When it comes to vaginal dryness, conversations pretty much always centre around menopause. As a woman in my early twenties, I couldn’t find any resources for someone like me.
The autoimmune condition that I have (lichen planus) affects mucous membranes. This did have a small impact on my mouth and gut (hello irritable bowel syndrome!) but naturally, the primary impact was on my vulva and vagina.
It took a long time to find a doctor who took my symptoms seriously. I’ve written about that in other posts here, so I won’t go over it again. I can’t tell you how many times a medical professional told me that I was “too young” for the medical problems that I had. I still don’t understand why they do that – is it supposed to make me feel better? “You’re sick, but at least you’re interestingly and unusually sick.” It’s not nearly as helpful a comment as people seem to think.
The dryness was a problem for a number of reasons. For a start, it was just plain uncomfortable, all of the time. Secondly, it made attempts at intimacy even harder. I already had neuropathic pain (vulvodynia) but the treatment for that is massage and touch, which doesn’t work when there’s something physically wrong with the skin. You just end up reinforcing the pain cycle. There are a number of things you can do to be intimate that aren’t penetrative sex, but when your skin is so dry and fragile that it literally splits open under pressure even those are limited(1).
The best recommendation I ever got was from a dermatologist who suggested that I try Yes water-based lubricant. It actually helps rehydrate tissue, which was kind of amazing. I’d already been given a steroid ointment and topical anaesthetic, so I didn’t want a lubricant that would react with them. And my skin was so dry and sore that applying them made me cry – especially the anaesthetic, which worked after a few minutes but burned like hell first. I had to apply the steroid twice a day, and the aneasthetic on an ad-hoc basis whenever the pain got too much or I wanted to attempt sex. It’s difficult to feel desirable when you have to plan ten minutes of crying and swearing before anyone can try to touch you. Then you realise that, although you’re no longer in pain, the anaesthetic has rendered your ‘sensitive areas’ almost completely numb. Perfect.
The hope was that a hydrating lubricant might help protect the delicate tissue of my vulva and improve my general comfort. The lichen planus caused small open sores and splits in the skin, and the strong steroid had the side-effect of making the fragile skin even thinner(2). If I was particularly unlucky, these sores and open wounds would fold up and get stuck in painful pinches that had to be delicately and agonisingly pulled apart, lest they heal in the wrong place and cause permanent scarring.
Amazingly, it worked. During the worst period of my pain, before the lichen planus finally gave in to the steroid, I used the water-based lube every day – sometimes twice. It stopped my skin from splitting as much, making it softer and more pliable. It also stopped the dry skin and little wounds from sticking, which was a blessing. The lube always felt cool on my skin, and provided temporary relief even during the worst flare ups. On a bad day, I could often be found spread-eagled on my bed, legs akimbo, wearing nothing but a thin layer of lube and cursing even the air currents that caused my nerves to spark like live wires. Chronic pain is very often undignified.
It might sound stupid in the context of a chronic pain condition, but my inability to have any kind of pleasant intimate contact(3) really affected my mental health. I didn’t feel like a ‘real’ woman without the ability to be sexual. In retrospect, I can see that my boyfriend put a lot of pressure on me to be sexual with him. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that that was my most important feature for him. When it became obvious that I wasn’t getting better, he very quickly found someone else to have sex with. He even managed to convince me that it would be good for both of us.
Don’t judge me, but it made sense at the time. I am a bisexual woman, and we’d already experiemented with inviting other women to join us for one-night stands. It was fun, and I thought that adding another woman to the relationship would take the pressure off of me to ‘perform’ for my boyfriend. The theory went that if one-off liaisons were fun, then regularly seeing the same woman would be better, as we’d be able to get to know her and really communicate my particular needs. In previous encounters I had struggled to communicate the kind of touch that I needed – namely, very, very gentle. One-night stands are all very well, but alcohol is often involved, and it lends itself to clumsy fumbling rather than the kind of clear and shameless communication required for fun sex with a chronic pain disorder.
Unfortunately, the vaginal dryness meant that even lesbian (non-penetrative) sex was often at best unenjoyable and at worst downright painful. Even during periods where my vulva wasn’t actively painful to the touch, I found it frustratingly difficult to become aroused. All sexual contact has been unpleasant for such a long time that even when I cognitively wanted to have sex, my body just couldn’t get turned on. My vulva was either painful or weirdly numb; most of the time, it felt as objectively erotic as my elbow.
Part of this, I suspect, was a response to the aforementioned harassment from my then-boyfriend. He was incapable of respecting my boundaries; any time I agreed to cuddle him, he would inevitable grab at my breasts or my bum. In bed, I started wearing pyjamas rather than sleeping nude, in an effort to discourage him from touching me inappropriately. I started feeling tense every time he was near me, always expecting him to grab at me, and anxious about the row that would inevitably follow. He said that my behaviour made him feel rejected and unloved. I countered that I was trying non-penetrative intimacy, but he always pushed my boundaries..
