Shaina Feinberg and Julia Rothman — friends and collaborators with a bimonthly illustrated column in the New York Times — just published a book called Every Body. “It’s a book about sex, and bodies and being human!” they say. Here are two things they noticed…
To make this book, we collected hundreds of stories from people — on a website we built and on the street. Yes, we hit the streets with a giant sign that said, “TELL US YOUR ANONYMOUS SEX STORIES.”
This was before Covid, of course. It was incredible how many people shared with us. As we gathered stories, two things struck us:
When we sat with people on benches in parks and recorded what they said, we didn’t offer advice. We just listened. Here’s what they said.
“A few years ago, after a long dry spell, I started dating a new guy. And sex was painful. I kept hoping it would get better — that maybe I just had to get more comfortable with him, or that it was all in my head. But it didn’t. After we broke up, I went to the gynecologist, but she said everything looked normal. I thought I would be doomed forever, that I would never be able to make a relationship work.
A while later, listening to a podcast, the narrator started talking about pelvic-floor-muscle problems. After doing some research, I made an appointment with a physical therapist. Basically, my pelvic-floor muscles were tensed up, and she put her fingers inside me and pressed on the different muscles to help them relax. My homework was to get a set of vaginal dilators of increasing sizes. A few times a week, I had to insert one and leave it in for 10 minutes while doing deep-breathing exercises. As the therapy progressed, I moved up one size every few weeks. And when I finally started dating someone new, it had worked: sex was no longer uncomfortable.
It’s upsetting that a highly recommended gynecologist didn’t know about this. That if I hadn’t randomly heard about it, I might have gone my whole life with this problem.”
“Suddenly, I was in my thirties and still hadn’t had sex, and it was something I didn’t discuss even with my closest friends. Finally, I met a great guy at 34. He barely blinked when I told him it would be my first time… and then we discovered I had vaginismus. So, if he got remotely near my vulva with any part of himself, everything would clench up tighter than, I don’t know — what’s the analogy? — Thor’s fist. (Does Thor punch people?) Early attempts at penetration were extremely painful. It took months until we were able to have sex successfully. That lasted a year and a half. It was great! It makes me wonder how common this is.”
“Through therapy, I’ve been able to get to the point where if I’m on an app for dating, I can have my preferences set to only ‘Women’ without feeling that sense of fear and panic. I told my friends and my mom that I might start dating women — but I still haven’t. Due to my lack of experience, I often don’t feel queer enough to say I’m queer, and I’m still learning what being queer can mean.
After having mostly terrible sex with men, and after being assaulted by a man, I want my first time having sex with a woman to be special. But the fear of ‘What if it isn’t any different?’ has kept me from making any moves.”
“I’m 28, dating guys I meet online, and every time a guy tries to kiss me and I decline, I say, ‘It’s been a long time.’ Actually, it’s been no time; I’m a kissing virgin and a virgin-virgin. I’m just now getting all my 17-year-old firsts in: hand-holding, cuddling, masturbation. I grew up Catholic, and I always blamed it on that. But that’s not quite it. Something in my body feels excruciatingly vulnerable when it comes to being physical with another person, and I’m still not sure what that’s about.”
“I am turning 42 this year, and through a mixture of choice and circumstance I have never had a sustained intimate sexual relationship with another person. And yet with genuine honesty, I feel pretty great about my life. I have dozens of beautifully fulfilling relationships, a loving and supportive family, and lots of time to pursue multiple passion projects and create positive contributions to the world. Plus, I can give myself a sparkling orgasm in the time it takes to hit the snooze button in the morning and wait for the next alarm to ring.”
When Shaina wrote about her miscarriage last year for this site, it felt empowering to share something so personal, something that has so much shame associated with it. Talking about it freely felt like breaking the rules in the most awesome way. It also made her feel less alone. And that’s exactly why we made this book — so that people would feel less alone. We hope reading these little stories will help you feel like you can talk about whatever it is you and your body are going through.
Find the book here, if you’d like to read more.
(Illustrations by Julia Rothman.)