The recent resurgence of the KonMari Method of home organization, introduced to Americans by Marie Kondo’s 2011 book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and her subsequent 2019 Netflix series, have made it clear to me that I have a lot of... stuff. In an effort to cut down on the clutter, I’ve been using the KonMari method to cull storage spaces in my tiny studio apartment one at a time. But there’s one area I haven’t been able to bring myself to declutter: my bedside drawer. I can’t seem to KonMari my sex toy collection.
Though I’ve been sexually active since I was my late teens, I didn’t actually have penetrative, penis-in-vagina sex for the first time until I was 24. It’s not that I didn’t want to do it — I had a healthy sex drive and a partner of several years with whom I had attempted to do the deed a couple of times. Our lack of success didn’t make sense to me; I had used tampons for years, but anything bigger than that felt like being stabbed with a dull knife. At 19, after another failed attempt on our anniversary, I decided to stop Googling “what’s wrong with my vagina” and go see an actual doctor.
My gynecologist confirmed my suspicions and diagnosed me with vaginismus. For those unfamiliar (which I assume is most of you, unless you’ve dealt with it yourself), vaginismus is an involuntary contraction or spasm in the muscles around the vagina that makes penetration anywhere from mildly uncomfortable to completely impossible. A true cause of the condition is generally unknown, but according to the Cleveland Clinic, risk factors can include anxiety (hello!), past sexual abuse or trauma, and a fear of sex. Treatment consists of a combination of therapy to address the psychological aspect and a training regimen with vaginal dilators, which is essentially a set of graduated dildos. To use them, you insert one dilator at a time, starting with the smallest and working your way up to the largest. This process — called dilation — trains your vaginal muscles to relax during penetration. It can be a fairly frustrating and emotional process, but for most people, vaginismus is very treatable.
My doctor suggested I buy some dilators, and offered to even refer me to physical therapist who specializes in sexual dysfunction. At 19, I wasn’t ready for either of those steps. My schedule was packed with classes, internship hours, choir rehearsals, and attempting to maintain a healthy sleep schedule. I didn’t want to spend my precious free time letting a (medically-trained, of course) stranger poke at my vulva. Before I knew it, I was a senior in college and still, in the eyes of many of my peers, a virgin.
I found a set of dilators called the “Treatment Kit” on Vaginismus.com, but it was a bit too expensive for my student budget and came with things like CDs and books and private passes to online forums that I was never going to use. I had supportive doctors and communities of people with vaginismus on Reddit (shout out to r/vaginismus) and Tumblr and my own self-reliance to help me out. Plus, the dilators in the "Treatment Kit" were marketed as medical devices, and didn't seem to take sexual pleasure into account. Sex is supposed to be fun, and I wanted something that would help me see it as such.
I finally landed on the Laura Berman “Intimate Basics” Dilator set, a less expensive plastic option that doubled as a set of vibrators. It didn’t have quite the size range as some of the other sets, but at just $24, it was a much more budget-friendly choice. I remember picking up the package from the front desk of my building and nearly running up to my apartment to try it out. I was incredibly nervous as I opened the package, afraid of what would happen if it didn’t cure me, and what it would mean if it did. My first session with the dilators wasn’t the most comfortable experience of my life, but it was a lot less painful than I thought it would be. I realized then that it was entirely possible for me to overcome this disorder and eventually have sex.
And then I got lazy. For best results, you’re supposed to dilate every day, but at the time, I was someone who regularly forgot to eat dinner. Keeping up a regular dilating practice just wasn’t in the cards for me, but I did what I could when I felt up to it. Progress became easier once I fell into the routine of a 9-to-5 (or 9-to-7, in my case) job, started living on my own, and had the space and time to focus on the process. I also finally felt comfortable discussing my sexual hangups with my therapist, and started addressing my anxieties around the possible consequences of sex that were holding me back (thanks, abstinence-only sex education!).
Eventually, my partner and I made another attempt. With lots of communication (and lube, of course), we were finally successful. Naturally, we listened to The Lonely Island to celebrate.
In the ensuing years, the Berman set has gathered dust in my bedside drawer. I kept it around in case the pain came back (which can happen), but there isn’t really a prescribed course of action for those who have “overcome” vaginismus. I added a few more toys to my collection, my relationship ended, and I’ve now been involved in the hot mess that is the New York City dating scene for two years. As vibrators are wont to do, the set has lost functionality, going straight from a light hum to a violent buzz, completely bypassing the middle setting. In a way, we’ve both moved on. And yet, I can’t bring myself to throw the set away.
If you’ve ever owned a sex toy, you’ve probably formed some kind of (obviously one-sided) relationship with it. Toys aren’t a replacement for actual human touch, but you’re still sharing an intimate interaction with them. They can help you explore your sexuality in a safe way; it’s hard not to feel some kind of way about them. Especially when a particular toy helped you overcome vaginismus.
This set opened my life up to new possibilities. It helped me become more comfortable with my sexuality and allowed me to take that journey at my own pace. Each successful session reminded me that I wasn’t as broken as I sometimes felt. In a way it showed me that the most important sexual relationship you can have is with yourself.
So for now, I’d tell Marie Kondo that the set still sparks joy for me. One day the motor on the vibrator will just stop working entirely and I’ll have to finally let it go. I’m currently in the process of planning a Viking funeral on the East River for whenever that day comes. You’re all invited.