My Broken Vagina by Fran Bushe is one woman’s funny, moving, and sometimes awkward quest to fix her sex life. But it’s also the story of millions of women everywhere – half of all women have felt pain during sex. The below extract is taken from the introduction of the book.
My name is Fran, I’m a writer and I have a vagina.
Let me try again . . . a vagina!
How about a vulva?
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Right. Yes. I see.
We are used to seeing vulvas and vaginas visually represented as fresh fruits, exotic flowers, glistening shellfish or a hidden water- ing hole in a fertile mountain glade. So zesty, so fresh, so censored! For a really long time, I thought my vagina was broken. If mine was to star in an advert, it wouldn’t have been a dewy orchid or a plump papaya. It would have been a drooping tulip or an angry-looking cuttlefish living in an algae-covered pond.
The trouble with representing genitalia as sea conches and mangoes is that it means the only vulva most heterosexual people with vaginas see is their own. Even this isn’t guaranteed (a mirror and privacy and courage and awkward angles are often required for this feat). Someone looking through anat- omy books is unlikely to find something that resembles their own genitalia, among scientifically symmetrical labia and neatly groomed mons pubis, sandwiched neatly, nearly always, between pale white slender legs. I didn’t speak about or look at mine for a really long time. I mostly just imagined an ‘out of order’ sign dangling over my pants.
So here goes. Here is mine.
[ILLUSTRATION OF FRAN’S VULVA …]
Ok, so I really wanted to draw my own vulva here, but I lost my nerve, mostly because in my head there was a horrified voice going ‘Oh Fran, you put your vulva in your book?! How will you get an eligible husband now? Cover your vulva with a lace-trim bonnet immediately and get thee on a bicycle (notoriously uncomfortable for vulvas) in an eternal spin class of shame!’ Plus, we barely know each other right now. Maybe once we’ve got more acquainted.
Though I didn’t want to put my vulva in the opening pages of this book, I absolutely did have a go drawing it, and you can too! If you want. Or describe it. Or tear out this page to make an elaborate origami labia minora and majora. But also, no pressure.
Your vulva is yours. I’m not suggesting that in reading this book you run out and immediately present your vulva to your CEO, mother-in-law or uber driver (that might not be good for your rating). Some revolutions are loud and fierce, some are as simple as reading a book or fetching your hand mirror. What I would like is to explode some of the stigma that stops people from asking questions and talking openly about all things vagina, the same stigma that made me think my vagina was broken for fourteen years. It should not be controversial showing a vulva or saying the word ‘vagina’, but every day people are shamed and censored for doing just this. Sadly, the only thing more shameful than having a vagina, it seems, is having one that doesn’t do exactly what it says on the tin.
I often find penetrative sex painful.
I’ve been pussy (wheyo!) footing around writing that sentence for a little while, but there it is.
The act that is meant to be one of the most pleasurable, intense, passionate birthrights of being human for me can feel quite the opposite. It can sting. It can feel awkward, sometimes it just won’t be possible at all. Vagina says no, you shall not pass! This can make me feel broken: as a lover, as a woman, as a human being. Alongside that . . .
I find it difficult to orgasm.
I want to be an overflowing bubbling brook of sexual vivacity, coming when the lightest breeze touches my skin. Nicki Minaj demands an orgasm every single time she has sex! I’m not asking for quite that much (although good on you, Nicki!), I just want sex to feel a bit nice some of the time. Disclaimer: I can orgasm. It does happen. For me, orgasm can take a level of concentration and time that drains the fun out of any sexual experience, leaves everyone’s fingers bent in odd directions and the end results can be like a party popper that’s been left in a garden shed for too long. A few years ago though, I decided I wanted to fix this. My mission to mend my broken vagina began.
Lots of people had opinions about my wanting to do this.
PEOPLE WITH OPINIONS: You’re being a bit greedy Fran.
They were worried that like a sexy Icarus I might melt my vulva right off through too much self-exploration.
PEOPLE WITH OPINIONS: Can’t you just be pleased with what your body can do? Rather than focusing on what it can’t! So negative!
