Two years ago, I didn’t go to the spa with my friends because I couldn’t insert a tampon without excruciating pain. My friends knew why I stayed home but they didn’t fully understand my frustration. I wanted to seem chill. Inside, I felt supremely incapable.
I originally planned the trip to the spa. “Go without me, guys,” I urged. I was only angry at myself; as such, I started researching what could possibly be wrong with me. “People just assume tampons are this easy thing for all women,” I thought bitterly. It was then that I discovered Shelby Hadden’s seminal essay on her experience with vaginismus. I’d never heard of vaginismus before.
What is vaginismus? The name itself is a little off-putting. People do not seem to remember it, even if you pronounce it multiple times. When it comes to STIs, people are keen to remind you that STIs are not necessarily diseases. At the very least, they’ve heard the names of them, they know the treatment, they know how to avoid contracting them. “People don’t know that there’s treatment for vaginismus, they don’t understand it, and so it just freaks them out,” remarks Shelby Hadden.
I reached out to the twenty-six year old filmmaker on Facebook and learned that she had penetrative sex for the first time at the age of twenty-five. She doesn’t like to say she lost her virginity. The phrase she prefers? Making her sexual debut. “Your virginity was not something you could casually lose,” I agree. “It was definitely something that I earned,” she replies. “I had worked really hard.”
“Doing it” is something that comes naturally to most people. But not everyone. “People will say, Well there’s other things that you can do. Rationally, I knew that,” Shelby sighs. “But when you’ve had chronic pain, anything to do with sex can give you a lot of anxiety.”
Our society can be very focused on making people feel as though their value comes from sexual activity. “I’ve been in situations where people didn’t know my situation,” Shelby tells me. “And they would say things like ‘Ugh, I haven’t had sex in two months! I don’t even know how to do it anymore.” Shelby’s vaginismus made her feel alienated.
What parts of sex work for you? What are you willing to try? Shelby was never asked those questions. “Vaginismus never felt like a conversation,” she laments. “It felt like I told people this thing and they reacted like, Oh shit, gotta go, see you never.” Straight men viewed her inability to have penetrative sex as a deal-breaker. Even her queer friends (who definitely had a broad inclusive definition of sex) couldn’t necessarily relate to her experience with vaginismus.
So Shelby took it upon herself to write and direct an animated film. Tightly Wound elaborates on her journey with vaginismus and pelvic floor physical therapy. The response to the film has been “overwhelmingly positive” as she constantly hears from strangers around the world who are excited about the work she does. “I wish I knew back when I was struggling so hard that all these people existed,” she smiles. “Since I shared my story, they want to share their story with me, which is great; I mean, that’s how you and I met!”
I strongly believe that a multitude of individuals will benefit from this film: primarily women who have vaginismus or pelvic pain but also any woman, man, or non-binary person who is frustrated with the way that penetrative sex is viewed as the pinnacle of sexual activity. “Whether it’s for someone like you or me who couldn’t have penetrative sex, or if that’s just not the sex you’re into, if you’re queer. Some people don’t even like sex at all,” Shelby asserts. There often isn’t a broader discussion pertaining to the spectrum of how much people desire sex or want to engage in sex, which is unfortunate. “That also played into my feelings about my own body and my own sexuality,” says Shelby.
Keep reading to learn more. ///
RS: What do you do in Austin, Shelby?
SH: I work for a production company called Blue Suitcase Productions. I’m teaching a Basic Video Production class and an Advanced Directing class at Texas State University. I work on documentaries when I can.
RS: Do you have any advice for aspiring filmmakers?
SH: Sometimes I wish I studied something else in college so that I would have a backup plan because making money as a filmmaker is difficult. But I’m glad I didn’t because this is the only option. Failure is not an option; I have to figure it out. Go in with the mindset that if somebody says no, you can’t get discouraged. You have to think of another idea, ask somebody else for help. Find your right team. I found that you can meet somebody and that connection might not pay off in a tangible way for months (or years). But it’s always good to plant seeds and learn about people and figure out how you could collaborate in the future.
RS: How did you find your animator, Sebastian?
SH: My animator and I went to grad school together. I just felt really close to him. If he said no, I don’t know if I would have looked for anyone else because back then I didn’t tell anyone about my vaginismus.
RS: You mentioned you also admire the style of the French illustrator Marion Fayolle?
SH: Oh my gosh, I love her. Her stuff was really influential for Tightly Wound. And Leslie Jamison - she wrote a collection of essays called The Empathy Exams.
RS: The essay you wrote back in the day for Bust… That was the most detailed thing I’d read about vaginismus at the time.
SH: I had a great experience with pelvic floor physical therapy but it’s hard work. It’s painful, it costs a lot of money and time and I was really frustrated that I was still in it. Well, how can I even measure my goal of being able to have sex when I don’t have a partner? Dating when you can’t have sex really sucks. So I was feeling down and hopeless. I felt like I had no control over my situation. Yes, I was working hard physically to change my body but I couldn’t force my body to change on a dime and I couldn’t force someone to like me enough to date me.
RS: Is the film leading up to when you had sex?
SH: It doesn’t address that.
