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.
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. Then, my diagnosis changed. It became ‘Unprovoked Vulvodynia’ and ‘pelvic floor tightness/dysfunction’.
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.
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.
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’ an inactive vagina or anus. They enfold them 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.
MAKEDA DUONG, ARTIST
Makeda is an artist who lives and works in Adelaide, Australia. She graduated from the South Australian School of Art in 2013 with a Bachelor of Visual Arts Specialising in textiles. Following on from her degree, in 2014 she was able to participate in a Helpmann Academy emerging artist’s mentorship with Adelaide artist Sera Waters. Since 2013 she has participated in several group exhibitions, locally and interstate.
In her first solo exhibition The Cursed Boyfriend Sweater in 2015, she explored the parallels between craft labour and emotional labour as feminine burdens in contemporary domestic relationships. Recent themes in her work explore her identity as a Vietnamese Australian woman and the experiences of a mixed race person living in Australia. Her current focus is on myths about the female reproductive system and pelvic pain conditions in women, such as vulvodynia.