I first had sex at the age of seventeen. It was a summer’s evening and my boyfriend and I were naked in the cool dusk of the room. We’d planned and tried a few times before, but it was just too painful for me despite being tenderly aroused by my lover. As I’d never been able to use tampons (my body just pushed them out, no matter how far I tried to plunge them in), my vagina was simply unaccustomed to being penetrated by anything else but tentative fingers. I’d had one or two boyfriends before my first love and I finally managed to make the leap from being close friends to young and besotted lovers.
Once there, however, we were addicted to each other. That feeling of falling in love for the first time – it was like swimming in the glow the setting sun washes onto clouds and skies. We had many first times together – including our first time being completely naked with a lover. After months in bed together, having all sorts of sex except the penis/vagina kind, we decided together that it was time. And on that day in December, it was too painful to last for more than a few moments for me, but I felt the immense intimacy and an edge of scalding pleasure of having him inside me.
Without a condom. Yes, despite the years of sexual education we’d both been subjected to in our school days, despite the gifts of What girls should know and What’s happening to me and Judy Blume’s legendary Forever, that provided hours of compelling reading (and communal discussion during sleep-overs), our first months of having sex were totally unprotected. My boyfriend never ejaculated inside me, so we were ostensibly practicing the ‘withdrawal method’ of contraception, but we both knew that this was far from a safe option, and that we needed to find a better alternative and fast.
We tried condoms, but neither of us liked the taut, plastic bag feel.* So we gave up. We knew that the next option was the pill, but I would have to go to a gynaecologist to get a prescription, and this would entail the dreaded examination (including a pap smear).
Despite having accompanied my mother to the gynae as a child, I had an ingrained terror of having to go myself. I had visions of lying prostrate on the surgery sheets, my feet in the stirrups and a lecherous male doctor peering at my cervix with a headlamp. I’d resolved that no strange man was going spelunking in my vagina. However, as the weeks rolled past and yet another pregnancy scare accompanied a late period, I sat down to a heart to heart with my mother and told her that I needed an appointment with a woman gynaecologist. I suppose it was my way of confiding that I was having sex. A remarkable confidante, she was sympathetic and supportive, but wanted me to see her own, male gynaecologist, and couldn’t understand why I insisted on seeing a woman.
The lesson here is that your choice of gynaecologist and of any doctor in fact, is a personal one. I prefer to consult women doctors, who directly understand the sensation of period cramps and yeast infections. We often inherit the doctors of our parents, or continue seeing an inattentive general practitioner or a creepy dentist because that’s who we’ve been going to since we can remember. But there’s something liberating in consulting a doctor who doesn’t know you primarily as someone’s child, and within your family context.
A close friend of mine who’d started having sex with her boyfriend a few months before me, and who’d managed to brave a gynaecological examination with a woman doctor, passed on her number. As women gynaes are often in much greater demand, it took me six weeks to get an appointment. My friend and I counted down the days together, with me growing increasingly anguished as she (good-humouredly) stoked my nervousness with tails of giant speculums. On the day of the examination, she passed a note to me in English class. Stapled to the sheet of paper was a rubber glove she’d taken from the biology lab, and a huge kokhi drawing of a speculum, which resembled an industrial drilling machine.
I was petrified. The school bell went and I traipsed outside, where my boyfriend was waiting for me. He’d agreed, reluctantly, to come along to the appointment and sit in the waiting room while I underwent the arcane biomedical invasion within. It was only fair, I reasoned, that he spend some minutes reading magazines if I was to have my cervix swabbed by a stranger so that both of us could enjoy safe sex. When the doctor called me into her surgery, he sank into his chair and a copy of Fit Pregnancy, and I stood up to face the ordeal alone.
The experience wasn’t an iota as awful as I’d imagined. The doctor was kind and thorough, if a little harried. A room full of patients waited outside, and so she didn’t have too much time to answer my many questions. After telling her that I was there for my first pap smear and breast examination, and that I’d also be needing a prescription for the pill, she asked me to go into the surgery next to the consulting room, take of all of my clothes, and put on one of the gowns hanging there.