RS: It addresses the vaginismus as it was discovered?
SH: The film goes through my journey of going to lots of doctors and trying different treatments (many of them not medically accurate) to finding pelvic floor PT, going to that, being able to use a tampon finally…
[Spoiler alert] RS: How does it end?
SH: With a scene that is in the essay when the guy laughed at me when I told him. It just kind of ends with me reflecting on the fact that this sucks, and I don’t know what’s going to happen in the future and it’s hard being my age and feeling really left out. Left out of dating, relationships, love, sex… All my friends are getting married! But the end of the film is me saying that I’m just going to keep trying.
RS: What is the title card afterwards?
SH: “Since the production of this film, Shelby has had a boyfriend, has fallen in love, and has had sex.”
RS: Which sometimes you still wish you didn’t put in.
SH: I wanted the ending to stay how it was. Even though everybody wanted this perfectly neat happy ending, I wrote that essay from a point of frustration and hopelessness. Lots of people are going through really long journeys figuring out their medical problems and I wrote Tightly Wound from a place of uncertainty so I wanted to honour that. I decided to put in the title card just so that people with pelvic floor dysfunction could see that I have reached those goals.
RS: I see both sides. You want people to know that the situation doesn’t just change in one week or one month … or one year.
SH: I wish people would stop shaming other people for their decisions. It’s the virgin-whore dichotomy. If you’re sexually active or you have sex at an early age, then you’re a slut or a sexual deviant. If you wait ’til you’re older to start having sex, or you choose not to have sex, or you can’t have sex, then you’re a prude and you’re weird …
RS: In France, they have this phrase mal-baisé. It’s like, you just haven’t been fucked lately. Even one time I saw this tweet from J.K. Rowling of all people. She was calling one of her haters a virgin as an insult, and I wondered, Couldn’t she have found another way to insult him?
SH: There was a male virgin on The Bachelorette this season and it was interesting to see reactions to that information. People didn’t believe him. The bachelorette was freaked out. And all the guys were like, “Sex is such an important thing.” It made me very upset. Just because he never had sex with someone else doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not going to be good with her. And just because the other men did have sex doesn’t mean they would be good with her.
RS: That’s a valid point. There’s just so many judgements surrounding sexual activity.
SH: My friend said that she hadn’t had sex in two years between serious relationships and someone said, “Ugh, that is so pathetic.” Like, why? There should just be no shame in anybody’s choices when it comes to their sexuality and how they act on their sexuality.
RS: I agree. I try my best to be sex-positive even though I’m not experiencing the same forms of sexual activity as other people. I just feel like there’s many things people say that are so focused on penetration (or literally just having things in your vagina) which is not something I’m always capable of.
SH: And it’s hard because it sounds like both you and I are sex-positive people and we have friends who are sexually active. And whatever my friends want to do, I support them. But there are many different ways that pelvic pain affects someone’s sexuality/views on sex/anxiety around sex/feelings about their body. People just don’t really understand all the layers so they offer simple solutions. Oh you know, just try this, you’ll be fine. It’s more complicated than that.
RS: You’ve been answering a lot of doctors’ questions lately as well?
SH: Every opportunity I get, I go speak somewhere or have a meeting with someone. I’m going to a doctor’s group Monday morning to show them the film. At this point I don’t really have any asks. I could always use more money but I’m also like, “You know what, if it changes the way a doctor sees this condition, maybe they can treat their patients differently… or learn something new about pelvic floor physical therapy.”
RS: That’s inspiring!
SH: Yeah it’s funny. I’ll get a lot of questions, and I’m like, Remember I’m not a doctor, I can’t explain all of it. But from a patient perspective, I didn’t like when a doctor told me this… Or when you do this to a patient, this is how it feels. I’ve had doctors tell me to drink alcohol.
SH: Doctors told me that when I was 19. I wasn’t even legally of age. I had one doctor, she had a nurse hold my knees down while she forced the speculum in and that was so traumatic.
RS: That’s awful.
SH: While I was crying and saying no. That’s basically assault.
RS: I’m sorry you went through that. Doctors need to offer their patients better care.
SH: I know, I’ve had doctors refuse to examine me because I wasn’t sexually active. As though that’s the only reason you should get examined. My first gynecologist that really knew about vaginismus, she took her time with me and asked good questions. She was like, Okay, I’m putting the speculum on your leg. Take some deep breaths. I just love her so much. I didn’t find her until I came to Austin. I didn’t like any other gynecologist before that.
RS: Can you tell me about the guy with whom you made your sexual debut?
SH: He was like, this should be fun. I had told him before we were physically intimate. He said, “If it happens, it happens, if it doesn’t, it doesn’t. It’s not going to change the way I feel about you and it’s not a deal-breaker.” I was on vacation and he lived on the opposite side of the world so we weren’t going to be in a serious relationship. But I just remember there wasn’t pressure. He said, “Whatever happens is fine.”
RS: That’s so nice.
SH: And it was fun. And the first time we tried we were successful and then later we tried again and we weren’t. And there was no shame, he was not angry. He was just like, “It’s cool, let’s do something else.”
RS: That should be the norm.
