Updated: Feb 2
Beila and Sruly (pseudonyms) are a charming couple in their 20’s. They were referred by Beila’s private therapist, for an unconsummated marriage. They’ve been married for over a year. Beila’s severe case of genophobia with vaginismus had prevented any physical penetration or intercourse. In their first couple’s session they present as a pleasant, functional marriage in which they respect one another, are mutually considerate, and enjoy each other’s company. They both work hard at their full time jobs, and enjoy quiet evenings and weekends in conversation and leisure. Only in the bedroom does the dysfunction appear.
In Beila’s first solo session, I ask her if she could describe what happens when they attempt penetration. Her eyes water, she crosses her arms, and she says: “I know you must think that he’s very rough, or that I had some kind of abuse as a child. But it’s not like that. My parents never laid a hand on me, and neither did anyone else. Sruly is kind and patient and I know I’m the problem. He would never try anything without my permission. And I hate it so much, and I wish we never had to do this, but I know that’s not a marriage, that there’s something wrong with me. So each time, I tell him: ‘Now- go! Try!’ and then he has my consent, and I feel like I’m raping myself. Over and over again.” She pulls her knees up to her chin, and buries her face in them.
There are some rare occasions when I fear I will start crying right in the middle of session and that moment was one of them. That raw, painful line: “I feel like I’m raping myself!” is one that I’ve since quoted to dozens of other women, who have permutations of the same problem. Some become emotional and immediately identify with the sentiment, while others say it’s not exactly like that for them.
But Beila poignantly expressed what many sexually suffering women are feeling in relationships where mandatory sex is built into the expectations and obligations of the marriage. When they know intercourse is coming after the wedding, ready or not. When they realize that sex is not an optional activity, but they’re scared or pained or disgusted by it, and they feel trapped. And these are the relatively enlightened women, the ones who actually end up in a therapist’s office because on some level, they realize this isn’t how it should be, and they want help. There are thousands of others, suffering in silence, in the dark, hopeless, traumatized, and retraumatized, feeling sexually coerced, but with no actual perpetrator. Their husbands are often caring, gentle, and respectful. In some cases, the husbands are not even aware that their wives are not feeling pleasure, let alone pain or angst. Many of these women put on a great show of “being fine”. The way another client described: “It’s like my brain and my mouth say ‘yes’ while my heart and my body scream ‘no!’ How could I possibly blame him for this?”
And so while her conscious, intellectual mind believes that she is safe, and that her husband is loving, and they are just doing what is right and natural for husband and wife, her limbic brain, emotions, and body develop a post-traumatic visceral aversion to anything associated with sex. Sometimes that means the husband himself, any form of touch, or even the bed. The shocking introduction to an obligatory sexual relationship generates fear and anxiety, which exacerbates the next sexual encounter and a vicious cycle ensues, often for years- even decades.
Some other tragic quotes I've heard multiple times from different women who suffer from these conditions, in technically nonabusive but sexually dysfunctional, traumatic marriages, include:
“I feel like having sex is a dreaded chore.”
“I’m so happy when I get my period.”
“I just close my eyes, grab the sheets, grit my teeth, and wish it over as quickly as possible.”
“It’s bad enough that I have to do this, but I also have to pretend to love it. It makes me crazy.”
“My whole life I thought I was such a good girl that I didn’t care about boys. Now I feel like a failure.”
“The first time, I thought my husband was some kind of sicko. But now I realize- all the men are like this. This is what they need us for.”
“I just roll over afterwards, and cry myself to sleep.”
“I wish there were something, anything else I could do for him instead of this.”
“My husband would feel terrible if he know how I felt.”
“It makes me sick that this is how my kids are made.”
“I was told it gets better with time, but for me it just gets worse.”
“I would avoid it if I could, but I don’t want my husband to sin/stray/leave me.”
“I feel broken- like I’m the only one who feels this way.”