I expected scratchy hospital-issue gowns, so was surprised by the array of floaty satin numbers to choose from. I slipped one on, and waited for the doctor on the bed. She asked me if I was ready, and once I’d answered ‘yes’, she came in to examine me. It’s practice that gynaecologists do not watch their patients undressing, but rather give them privacy to disrobe alone before the examination. This is to establish an important distinction between erotic practices such as undressing, and the clinical procedure of a breast exam and a pap smear. The doctor talked me through every part of the exam. She felt around my breasts and underarms for any unusual lumps, and then explained that she was going to use a speculum to open my vagina so that she could collect a swab of mucus from my cervix. This would then be sent to the laboratory and screened for any unusual cells or for other common infections, such as candida (thrush). Out came the dreaded speculum, which bore no resemblance to the instrument of torture my friend had drawn for me that afternoon. Rather, it looked like a mixture between a homeopathic massage device and a strange shoe-horn, and was made out of plastic rather than metal.
The doctor asked me to relax, which was impossible, but as the speculum was lubricated it slipped into easily into my vagina, and I then felt the strange widening sensation as the speculum pressed against the my vagina’s walls and opened me up for her to examine. She took out a long implement, which looked like a kebab stick with a bit of cotton wool at the top, which she put inside my vagina and used to take a sample of mucous from around my cervix. Honestly, the swab wasn’t entirely painless. In order to get a good sample, the gynaecologist needs to collect mucous from the neck of your cervix. This can be a little sore, particularly if there’s any inflammation. The action, however, only takes a second. And then she withdrew the speculum and said that I could get dressed.
The appointment was over in twenty minutes, and I walked into the waiting room to meet my boyfriend feeling like an enlightened, courageous and responsible woman. I also had a prescription for the pill in hand, which we promptly filled at the next pharmacy.
I didn’t stay with that gynaecologist for long. It took two weeks for her to phone me with the results of my pap smear, although she undertook to call me in half that time. In the intervening week, I worked myself into a panic that there had been something wrong with my result, and bombarded her secretary with calls, only to be told again and again that the doctor was extremely busy and would get back to me. I found another gynae with less demands on her time who gave me her cell number and told me to call her if a problem arose at any time. And call her I have, in emergency situations in different cities, from pregnancy scares to a panic about herpes (thankfully, the inflamed bump turned out to be an ingrown pubic hair).
It may take some years for you to work up the courage to have a pap smear. I have friends in their thirties who’ve been sexually active for over a decade and who cannot bring themselves to make an appointment with a gynaecologist, so great is their terror of being examined there by a stranger with an arcane medical instrument. And I don’t blame them. There are hundreds of horrifying stories about gynaecologists who have molested their patients, pressured them into having unwanted or dangerous procedures, and given them a lecture on morality instead of a straightforward diagnosis and a prescription. The experiences of women who have been abused by their doctors ripple through communities, spreading anxiety and fear in others. It’s an act of bravery to go through a breast and gynaecological exam. For a woman or girl who is having sex, it’s also a necessity to look after your health.
I used to think it was unfair that women were compelled to undergo regular gynaecological examinations throughout their sexually active lives whereas men were only subjected to such examinations if they contracted an infection of some kind, or if (usually later in life) they needed a prostate check. But I’ve come to understand that this is part of my privileged and powerful capacity to bear and to sustain life. I believe that a women’s ability to nurture an infant inside her body, and to feed it once she has given birth, is infinitely more amazing than men’s ability to manufacture sperm in those hugely sensitive testicles of theirs, which seem only to be suspended from their bodies and vulnerable to the harms of the world through an error of nature. A woman’s reproductive organs, on the other hand, are safely enclosed within her.
Although its ten years since my first boyfriend and I broke up, my partner still accompanies me to the gynaecologist. Why should I fight traffic alone on my bi-annual trips to the hospital for a pap smear when we both enjoy the benefits of my healthy vagina? Those well-thumbed copies of Fit Pregnancy await.
*I’ve since experimented with dozens of brands and my partner and I now use them as our primary means of birth control with great pleasure, but this is after years of practice and problems with other methods.