SH: I know. It’s interesting because now I’ve hooked up with some guys who couldn’t get it up and they were so upset and I told them, “It’s really okay. We can try again later or we don’t have to.” Because I know there are medical reasons, there are physiological reasons. It could be anxiety, it could be a lot of things.
RS: I feel like men are also experiencing anger because they’ve been taught that erectile dysfunction is something to be ashamed of. “This is a thing I want to do but I can’t so I failed” kind of thing.
SH: I do feel bad for men who have erectile dysfunction because it’s the butt of so many jokes. That really upsets me because I feel like we shouldn’t be shaming any sexual dysfunction. I went to an improv show with somebody one time, and it was just jokes about ED over and over again. And I was just like, This is not funny!
RS: It’s stressful and painful.
SH: We talk about people not being able to get it up but we don’t talk about people not being able to get it in. So on one hand I’m glad that vaginismus/pelvic pain isn’t the butt of such jokes, but, on the flip side, at least people know about ED … and there’s Viagra, which is covered under insurance.
RS: Not to mention the emphasis on PIV sex is so heteronormative.
SH: Oh it’s absolutely super heteronormative. There’s an expectation that people are having lots of orgasms, too. I just think it’s hard. The other day I saw someone post, “If you can’t have an orgasm, all you need to do is buy a vibrator, try some things out.” Try a different position, try a different move. It’s not always so simple. There are physiological reasons why you might not be able to achieve orgasm and that’s something I’ve talked to my doctor about.
RS: As you’ve been getting picked up by more major publications lately, do you find men are sending you more inappropriate messages?
SH: I’ve gotten a lot of messages from men who have offered to have sex with me. Even on LinkedIn, I got a message about it. The subject line was “Sex” and then it said “I have a small penis, do you want to have sex with me?”
RS: Hahaha. I’m not even surprised, sadly.
SH: Some men have commented on my stuff like “Why do you tell people? You should be embarrassed by it.” I’m not embarrassed by it. That’s the whole point of this film. And I have had sex since the film but a lot of people don’t know that. It’s out there, obviously, but I’m not going to be like, “Well, I have had sex!”
RS: It feels like you’re always prompted to disclose much more than other people. Well, you don’t necessarily have to but once you tell people about vaginismus….
SH: I get lots of questions like “What turns you on?” or “How often do you masturbate?” Just a lot of personal things. And I’m like, I don’t know why you think you can ask me these questions and I don’t know why you want to know. Vaginismus aside, I think there are some people who just have this luck. They go from serious relationship to serious relationship to serious relationship and I just don’t. I mean, yes, the pelvic pain stuff has a lot to do with it but I’ve been over my vaginismus for two years now.
RS: The dating world is still a minefield. Paris is annoying too because it’s the “City of Love.” It’s often hyped up to who’s having the most sex. And if you’re not, you must not be playing “the game” well. And you still have guys who have stood you up.
SH: I’ve been ghosted too. Some people have the luck and some people don’t, that’s what I keep finding. I did kind of think, “Oh it will get better once I don’t have vaginismus anymore.” But it’s really not.
RS: How was Annecy by the way? How did people at the festival react to Tightly Wound?
SH: The director of the festival said, “I saw your film and I was just so happy to see that story told.” I said, “Thank you for telling me that and for programming the film!” We met one guy at a party and he was like “Oh, I saw your film. I’ve never heard so many people cheer for someone being able to have sex before.” Another guy said, “Oh yeah, that’s a very memorable film. You’re much better looking in person.”
RS: That’s a very French thing to say!
SH (laughs): Is it?
RS: It hasn’t always been smooth sailing for you with the festivals.
SH: We’ve gotten into a bunch, and I shouldn’t complain. It’s hard because people see the tip of the iceberg. We’ve gotten rejected from around fifty and gotten into about ten. And it’s interesting to get the feedback. Not all festivals give feedback (it’s pretty rare actually), but when they do, I’m like, Oh wow, you didn’t get it all.
RS: How so?
SH: I got one review that was basically #NotAllMen. They were just disappointed that there wasn’t a good guy in the film. It would have been nice to have an example so that men can see how to behave in this situation.
SH: Yeah, you know what? I wanted a good guy in my life but I didn’t get that!
RS: That’s so annoying. They just want the packaged story with the happy ending where the man is the one who brought you the success rather than your own hard WORK.
SH: Exactly. The film is not about the other person, it’s about me! It’s about my journey, not about this guy saving me. It just made me so mad.
RS: It’s weird because men can know about the condition and still treat you poorly. They’re just not doing the work required to be decent people.
SH: Exactly! That’s not my job to teach them how to be emotionally intelligent or sensitive or empathetic.
RS: What are your self-care strategies?
SH: I like to watch movies and hang out with my cats. I also just love reading. I love to read and eat some ice cream and sit with my cat. Sometimes exercise feels like self-care, sometimes when it’s over a hundred degrees it does not.
/// As of September 4th, in conjunction with World Sexual Health Day, you can watch Tightly Wound in its entirety here. / Shelby's website / Instagram / Tightly Wound official site / Pelvic Pain Resources /