Dear Prudence

The Vagina Dialogue

Sex is so painful that I can’t complete the act. Is surgery my only option?

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Dear Prudence,
I am a 20-year-old woman about to graduate from college who hasn’t had a serious relationship since high school. The hookups I’ve had in college have resulted in the conclusion that I’m physically unable to have sex. I want to, but when I attempt intercourse it hurts; and three partners weren’t able to complete the act. I admit I’m uncomfortable with my vagina. I’ve been to three gynecologists, all of whom have said different things. The most recent one informed me that some women “just can’t have sex” but mentioned that there are surgical options. However, every doctor has recommended that I get a boyfriend and come back after I try sex with him. But the way that most relationships get started in my age group is through hookups that then become serious. My best friend thinks it’s better to get the surgery before I get into a relationship and have to face this head on. My mother is against the surgery, although she doesn’t know the extent of my problem, and just tells me I need to find “the right guy.” I have also heard that problems like this could have a psychological component, which I don’t know how to confront. What the heck can I do?


Dear Stuck,
First of all, forget the notion that there’s some Prince Charming with a magic wand who’s going to solve your problem. Even if this started out as purely physical, the inability to have intercourse obviously has psychological ramifications, so you need a comprehensive approach to finding out what’s wrong. I spoke to the Kinsey Institute’s Dr. Debby Herbenick, author of Because It Feels Good, and she said you need to see someone who specializes in vulvovaginal health. Yes, I, too, thought that, by definition, that should be a gynecologist, but Herbenick says not necessarily. She suggested you look for an expert through the International Society for the Study of Vulvovaginal Disease. Herbenick says you might have a genital pain disorder such as vaginismus or vulvodynia. The National Vulvodynia Foundation has lots of information and links to support groups. She says it’s also possible you have a vaginal septum, a congenital anomaly resulting in a double vagina. You’d think a gynecologist doesn’t even need to have two eyes to see whether a patient has two vaginas, but Herbenick says this condition is often misdiagnosed. For all these possibilities, there is treatment and help. But even for someone without a physical problem, hoping that a hookup with a passing acquaintance will turn into something deeper is not a good method for finding a serious relationship. You need to be more comfortable with your own body before you invite someone else to share it. Having bad, emotionally uncommitted sex is only going to get you further from your goal.


Dear Prudence Video: Sweet Talk Gone Sour?

Dear Prudence,
My dad had a stroke four years ago that left him unable to move anything but his head. He can barely speak, but when he does, he never complains. He enjoys watching ballgames and game shows on TV but spends most of his time sleeping. When I go to their house, my mother is always encouraging me to speak to my dad, but I have trouble with this. I go in to his bedroom and say, “Hi,” and he looks at me, but then I’m stumped. I can’t say “How are you?” as it is an idiotic question. My dad and I were close when I was growing up, and I have a lot of good memories of doing things with him, but bringing up activities he can’t do seems cruel. He and I love similar movies, but he can’t stay awake long enough to follow a plot. I’m not interested in sports, so he’ll know I’m faking it if I try to seem like I am. I know it’s often said that when people get ill, they can be lonely because other people avoid them. I don’t want to keep doing this to my dad but have no idea how to cope.


Dear Hurting,
How painful this must be for all of you. Your father sounds valiant, and I’m sure he is sorrowful that he can’t be the father he used to be. But I have to disagree that reminding him of your past happiness will only cause him pain. I think revisiting those years could bring him great joy and be a comforting source of connection for the two of you. My friend, journalist Dale Russakoff, was in a similar situation during her mother’s long decline. Dale wrote of how she brought to her mother’s nursing home old family photo albums. Even though her mother could no longer speak, Dale could see how her mother loved going over photos of Dale’s childhood. Do this for your father. Pull out some old pictures and as you look, narrate your memories of growing up. Then, since he’s interested in sports, you can tell him it’s not your subject but that you’d like to read aloud to him from the local sports page about what’s going on with his favorite teams. A movie may be too long for your father to watch, but since you share a taste in entertainment, get some DVDs of favorite comedy shows, particularly ones you may have watched together when you were young. You will establish a new rhythm and connection with him that will brighten his life and bring satisfaction to yours. And please don’t forget your mother. Being a caretaker is arduous work, made all the harder by the enormity of your father’s losses. Taking her out for dinner and a movie will refresh both her and your relationship.


Dear Prudence,
Do you think “objective” attractiveness can be a sticking point for a possible relationship? I’m a gay male college student who doesn’t have a lot of experience with dating. I met a guy through theater class, and we really click. He’s smart, funny, in great shape, and hot. I’m fat, and I often feel like the odd man out in a gay culture obsessed with physical beauty. I’m hesitant to ask him out because I don’t want to ruin the friendship and am nervous that he’ll think I’m ridiculous. Can emotional connection trump physical attraction? Is that TV trope about someone being “too hot” and beyond your level true?

—Largely Hopeful

Dear Largely,
Television didn’t invent the fact that people tend to couple with others who are within a reasonable confluence of looks and smarts. If you think about the couples you know, and you consider the source of their mutual attraction, usually you will nod your head in understanding, not shake it in bafflement. Of course, there are exceptions. Gaze on this photo of ravishing designer Georgina Chapman and her unravishing husband, Harvey Weinstein. It makes more sense, however, when you consider he’s a hugely successful movie producer. All this doesn’t mean you’re not feeling a real, and mutual, connection with your classmate. However, he may be simply enjoying your friendship and not looking for romance. The only way to find out is to make a move—but start out slow. After class, suggest you two go out for coffee sometime. If he doesn’t take you up on it, then you’ve got your answer. If he does, follow up with suggesting you see a movie. If it’s another yes, then leave it up to him to take your hand or offer a first kiss. If he never does, again, he’s letting you know he just wants to be friends. You say you often feel like the odd man out in the beauty-obsessed gay culture. So maybe when it comes to pairing up, you should be looking around for other offbeat but delightful men, fellow oversized diamonds in the rough.


Dear Prudence,
I am an enlisted member of the U.S. military. My wife and I are friends with another military couple. My friend’s wife, “Betty,” recently got a job at a local retail shop. When we were over their house last weekend, Betty told my wife how everyone at her store robs the company blind. Later my wife was on a local listserv and noticed that Betty had an astonishing number of brand-new items from the store listed for sale. The reasons she gives in the ad for selling the items are pretty flimsy. Should we tell her husband of our suspicions? I don’t want to risk my friendship if he either doesn’t believe us or if these items are legitimately Betty’s to sell. Worse still, what if he knows about it?

—Lost in the Woods

Dear Lost,
In these situations, the easiest thing to do is just let adults make their own (bad) decisions and watch them play out. And you’re under no obligation to inquire whether Betty is engaged in larceny. However, since Betty let your wife in on the fact that the store where she works is being systematically stripped of its inventory by the employees, then your wife found possible evidence that Betty couldn’t resist this cookie jar, your wife could say something to Betty if she’s comfortable doing that. She could tell Betty that she saw on the listserv the items Betty was selling and that it concerned her given Betty’s description of what goes on at the store. She should say that even if the store owner seems like an idiot, one day this person could call in the authorities. And if that happens, those who have been helping themselves to the merchandise are going to pay an exorbitant price for it.


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