I found myself apologising and feeling guilty for not feeling satisfied.
PEOPLE WITH OPINIONS: Where will it end Fran? Where will it end?
It was nice they were concerned about me, but I wasn’t sure what they were afraid of. Surely the best-case scenario was that it would end with more pleasure, more sexual satisfaction and more confidence knowing that I had the right to more. Worst case scenario was RSI and a slightly better understanding of my body. Some research shows that in the workplace women are four times less likely to ask for a raise in salary and when they do ask for one it is for 30% less than men ask for. I wondered if the same was true of sex. Had I been conditioned to accept my lot, be grateful, amiable, inoffensive, passive and never ask for more?
We as a species have mastered flight, transplanted the human face and brought woolly mammoth cells back to life. How can we have a theory of quantum mechanics but still only 65% of heterosexual women orgasm most of the time, compared to 95% of men? Why is Viagra now available over the counter in UK pharmacies, whereas the equivalent for people with vaginas is either popping a crystal or an $1,500 injection into your genitals? Why, when we can make bionic eyes is questioning a doctor about sex still often resulting in flustered paper shuffling? Why have there only been 5,000 publications on female sexual difficulties, compared to 14,000 on male sexual disorders? Why were 99.99% of my sexual experiences framed by my partners’ erection to ejaculation bookend? I felt I was owed a lot of answers (and a lot of orgasms).
My symptoms come under the umbrella diagnosis of FSD, Female Sexual Dysfunction, the sexiest of all the dysfunctions. This disorder can include problems with desire, orgasm and pain during sex, I have experienced all three of these at some point. According to the Sexual Advice Association, it is estimated around a third of young and middle-aged women suffer from a form of sexual dysfunction, along with around half of older women. That is SO MANY people, but frighteningly probably only the tip of the iceberg, given it’s not always a subject people openly discuss or feel comfortable seeking help for. I myself discovered the term while Googling my symptoms, trying to work out what exactly was wrong with me – and there it was (underneath many pop-up adverts for ‘horny women in my area’) Female Sexual Dysfunction.
Labels can be useful, it means the thing you are experiencing exists, you aren’t going mad and it isn’t all in your head. The word ‘dysfunction’ didn’t sit well with me. It made me feel like a faulty vending machine, stuck half-way through releasing a KitKat. It made me want to take my vagina back to the shop for a refund immediately. I couldn’t see myself reclaiming the condition, doing park runs wearing FSD wrist- bands or putting it on my dating profile, #sexuallydysfunctional #dysfunctionalfemale. If I was dysfunctional, surely I could be made functional? A technician could be called, I could be rebooted, turned off and back on again.
This book is for anyone who has ever put someone else’s needs in front of their own, told a lie to save another’s feelings or felt like they were doing something very basic very wrong. It’s for anyone who has ever faked an orgasm, experienced pain or discomfort during sex (75% of women) or had their body in the room but their mind distracted thinking about the human rights of robots or the fact that there is plastic at the bottom of the 7-mile-deep Mariana Trench. It is particularly for anyone who has been made to feel they are not sexually ‘normal’.
I promise you are not on your own.
I have only ever had one vagina. I identify as a cisgender female and have only had sex with people who identify as male. I only know what it’s like to have my vagina. I have no idea what it’s like to have genitals that don’t feel like they belong to my body. I have never given birth. I menstruate (irregularly, when my uterus feels like doing it – usually just as I hand over the cash to buy a pregnancy test). My experience is limited. No two humans are the same; no two sexual experiences are the same; no two vaginas are the same; some women don’t have vaginas; some men do. I don’t have a qualification in sex and I have absolutely no medical training (my last first aid certificate expired in 2004). I haven’t even slept with all of the people to be able to give you a completely fair and thorough evaluation of all of the sex. I wish I could say go sleep with so and so from Chichester and they’ll sort it out, but I can’t. I’ve just had some of the sex with some of the people and a bit with myself. To make sure my mission to fix my broken vagina was comprehensive and inclusive, I spoke to experts in sexual health, medicine and pleasure and asked strangers of all ages and backgrounds to generously share their own stories. Their stories appear as follows, alongside their age, if they wanted to share this.