This particular type of marital sexual dynamic is more likely to develop in certain insular cultural groups. Women who are raised with little to no exposure to boys/men, information about sexuality or desire, witness no affection between their parents, are out of touch with their bodies, or worse, received negative or fearful messages about any of these, are more susceptible. They have little vocabulary, few frames of reference, little sense of body autonomy, and limited informational resources. But even within these groups, individual differences and family cultures around matters such as love, touch, body comfort, intimacy, and openness contribute to the presence or absence of this phenomenon within each marriage. For example, some girls raised with no formal or explicit sexual education, nevertheless instinctively find their way to fantasy, self-pleasure, crushes or desire, while others remain oblivious into adulthood. Even those who know almost nothing, may discover their sexual awakening as a pleasant surprise. Many young women approach the wedding night, not only having never touched or been touched by a man, but with very limited preparation for what is to come.
Some women tell me they’ve pieced together bits from friends or vague instruction, but the general and official message they receive is: “Just let the man take the lead, and he’ll do what he needs to do.” (They often have an idea that it will be painful.) While surely for some women, perhaps those with naturally robust libidos, this idea of mystery could be exciting, and leads to a wondrous new landscape of pleasure, for many others, this can be terrifying- even paralyzing, and the beginning of a long nightmare.
Consider other forms of trauma in which there is no aggressor. One person may suffer a broken leg from a violent attack, while another breaks his leg in a no fault car crash. It is well-established that they may both suffer trauma from their experiences, even though the second vignette features no villain. Likewise, a woman who gives herself over to sex because she feels obligated, regardless of her personal readiness, may experience trauma, even though her husband did nothing wrong.
The repercussions of this process can be very serious. Sexual dysfunction untreated can lead to depression, anxiety, PTSD, avoidance, or marital disconnection or strife outside the bedroom. It can harm not only the marriage but the family well-being as well. Many women disclose in therapy, a sense that their own moms seemed in some way unhappy or trapped in their own marriages.
What is the solution to this serious problem? For women already suffering, the most effective approach would be psychoeducation and intensive, specialized therapy- for the trauma of how she was initiated into sexual activity, and the impact that had on her brain, body, psyche, and marriage, and sex therapy, to gradually build safety, desire, and pleasure. Marital therapy may be combined with this work in the many cases where the problem has severely eroded the relationship.
For women who are not yet married, but are at risk of developing these problems, one solution could be societal. One could even argue that it is dangerous to raise children with so little or nonexistent preparation for adult sexuality. A parent or society that gives children no experience or education about getting medical or dental care would easily be viewed as harmfully neglectful, even though they believe they are doing it for the children’s benefit. Knowing that children will grow up, marry young, often to spouses whom they don’t know well, and not preparing them in any meaningful way is comparable. Many of these women count among the few clear messages they do receive premaritally: “You’re not supposed to say ‘no’ to your husband.” So the husbands do "the right thing" and ask permission, while the wives do their “right” thing, and say yes, and allow themselves to be taken, repeatedly, against their own will. While there is no one malicious culprit in this story, there is serious damage. And there is also the potential to shift and improve the experience- both individually and societally.
Leaders in some of these communities are slowly beginning to recognize that this phenomenon is not the exception, but in large part, an outgrowth of, and perpetuated by certain cultural norms. And many of them are beginning to refer their constituents for proper professional help. It’s a start, but there is still a lot of suffering and a long way to go. It is my hope that the next phase of addressing this problem will be prevention. It’s not enough to just treat an illness; it’s far better to inoculate prophylactically. We need to offer more wholesome, incremental, age appropriate education, communication, biological and psychological awareness during puberty, and accessibility for adolescents’ questions. We need to do better premarital work. We need to cultivate more positive messages about subjects like: gender, sexuality, love, passion, romance, pleasure, touch, intimacy, and consent. Culturally sensitive and leadership sanctioned initiatives like this will go a long way in investing in marriages that are healthy, happy, loving and fulfilling- in and out of the bedroom. Thankfully, this is beginning to happen already, and the more and faster it does, the more unnecessary suffering can be prevented. To explore becoming part of the solution, see this sexuality education program.