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Sex work helped me find my sexuality even when I couldn’t have sex.
A year ago, at the ripe age of 18, I became a stripper. When I walked into the club, I was hired on the spot. “No prostitution,” my boss said as she handed me my schedule. Little did she know there was no chance of that happening. I was a virgin who literally couldn’t have sex.
I’ve never engaged in sexual intercourse, oral, anal, fingering; you name it and I probably haven’t done it. The main reason? I was born with a rare medical condition called vaginismus, which causes muscles along the vaginal wall to contract when an attempt at penetration is made, basically making penetration extremely painful or simply impossible. Try poking your eyeball with your finger and you’ll see (or rather not see) that your eyelid closes to protect your eye. Now replace the eyeball with a vagina and the finger with anything that can penetrate a vagina and you’ll get an idea of what it’s like.
I’ve always had vaginismus but I haven’t always known it was vaginismus. I will never forget the excruciating pain that came when my mom tried to insert a junior-sized tampon into me when I got my first period at 13 or when the gynecologist inserted her finger when I was 15. I screamed so loud at the time that a nurse came running from down the hall to see if everything was okay. It actually took five doctors and five appointments for me to find out the diagnosis. I had just thought I had an unusually large hymen. I had actually known about the condition vaginismus for years, I even watched a MTV documentary about it, but never thought it could apply to me.
When the fifth doctor told me I had it, suddenly everything made sense. Sitting in that office, I cried for at least two hours. I so desperately wanted to believe that my condition was a physical one, one that was curable by a simple surgery. I did not want to believe I had a psychological condition — one that could last an indeterminate amount of time, solved by a nameless cure, taken in unknown doses.
I was a virgin, but not entirely inactive. I’ve been an active masturbator since I was 5 years old, and have been watching porn since I was 17. I’ve made out with plenty of people, and have had moments where it got to the point that we’re both naked in bed rolling over one another. I’ve even been to three sex clubs for fun with a friend, at one of these sex clubs I even participated in a foursome (or is that considered a borderline orgy?), but ultimately was overcome with pressure. I backed out to let the other three continue with their fun.
The only real pleasurable sexual experience I’ve had came from a threesome I had with a coworker and one of her partners. She was my mentor when I first started out as a stripper — how to move, how to get tips — we became good friends soon afterwards. Since she knew about my condition and my virginity, she offered that I could observe her and her partner having sex if I was curious, a sort of impartial observer. Perhaps even participate if I wanted. I felt really comfortable with her and was quite attracted to her partner as well, so I took her up on the opportunity. Everything about that threesome felt natural, and my two partners handled me with care, attuned to my condition and lack of experience. I left the next day feeling more comfortable with my sexuality and myself than I ever had.
But really that’s it. I can give myself an orgasm very easily. I just have no reference text and no comparison for my solo sessions. There’s no way for me to have an orgasm except when I’m alone, and so intimacy seems daunting. Like a known friend I’ll never meet.
Because the act of intercourse itself was off limits, I had adopted the mindset that I was useless for sex. Even if I knew that wasn’t true, society places such a high premium on penis-in-vagina sex, especially first-time intercourse. My body could close itself off at its own will, but I can’t put a force field up against social influence.
Some friends have asked, “How can you become a professional seducer if a man has never touched you?” But I didn’t care. I was frustrated with being a virgin unable to find an adequate partner. Even more so, I wanted to try this job out. I knew I had no control over when I would meet someone I’d want to become sexually active with, but I did have control on when I would start working.
I’d been soaking in the same antiquated notions about sex that the rest of young women do—even sex workers can’t help being affected by it. Women are told they’re supposed to love their bodies, but vaginismus became my body’s way of betraying me. Feminists, tea party members, and sex educators all have their own opinion about how a woman is supposed to feel about her vagina. It’s for pleasure, it’s for babies, it’s for menstruation. But what about for those people whose vagina brings them only pain, confusion, and suffering?
My co-workers like to call me a unicorn. But it’s never felt weird to me to be a sex worker who’s never had sex. I was both the virgin and the whore and I slipped into both skirts easily. There was an electric thrill watching my first few clients go from soft as a bunny to full-on raging erection in a matter of seconds. I enjoy knowing I actually can fulfill someone’s sex fantasy, I can even fulfill thirty men in one night. At large, I know they’re fantasizing about penetrating me, a possibility far from reality. But it’s the fantasy that keeps them happy and returning for the next dance.
Stripping helps me reclaim the autonomy it sometimes feels my body has thrust out of me. I’m more in tune with my body at work and don’t feel at battle with myself. Rather than focus on the one small part of me that isn’t fully available, my entire body becomes an outlet of seduction. I become more than my vagina or my legs or breasts or face. I become more than my pain.
I’ve found that, during the months I’m not working, I’m in much more chronic pain. And that the longer I go without work the greater the pain becomes. There’s some sort of pattern to take notice of but I’m not sure what it is yet. Some exercise of my sexuality that not even I have fully noticed. I do know that it’s only when I’m not working that I’m hit by it. I can be simply sitting in a chair and feel pain in my vagina. Sometimes the pain comes so frequently and lasts so long that I lose notice of it, only for it to creep back up on me when I try to change sitting positions. It aches to the point that I have to clench my whole vulva to relieve myself. But when I am working, when I am winding down the stage, a cast of men’s eyes upon me, there comes the freedom.
It wasn’t always so easy. I wasn’t always so confident. It was my third night working and I had noticed a very attractive client. An exceptionally attractive client. I didn’t even dream of talking to him or asking for a dance because I was convinced that he was too good for me and that he’d never want me. I, the novice virgin stripper in three-inch heels, was far below him. Then he asked me for a lap dance. Puzzled as to why and eager to please on the job, of course I said yes. As I danced, grinding into his lap, I felt his erection. Then it dawned on me: if I can give this guy who I think is totally out of my league a boner, then I can give anyone a boner. I’m unstoppable. And now I can walk into a room and view everyone as a boner just waiting to happen.
Lola Haze is a writer living in Paris. In addition to working as a stripper, Lola Haze is pursuing a bachelor’s in gender, sexuality, and psychology. This post originally appeared on Nerve and has been reprinted with permission.