Can you tell me something brilliant about your genitals?
My flaps are super stretchy. Me and a friend came home drunk once and showed each other how far they come out. 23
I can fanny fart on command, it’s my party trick.
When I was 13, I found my clitoris and burnt it out during GCSE revision 🙂 27
I put a tampon up my butt the first time I tried to use it. Then I had to use a pocket mirror for ages to find out where ‘the right hole is’.
Can you tell me something brilliant about your genitals?
was also the question that most people chose to skip or said things like . . .
No. And that’s a bit sad. 41
Sadly, I can’t think of anything. 23
I feel sad that I don’t have anything to say here. 33
Statements such as ‘I actually like the look of my genitals. 28’, should not have felt as radical, profound and rare as they did.
Collecting this information felt oddly rebellious. When I first attempted to get my questionnaire beyond my immediate generally sex positive bubble, I found myself removed and banned from forums . . .
THREAD DELETED: Hard to explain why but when someone starts a thread containing the word ‘Vagina’ we become instantly suspicious.
Given unsolicited advice . . .
OMG you are a very confused woman! Sex is actually much simpler . . . you are just overthinking it. Just lie on your back and relax and enjoy
And made some friends along the way . . .
I bet you’ve got a fanny like a clown’s pocket
Isn’t the internet lovely.
A few wondered why I was asking to speak to ‘people with vaginas’, rather than using the term ‘women’. Having a vagina doesn’t make you a woman and being a woman doesn’t mean you have a vagina. In my mind if you considered yourself to have a vagina, whatever meaning that had for you, I wanted to hear from and amplify your experience. As a straight, white cisgender woman I knew I had experienced enough difficulty being heard and listened to about my vagina; further silencing of voices certainly was and still is not what is needed. Language is important. Choice of words is powerful. I will be using the words ‘female’ and ‘woman’ when it pertains to my experience (because this is how I identify) and in quoting research studies and medical instances, where gender is currently documented as largely binary.
At times I felt like giving up on sex, because it often seemed like it wasn’t for me. What kept me going was talking to other people about it, learning how intimacy fitted into their lives and how sex really isn’t just the in-out in-out activity we learn about (if we are lucky) in Biology class. So, as well as the survey findings, throughout this book are interviews with people with different relationships to sex, talking candidly about their own experiences. I hope you will enjoy how there really is no such thing as ‘normal’.
Some of my experiences described in this book are upsetting and others reading them might find them so. At the time I thought those experiences were ‘just what modern dating is like’; I know now this isn’t the case. At the back of this book is a list of organisations which offer support and information for anyone who finds themselves in a relationship they are struggling to get out of, and also for anyone who wants to ask for help with a sexual issue.
In writing this book I spent long days learning about sex, overthinking sex, reading sex facts, sex techniques, pouring over my own sexual history and solidifying and challenging my sexual beliefs and boundaries and then I’d slip into bed and try to uphold everything I’d learnt. Reader, I imagine having sex with me at that time was a bit like shagging a biology textbook (and a psychology textbook and sociology and probably a few other –ologies, no one needs to be told sex facts mid-coitus).
Knowledge is power but being too academic and serious about sex can disconnect you from your body all over again. So, breathe in, be ridiculous, be messy, be curious.
I wish I could guarantee incredible sex and an orgasm just from reading this book, imagine that! Bestseller list here I come (no pun intended … ok, maybe a small pun intended). Orgasms are not our goal here. I hope it creates some comfort in a world where talking about vaginas and their pleasure and pain is difficult, and often treated as novelty, invisible or frivolous. Feeling that a part of you is broken can be an incredibly lonely experience, so I hope more than anything this book can be a big reminder that no matter what your relationship with vaginas, you are absolutely not on your own.
My Broken Vagina is out now and available to buy. Published by Hodder Studio.