26-year-old Amy Forrest suffered from the rare sexual condition vaginismus, which meant it took her six years of struggling before she could have sex for the first time.
"I always knew losing my virginity was going to be hard – nobody ever says it’s the best sexual experience of your life - but I never imagined it would take six years for me to manage to have sex.
I suffer from vaginismus - a term even I’d never even heard of until a friend saw it featured on TV - which means the muscles in my vagina would involuntarily contract whenever anything came near my genitals, making sex impossible and causing me to lose my self-esteem entirely.
I’d always been a bit squeamish when it came to anything to do with sex or periods when I was younger; I would faint when they started talking about sex education in high school, and would have to be taken out of class. But when I started thinking about having sex at the age of 18 with my high school boyfriend, it became obvious there was a deeper problem.
No matter how hard we tried, we just couldn’t have sex. Everyone says it’s difficult, they advise you to relax and have some wine, so I did - I had plenty of wine – but still, it never worked. There’s no other way to describe it than that it feels like a brick wall; my pelvic muscles would clench shut to the point it felt like there was a complete block.
I couldn’t use tampons, either. I almost fainted after my first attempt at putting one in; I just couldn’t do it. It wouldn’t go in and I got more and more stressed until I nearly passed out.
Although I never used sex toys on myself (if I couldn’t get a tampon up there I was hardly going to succeed with a dildo) I did try things on my own, like fingering myself, but it was just as bad. It wasn’t as painful as it felt when I tried to have sex, but it was just as bad.
I was lucky that my first boyfriend was incredibly supportive; he kept telling me to relax and was insistent we’d just keep trying. But however calm he was about the situation, it didn’t stop me feeling stressed out about it. Everyone around me was having their first times and I felt like I was missing out. I felt like I was holding my boyfriend back from experiences because it should have been his first time, too.
We were together for three years in total, and we never managed to have sex in that time. We eventually broke up, not because of the sex issue, but I stayed in the relationship longer than I should have because I believed no-one else would want me.
After a while of trying and failing to have sex, a friend told me to look up vaginismus online. She’d seen it covered on Embarrassing Bodies and as soon as I started researching the condition I knew it was what I had.
I went to my doctor and when she touched me with her little finger on the outside wall of my vagina, she took a look, I almost kicked her. I felt terrible about it but it was the first time I’d ever been inspected and the pain was unreal.
Bizarrely, she had never heard of vaginismus, so all she could do was give be the number of local sexual health clinic, where they referred on to their physiotherapist which didn't help at all.
"I FELT LIKE I HATED MYSELF"
Doctors quizzed me on whether there was anything that had happened in my past that might have caused such an extreme, subconscious reaction, but there wasn’t. It tends to be one of the first things medical experts ask, because it would make sense that someone who had been abused might suffer this kind of trauma later in life, but there’s nothing I can pinpoint that would have triggered it for me.
The more time went on, the more I struggled. While I was happy to open up to my mum and my friends about the issue, no-one could really understand what it was like, and when the doctors even seemed baffled about my condition I felt even more alone. I was trying all sorts of treatments – yoga, meditation, a dilator - and nothing was making any difference. I’d been checked medically to see if there was anything physically wrong, too, which there wasn’t; I just couldn’t have sex.
It’s hard being ‘the only virgin’ among your friends, and although I started owning it the older I got, being happy to tell people I’d never had sex, my confidence was very low. I felt like I hated myself and would break down all the time.
So when I came across a book called When Sex Seems Impossible, written by a doctor in America, it was almost life-changing. In it were stories of other women going through the same experiences, and it brought me to tears with how similar the scenarios were to mine. Knowing I wasn’t the only person in the world going through this kind of thing was such a comfort.
(Amy and her mum)
As well as the first-hand experiences, the book described a botox treatment the doctor practiced on vaginismus sufferers which had a success rate of about 80-90%. I instantly knew I needed to try it if I wanted any hope of having sex, but it wasn’t on the NHS and I couldn’t find anywhere in the UK that practiced it.
My mum was cynical about the treatment, too. She wanted to know why it wasn’t on the NHS, and whether it had been tested properly or not. Plus, it was expensive – around £1,200 for a treatment – and I’d been warned by doctors that these kind of clinics only want your money and that they don’t care about your wellbeing. But I persevered anyway, and when I eventually found a private clinic in London, I secretly travelled down from Scotland to have a consultation.
I didn’t tell my mum at first what I’d really been doing in London, but I eventually told the truth and she said she wanted me to try one more treatment before the botox. So I went for cognitive therapy and - just as I’d thought – it didn’t work, which left botox as the only option.
Finally, in April 2014, Mum and I travelled down to London for me to have the procedure. I was heavily sedated when they inserted six needles into my pelvic muscles (we’ve got three, so two needles in each), and two weeks later I was having penetrative sex with my boyfriend, who I’d been with for a few months. I couldn’t believe it.
It works so effectively as a one-off treatment because it breaks the cycle of vaginismus. The condition makes your mind believe penetration is going to hurt, so your body reacts protectively by involuntarily clenching your muscles. With the botox relaxing my muscles, I was able to insert dilators graduating up in size until I could take a penis, and that tricks the brain into no longer being scared of sex.
The first time I had sex at the age of 24, it felt incredible. I was so excited I texted everyone I knew, and it didn’t hurt or feel awkward at all because with the botox relaxing my muscles there was none of the discomfort you’d normally get when you’re having sex for the first time.
"I'M SO MUCH HAPPIER"
It took me a while to come around to being fingered; in fact I’ve only just been okay with that this year. That’s because of the support and trust I have with my boyfriend, he’s been so good with me, knowing when to push me a little bit further and what I’m comfortable with. Nowadays I quite often orgasm through penetration, and it’s hard to imagine how I was before.
When I felt at my lowest, I used to tell my boyfriend he should leave me because I couldn’t give him what he wanted, and I really meant it. I even offered for him to have sex with other people and just not to tell me about it. I genuinely meant that, too. Now, my confidence has skyrocketed because I don’t have this issue dragging me down anymore. I don’t have to worry that I might never have sex or that I’d never be able to have my own children. I’m so much happier."