By Lara Parker
My first vibrator was bright pink with heart-shaped buttons. It had a lot of different settings and was “mind-blowing” according to the lady in Cirilla’s who sold it to me. But I didn’t care. At 22, I had never owned a vibrator before and didn’t know there could be different settings or shapes or any of it. All I was interested in was whether or not I would be able to use it to regain some feeling of normalcy again.
A little over a year before I had finally been diagnosed with endometriosis after over five years of wondering what the hell was going on with my body. It takes an average of seven doctor’s visits to be diagnosed with endometriosis—a disease that affects nearly 200 million people worldwide—in the United States. Six months later I was diagnosed with vulvodynia, vaginismus, and overall pelvic floor dysfunction. Penetrative sex, as a straight woman, was impossible for me. It was too painful. And it was hard to think of doing much else in the sex department when it seemed like everything I did hurt my vulva or pelvic floor in some way. I couldn’t wear underwear or have anything (including my own hand) touch my vulva without experiencing a fiery, burning sensation that quickly spread throughout my entire body and rendered me useless for hours at a time. And if I was able to feel aroused in any way despite this...well, that gave me a shooting pain, too. It didn’t take long before I began to associate arousal, orgasming, masturbating, and sex of any kind with pain, pain, and more pain.
Most of the time, I resorted to just not thinking about it. If a TV show had a sex scene, I immediately turned it off. I avoided dating. I even avoided my friends for fear that one of them would mention sex in some context. But despite all of the pain my pelvic floor, vulva, and body in general had put me through, I still longed to feel that sensation. I wanted my toes to curl, my arms to be covered in goosebumps. I wanted to feel short of breath and lost in the moment of an orgasm. I just wanted to feel normal. For months I worked in pelvic floor physical therapy to allow my vulva and pelvic floor to learn how to relax and be ok with contact again. I had to teach my body that not every touch would lead to pain. I spent hours upon hours of my life watching TV with dilators stuck in my vagina while deep belly-breathing in and out and telling myself that one day it would all pay off. I had given up on the idea of having penetrative sex and instead told myself, “Just focus in on orgasming.” If I could orgasm, I thought, then at least there would be some pleasure intertwined in all of this agony.
So that night, around six months after I had begun pelvic floor physical therapy, I took my new pink vibrator with the heart-shaped buttons out of its packaging. I got under my covers and turned out my light. And then, ever so slowly, I began to masturbate for the first time since all of this pain had entered my life. And when I was finally able to climax, tears began to pour out of my eyes. It wasn’t a perfect orgasm. In fact, it was still pretty painful. But I had done it. And in that moment, for the first time in over five years, I finally felt at peace with my body—if only for a few minutes.
In the six years that have passed between that moment and now, a lot has changed. I can now orgasm with little to no pain. I have spent years learning about the illnesses impacting my body and I have walked out of doctor’s appointments when they do not listen to me or take my symptoms seriously. I have talked endlessly and relentlessly to anyone who will listen to educate them on the lack of seriousness that is given to women’s health—especially black women—and I have written letters to my representatives asking for help. And I have begun to look at masturbation and orgasming as self-care. It’s an opportunity for me to remind my body that it can experience pleasure, too. My vibrators are some of my most prized possessions. In fact, I even installed shelves on my bedroom wall to display them.
The idea of masturbation used to feel terrifying to me. It always felt wrong to think about. But allowing your body to experience pleasure and getting in touch with your body’s desire couldn’t be more right. When you have a chronic, debilitating disease like endometriosis it’s easy to feel as if your body is punishing you. But I recognize now that my body and I are on the same side. We are fighting the same battle. And the battle against endometriosis is a hard one. That’s why, at the end of the day, we both deserve more than a few orgasms. This holiday season as you’re thinking of buying gifts for those you love, consider buying one for yourself, too. A vibrator. It’s not just a sex toy. It’s the ultimate form of self-care.