Our theme for the month of June is “sex and the church.” To read posts from our first pass at this theme, check out our June 2018 archives.

Here’s a scenario for you. You’re a girl growing up in a complementarian church. You think tampons are dangerous, because isn’t learning how to use a tampon the same as learning how to have sex? You eventually try one anyway before you go swimming. It doesn’t go in. Try another—nope. You reread the box. OK, you’re supposed to put a leg up like this, and … nothing. You never figure out tampons.

You meet a boy. You love him. Your youth group likes to remind you of your commitment to celibacy, but you don’t need the reminder; this is easy! Sex sounds painful and gross anyway.

It’s your wedding day. Speeches at the reception involve uncomfortable jokes about the “big night” ahead of you. The boy—now your husband—is ecstatic. All his life, the church has promised this: if he never gave into temptation, never touched you or himself or anyone with anything like sexual desire, he would receive his penis-in-vagina wedding night reward. It feels so much better when you wait, he’s been told. And now he has you, his promised submissive wife, the woman who is vowed to fulfill his sexual desires for the rest of his life.

But it doesn’t go in. Why would it?, you think. It’s bigger than a tampon. It doesn’t go in and it doesn’t go in and your husband’s lifetime of sexual tension has built up to this moment and you feel the failure and shame and inadequacy that started while you sat poolside watching your friends enjoy the water and you can still hear the uncles teasing about who’s going to make the first move tonight and finally it goes in a little bit and it hurts worse than any pain you’ve ever felt and you scream, even though you’re not a screamer, and tears flood your entire face and you don’t think you’ve ever sobbed as hard as you are sobbing now.


I’m lucky to be gay for many, many reasons, but I sometimes think God gave me “being gay” to save me from that wedding night.

I have a condition called vaginismus, which means my vagina doesn’t work. Some other people with vaginismus wouldn’t define it that way, but I think it gets right to the point. Nothing can get in there without extreme, uncontrollable-howl-and-wail-inducing pain. “Doesn’t work” seems to describe that just fine.

In more medical terms, vaginismus involves involuntary vaginal muscle spasms that interfere with or prevent vaginal penetration—sexual or otherwise. It can be related to other physical conditions, like endometriosis or vaginitis; it can also have roots in sexual trauma—either physical, like sexual assault, or psychological, like being told that sex is evil up until one day when you sign a marriage license and suddenly you’re supposed to do it all the time.

Many people with vaginismus who grew up in churches similar to mine identify with that last part. Purity culture can have long-term impacts on the body, making it hard to enjoy that long-promised “gift” of PIV sex. I don’t know whether my condition is rooted in my church upbringing. I lean toward “no,” though I have no other explanation for it. I wonder if I simply don’t want that to be the reason.

If it isn’t the cause, the church certainly didn’t help. In an environment absent any avenues for sexual exploration, I couldn’t identify vaginismus as something unusual in my body. I couldn’t prepare myself or my then-boyfriend for the implications of this diagnosis, which I wouldn’t officially receive until half a decade later on an examination table while I shuddered after my second failed pap smear.

I often wonder what would’ve happened if I’d had that wedding night, one weighed down by the expectations of a brand of purity culture that left little room for alternatives to PIV sex. What a disappointment I would have been. What narrow guidance I would’ve received within my church community. What painful “solutions” I would have endured.

There are treatments for vaginismus. They sound wretched to me. Exposure therapy and gradual vaginal dilation are long-term, “no pain, no gain” correctives. Now that I’m gay and have gotten past the part of life when anyone cares whether I use tampons, I don’t use my vagina enough to endure that. I’ll just scream bloody murder while a patient nurse probes me for HPV once every few years.

In another life, I’ve kept my adolescent church community at the cost of bleak years trying to condition my vagina to work like a good Christian woman’s. In this gay one, I don’t have the option to stay—not fully, not as my authentic self.


You meet someone who is not a boy. You love them. They don’t have any expectations of your vagina.


  1. Geneva Langeland

    I. Love. This. Queer solidarity, and happy Pride!

  2. tpc admin

    [This comment has been removed for failing to foster the kind of community that the post calvin is committed to facilitating.]

    • Laura Sheppard Song

      I’m choosing to believe this comment is a joke, because the alternative is believing that an adult human typed it in sincerity with a straight face, and I can’t abide that.

      Gwyneth, thank you for your vulnerability and beautiful writing here. Your critique is valuable.


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