‘Provoked Vestibular Vulvodynia’,  2017. Embroidery on cotton handkerchief.

‘Provoked Vestibular Vulvodynia’, 2017. Embroidery on cotton handkerchief.

‘Embroidery…evokes the stereotype of the virgin in opposition to the whore, an infantilising representation of women’s sexuality’ – Rozsika Parker, The Subversive Stitch

The first time I had sex, it was like a cleaving. In the original tale of ‘The Little Mermaid’ when the mermaid’s tail splits into two legs, it feels like she is being sliced with a sword. Every step that followed felt like she was walking on broken glass. 

The doctor who examined me believed my pain was real, but they didn’t have the knowledge to help me. This mysterious form of pain simply became a part of me. I was left unable to comprehend or speak of it.

At university I had the idea to create two separate embroideries exploring these stereotypes. Only the virgin part came into being. In the desire for sexual ‘purity’, my body was closed to the pursuit of pleasure.

My pain was concealed beneath a white veil, cloaked in silence. I left my first boyfriend soon after.

A few years later I was finally diagnosed.

Provoked vestibular vulvodynia. Vulvodynia: a chronic pain syndrome that affects the vulvar area and occurs without an identifiable cause.

Vestibule, the entrance to a church. I like that word. It makes me think of some sort of sacred arch, a welcoming area to a hallowed place.

‘Glove Love’,  2013 .  Plaster, hand knitted wool and lace.

‘Glove Love’, 2013. Plaster, hand knitted wool and lace.

‘Affection’ , 2014. Cotton cross stitch, hand knitted lace.

‘Affection’, 2014. Cotton cross stitch, hand knitted lace.

After my diagnosis, I began to create work about my condition. It was somewhat cathartic, and yet, there was still some sort of rigidity, a tightness, a desire for perfection. But pain can only be contained for so long. What pains the body also erodes the mind.

Mania, the opposite of depression. A sensation of exploding outwards, a racing, exhilarating stampede off of the edge of sanity. Everything is over and above. Hyper awareness, hyper activity, hyper sensitivity. Hyper-sexuality. What I didn’t know was that my mind’s relentless pursuit of sexual gratification would force me to find a new way to overcome the pain. In my most vulnerable moment, I found great strength.

‘Virginity’,  2013.  C otton embroidery on muslin.

‘Virginity’, 2013. Cotton embroidery on muslin.

The pelvic floor. It makes me think of the ocean floor, the forest floor. It contracts and loosens during orgasm. I hold a lot of tension in mine. You may have heard of tightening the pelvic floor with Kegel exercises, but this isn’t supportive for everyone. Too tight and it restricts blood flow to the area, leading to pain and ‘discomfort’. Discomfort can mean a lot of things to those of us with chronic pain.

If you type ‘vaginal dilators’ into google image search, you’ll see images of various phallic shaped items, increasing in size. The first set I got were plastic test tubes. The process felt cold, clinical, methodical. If you scroll down far enough, you may see a set coloured pink, slightly curved, tapering towards the tips. At the beginning, the largest size seemed frighteningly huge. The bigger the better. For me this is not true.

‘The Vessel’,  2018. Cotton embroidery on linen handkerchief.

‘The Vessel’, 2018. Cotton embroidery on linen handkerchief.

You may have heard of the different types of orgasms. The clitoral orgasm. The G-Spot orgasm. The cervical orgasm. Apparently there are even ‘orgasm patterns’. Ocean wave, volcano, avalanche. Powerful forces of nature. I hope there is a type we could call a ‘Tsunami’ or an ‘Earthquake’.

If you take apart the language we use to describe penetrative sex, it can often sound aggressive, almost violent. Pounding, slamming, nailing, penetrating. A powerful object entering, or even damaging, a passive object. I now prefer to use gentler words. Enveloping, enclosing, sheathing. The penis or dildo does not just ‘penetrate’ the inactive vagina. The vagina enfolds the penis in a steadfast embrace.

I have worked hard to earn my pleasure. I refuse to keep giving it up for the sake of someone else’s. The landscape of my sexual pleasure no longer feels like it’s suffered a natural disaster. Instead, it’s a place I can explore, discovering new ways of being in touch with my body. In my version of the story, the little mermaid learned to walk on her own.

‘The Cursed Boyfriend Sweater’,  2015.   Hand knitted wool sweater.

‘The Cursed Boyfriend Sweater’, 2015. Hand knitted wool sweater.

Makeda Duong is an artist who….