for a lack of trying on our part, but because each attempt ended with me in tears, unable to understand why my body wasn’t working the way my kallah teacher had said it would.
That first time, I lay there as my husband managed to achieve full penetration—finally—and tried desperately to hold in the tears of pain. Every few moments, my new husband looked at me and said, “I’m going to stop. It’s hurting you.” And each time I replied, “Don’t. I’m fine. Please.”
I wasn’t fine at all, and the tears swimming in my eyes were all the proof he needed. He stopped.
I bled immediately afterwards, and I kept bleeding. After three weeks, I finally mustered up the courage to go to my gynecologist. She attributed the bleeding to my new birth control and the painful sex as “growing pains.” I tried to explain that my vagina seemed to shut down whenever we tried to have penetrative sex, and that I suspected it was more than “growing pains” but she, a frum woman herself, knew better and sent me on my way with a prescription that read: “Buy a water-based lubricant.”
And so we tried again. We had used lube the many times we tried, but maybe what my body needed was specifically “water-based.” I held on to that hope as I checked out at Duane Reade, bottle of KY Jelly in hand. I texted my husband and told him we had to try it out tonight. The doctor said it would work, that this was what my body needed to work. It had to work.
It didn’t work. I sighed as I said to my husband, “Maybe I’m just nervous. Let’s try again tomorrow.” But the same thing happened the following night. By the third night, I was sobbing into my pillowcase, shaking with anger and sadness at my pathetic, broken body. I emailed my gynecologist and told her that the lube wasn’t working. She wrote back an hour later: “Try more lube!”
I made an appointment to see her the following week. Each night we continued to try, sometimes with success, but always with a pain that felt like my body was being torn apart.
And in a way, it was.
My kallah teacher, my friends, and the frum community that I trusted had led me to believe that my body would know “ just what to do” when the time came. I was promised that by “waiting until marriage,” I’d ensure that our sex life was far more meaningful and sacred than for those who had premarital sex. I was promised that any first-time pain would quickly vanish in the face of heightened joy and ecstasy with my new husband.
The reality of the situation, though, was much different than what I had been led to expect. I was a failure. Every single tear, every ounce of frustration, every whispered apology to my extraordinarily kind and patient husband was a manifestation of the ongoing damage to my spirit. My body failed me. It failed us. With each attempt, I began to believe that I was less of a woman, and certainly less of a wife than I wanted to be.
My return visit to the doctor yielded new information: “Your vagina is atrophied. Basically, it’s shriveled up like a raisin. We don’t usually see that in women until they hit menopause but it’s such an easy fix… I’ll give you an estrogen gel that’ll clear it right up.”
A weight was lifted off my shoulders—finally, an answer! And a cure. I dutifully picked up the yellow and pink boxed medication which cheerfully spoke of all the ways that menopause wouldn’t change my life. I inserted the medication night after night, carefully following their instructions to avoid any sexual contact while using the gel.
One week later, at my follow up appointment, my gynecologist told me that my vagina was stubborn and that I’d need another week’s worth of medicine. “Feel free to start trying again at the end of this round! If you’re feeling better, you don’t even need to come back. Oh, and if this doesn’t work, maybe you should consider going on Xanax or something to help you chill out.”
I was giddy with anticipation. Each night after I inserted the medicine, I counted down the days until we could resume trying. The last night of the medication, I cheerfully told my husband that the following day was the first day of the rest of our lives. He laughed, happy to see me optimistic.
The following night we tried again. I waited expectantly for my newly cured vagina to give way and let my husband enter me in the way he should have been able to on our wedding night.
“It feels like there’s a wall,” he said, using a description we’d both grown familiar with. It didn’t hurt quite as much, but penetration was near impossible. A few more half-hearted attempts and we gave up. I didn’t even cry. I was so deflated that I just crawled into bed and fell asleep.
My Orthodox friends never spoke about their sex lives, and I wasn’t comfortable asking their advice. But I am blessed with good friends who are not Orthodox, and when they asked how our sex life was six months after our wedding, I shrugged and said we didn’t really have one. I told them I was still having “first-time” pains, and it made it hard to have sex. I told them I figured it’d take a little while but eventually it would get better.
Shortly afterwards, they staged an intervention. “We know you don’t talk about this where you’re from, but this isn’t normal. Go to a new doctor. Find out what’s wrong, because something is wrong.”
I found a new gynecologist. At our first appointment, I sat in the chair and cried: “My last doctor told me that my vagina was atrophied but she gave me meds and they fixed the atrophy but my body still doesn’t work and it hurts so much and I hate myself and my body and I think I should just tell my husband to divorce me because he’s never gonna be able to have a regular life with me. Please can you tell me what’s wrong with me?”
She sat with me and talked me through a battery of exams, both internal and external. She told me that I had vaginismus and vulvodynia, and prescribed a topical painkiller and referred me to a pelvic floor physical therapist.
Armed with a diagnosis, I logged onto my computer and began the first of many Google searches. I learned that vaginismus made the muscles of my vagina contract involuntarily, making prolonged penetration impossible. I learned that vulvodynia was chronic pain around the vulva with no identifiable cause but which lasts for longer than three months. I learned that many thousands of women are misdiagnosed each year, while many more are told that there’s nothing wrong with them.
I learned that these diagnoses are most common in two groups: Indian women and evangelical Christian women. The medical literature is sparse, but what does exist suggests that these diagnoses are more common in populations where sex is treated as something negative and shameful.
Though my teachers would disagree (they did say that sex within marriage was beautiful and husbands were required to sexually satisfy their wives), I spent the first two-and-a-half decades of my life being told that sex—that any touch between the sexes—was bad and shameful. It’s hard to flip a switch on that mentality just because I had a ring on my finger.
I started seeing a pelvic floor physical therapist shortly after that appointment, and began seeing a licensed sex therapist. I knew that the physical problems were largely a manifestation of emotional and mental blockages related to sexuality, and I wanted to address the issues head on.
I loved my physical therapist and our weekly sessions, despite the fact that they caused me tremendous discomfort. Each week, my physical therapist stuck her fingers inside my vagina, pressing down on my muscles to decrease the tightness and teach my body to be comfortable with foreign objects inside me. I had to use a series of dilators, each bigger than the next, to continue this exposure therapy at home. None of this was covered by my insurance, which considers vaginismus and vulvodynia unnecessary problems to treat.
With my sex therapist, I began to uncover the emotional and mental entanglements that made sex impossible for me. In sessions alone and in sessions with my husband, we explored the meaning of shomer negiah in my life, the dictate to “wait until marriage,” the shame I associated with sex, and what it might mean to live a life different than the way I grew up.
Slowly, I began to heal.
Four years later, I’m proud to say that my husband and I have the sex life we were promised in our kallah and chatan classes. My teachers were wrong about many things, but they were definitely right about one thing: sex does mean so much more when you have to wait—and work—for it.