The eventual result of this backwards and forwards debate was that he just didn’t touch me at all. Without sex as a goal he didn’t see the point. I, in turn, felt acutely lonely. Going weeks or months at a time without any kind of physical contact with another human being is an experience that I hope never to repeat.(4) Sometimes, feeling lonely in the company of someone you’re supposed to be intimate with is much more jarring than just being lonely by yourself. My heart ached for contact and reassurance, but I didn’t know how to ask for it without paying with sex. As a result, I spent a lot of my time curling up, curling in on myself. I’d sit on the sofa with my legs up, arms around my knees. I’d sit cross-legged on dining room chairs. I curled up in bed, arms wrapped around myself. I took to wearing large shawls or even blankets in the house, wrapping myself up tightly.
In this situation, adding another woman to the relationship helped a bit. She wasn’t exactly emotionally available, but she was more comfortable being physically intimate with me, even in a platonic sense. It’s amazing how comforting it can be to just sit next to someone on the sofa with your legs gently touching, rather than having them sit in a different chair on the other side of the room. I didn’t realise how much comfort I took from touching people until I went through a period where I couldn’t do it. Several times a day I would hug her, kiss her cheek, place a hand on her shoulder or the small of her back, hold her hand or even just sit near her.
After a couple of years we invited her and her kids to move in with us, They were already over 5 nights a week, so it made sense. Less travel, shared expenses etc. In retrospect, it was a step too far. But I threw myself into my relationship with her, perhaps to compensate for my deteriorating relationship with my then-boyfriend. Things were ok during the day, aside from the added pressure of being a full-time live-in step-parent. The downside wasat night. She slept between us, but complained that she got too hot. The solution was two double duvets on the king-sized bed. Theoretically it meant everyone could be comfortable, but what usually happened was that she and he slept together under one, and left me alone under the other. I complained to him at one point that I felt lonely, left out on the periphery. We tried changing places for a couple of nights, but they both complained that they preferred the previous arrangement and so switched back.
Maybe it’s because I’m a twin; my whole life, up until my early teens, I was accustomed to sharing my space with another person. Maybe if I’d had a twin brother, it would have been different, but as sisters we were close. We argued a lot, don’t get me wrong. But the other one was always there.
I wonder if that’s why, even now as I approach 30, I still crave human contact. I wish that I was better at asking for this kind of platonic contact from my friends. But, as I’ve mentioned before, I’m not very good at developing close friendships.
Even then,in a committed polygamous relationship, I relied on my friends for physical contact. I was very close with one or two in particular who could be relied upon for cuddles when I was sad or upset or lonely. Unfortunately, they found it too difficult to maintain their friendships with me after the break up, and ghosted me over the following six months. I still don’t know if I did something to offend them, or if it was just easier for them to stop investing in the relationship. The loss of those friendships still stings, but I’ve come to accept that losing them was just part of the process I had to go through to get free of my exes.
After I got out of that toxic relationship, and my pain started to reduce, I had to learn how to touch myself all over again. It was very much like being a teenager again. I had no idea what felt good. So much of my early sexual experimentation had been framed in the context of what my ex liked, since I was only 17 and had only had one previous boyfriend when we met. I wasn’t exactly sexually experienced, so allowed him to guide me. At the time it felt exciting, but in retrospect it makes me feel ill to think of myself as a cliche eager-to-please teen performing for an older man.
I already had a small collection of sex toys that I’d acquired during the polygamous years.(5) The first thing I did with my new-found freedom was treat myself to something new. Before I tried my luck with a new sexual partner, I took a little time to work out what I liked on my own. Just the thought of trying to explain my needs to a whole new person was enough to make me anxious. I actually felt more comfortable exploring my needs on my own, rather than with a partner. The biggest problem with my previous poly relationship was that I’d either act like a sex toy for the pair of them – providing pleasure but never receiving any myself – or I’d be left out of the equation entirely and feel like an awkward spare wheel. No one wants to watch a couple have sex, or have limited involvement in the role of glorified fluffer, only to finish with a sad lonely wank in the corner. Eurgh.
It never occured to me that I could have asked either of my partners to help me ‘finish’. That would have been awkward. Don’t ask me why – if you can have a threesome with someone, mutual masturbation shouldn’t be weird, but there we are.
I’m still learning what works for me, and learning that it’s ok to communicate my needs. The first time I found myself aroused – genuinely, physically aroused – was delightful. For the first time in forever, my body didn’t feel broken; if felt mine. I’m fortunate that I have a new partner who is considerably more understanding, thoughtful and compassionate than anyone I have ever met. But I still want to learn to be kind to myself, to give myself the time and patience that I need to recover.
I still live in fear that one day I’ll relapse, that my lichen planus will flare up again. I sincerely hope that the lessons I’ve learned on my journey would help get me through if I had to do it again. Honestly, I hope that I never have to find out.
- The fact that my then-boyfriend was incapable of doing any of these alternative things without inevitably pressuring me for penetrative sex didn’t help at all. And don’t get me started on all the people who helpfully suggested ‘There’s always anal!’. While it may be enjoyable in certain circumstances, it’s not the same thing folks. Also, anal with IBS is no picnic.
- It also made me bruise easily – I often sported large, ugly bruises in a variety of interesting shades. This did not help me to feel ‘womanly’ or attractive.
- Even with myself
- I have since discovered that craving for physical touch is a real thing. This makes so much sense, and reassures me that maybe I’m not as weird and clingy as my exes made me out to be. Turns out, it’s completely normal to desire physical contact. : https://www.healthline.com/health/touch-starved
- Going through the collection with my exes to decide who got what was definitely one of the weirder parts of the separation process.