Documentary filmmaker Shelby Hadden doesn’t like telling dates about her vaginismus, a condition in which the vagina’s muscles contract as something enters it, for example a tampon or a penis. Hadden has struggled with the condition for eleven years, ever since she first tried and failed to insert a tampon at age fourteen, and it has left her unable to have vaginal sex. “Dating feels impossible when you can’t have sex,” she tells Cosmopolitan.com. “Every guy I’ve ever dated has rejected me because of it — one guy even laughed in my face when I told him… It’s really hard to get rejected over and over again because of the functionality of one body part.” Now, Hadden is preparing to tell the world about her experience with vaginismus in a fifteen-minute animated personal essay film, Tightly Wound, which she hopes to fund through Kickstarter.
“Tightly Wound follows my journey from when I started my period and realized I couldn’t use a tampon,” she says. “It chronicles the various doctors I saw and treatments I tried, the ways I hid my secret. It delves into my unsuccessful attempts at dating and explores what it means to be a virgin in today’s society.” Hadden has chosen animation as her medium in order to depict anatomy freely, without the limitations placed on photography of human bodies, as well as to represent Hadden’s inner monologue visually. She hopes that the film will show people with vaginismus that they are not alone and encourage others to “be patient partners if they ever are dating someone who has vaginismus or a similar condition.”
It’s not known how many people have vaginismus; two out of a thousand women is a commonly cited statistic, while that figure has been shown to be closer to 5-17% in clinical settings. The problem, Hadden says, is that no one is talking about it: “We bottle it up and assume it’s only our pain,” she writes on the film’s campaign page. “We don’t share what we’ve learned or commiserate over our shared experiences.” And when much of the media portrays sex as “easy, fast, and fun,” she hopes that Tightly Wound will spark deeper conversations about dating and relationships, women’s health care, and female sexuality.