The Problem With Girls

Sex scene after sex scene, Girls’ Hannah Horvath doesn’t seem to be enjoying sex. What about the rest of us?

by anne hoffman



Girls, the hit HBO series, came out in 2011, a few years after I finished college at Oberlin. Its writer, Lena Dunham, had been an Oberlin student at the same time that I was, and I had loved her film Tiny Furniture, with its aloof male characters and its evocation of the strained family life one finds  after returning home from college.

With that in mind, I dove into the show’s first episode, which I adored—until its now infamous first sex scene. Dunham is brazenly naked, but she appears fearful, almost walking on eggshells. In contrast, Adam, her love interest, is arrogant, telling her, “You should never be anyone’s fucking slave. Except mine.”

It’s true that on some level, the show’s honesty is groundbreaking. But even after Hannah has successfully secured Adam as her stable boyfriend, the sex they have is on his terms. In an episode from season three, he rudely suggests that her friend leave the room so he can have sex with Hannah (he claims that he can’t fall asleep if he hasn’t come). In an early episode, he tries to have anal sex without asking. As Hannah weakly protests, it’s almost as though she feels in the wrong for not wanting exactly what he does.

Watching scenes like these has been agonizing. In Hannah, I recognize a younger version of myself; less empowered, weak with fear and a firmly rooted desire to please men.

But it’s also made me realize just how far I have come.

I’m 19 years old, and my boyfriend is fumbling as he tries to put on a condom. “Pinch the tip!” he tells me in mild desperation. We’re trying to have sex again, as we’ve done for the past several months with no success. As he tries to get inside, I’m flooded with a mix of terror and pain. His penis feels like a thousand tiny bee stings.

“Stop!” I say. “Get out of me!” He looks defeated, upset. I feel sad and ashamed.

I’ve been intensely dating this boy for a year. We’re both students at the progressive Oberlin College, where relationships tend to fall into one of two categories: extremely casual or fully committed and tied at the hip. But everyone—no matter the relationship status—seems to be having sex. Most of my friends fall into the first category, having painfully awkward, alcohol-aided sex with guys they’d met in a class last year.

But no one else is making as big a deal of having sex as I am. In a few years, Lena Dunham will write about losing her virginity to someone she barely knows for Rookie magazine. She’ll describe how after a few moments of kissing, “I grabbed him by the scruff of the neck and just went for it. I removed my shirt almost immediately, and he seemed fairly impressed.”

My boyfriend and I are a little different from most Oberlin students. I was raised with Southern values and Jane Austen books, and he’s from an Appalachian town, like my mom’s family. He says “nekkid,” as they do, instead of “naked.” Regardless of our similarities, there’s my anxiety, the brutal moments when I question the authenticity of my deep-in-love feelings.

“You don’t have rhythm,” my boyfriend says once while we’re listening to a tepid Jack Johnson album in bed. “But you have flow.” He’s like that, always giving backhanded compliments.

Some nights, I search the Internet—first with trepidation, and then with increasing curiosity. I discover that my condition has a name: vaginismus. I read that when sex is initiated, my body’s reflexes become more sensitive, causing me real pain. The physical mechanism, a powerful cramp, is like a giant “Stay out” sign.

These same online sources tell me that vaginismus is highly treatable. I find blogs full of formerly virginal women extolling the virtues of dilators that can gradually open you up to a man’s penis. The dilators are the Russian dolls of sexual dysfunction: The first one is only about an inch long, and the last is the size of the real thing. The thought of using the dilators makes me nauseous. I don’t want anything inside of me—I just want my sense of powerlessness to magically vanish.

No one knows how many women suffer from vaginismus. In the 1950s, Alfred Kinsey estimated that it affected 2 percent of women. By 1974, the condition was seen as more than just an involuntary physical spasm. It was a full-blown psychological disorder, defined as frigidity.

I was researching vaginismus in 2006, when a gamut of causes were in the ether, running from a conservative or religious upbringing, to personal stress, to repressed anger toward one’s partner. For me, some of this rang true. I grew up in a strict Lutheran church, and my upbeat, blonde Sunday school teacher, whom I revered, preached virginity till marriage. Later, I received the mixed messages about sex that all women do. In high school, sexually active women were called sluts; at Oberlin, those who didn’t engage were considered undesirable or pathologically flawed. But both extremes had one thing in common: Nowhere in the conversation did a woman’s fears, needs, and desires take center stage.

According to psychologist Marla Reis, women who suffer from vaginismus “come in with a lot of self-blame, believing that they’re doing something wrong.” She adds that it’s “never just about one thing.” One’s body is always sending signals. “When you don’t feel safe,” says Dr. Reis, “you want to protect yourself.”

In retrospect, it seems so simple: During every failed penetration attempt, my body was telling me: Don’t let this man in.

I finally lost my virginity to my Oberlin boyfriend, thanks to a combination of alcohol and relentless trying. But it wasn’t a good memory. After we broke up, I still avoided penetration during sex and opted for less threatening activities with my new partners. Hand jobs were good. So was cunnilingus. I gave myself permission to just explore and came to understand what I liked and quickly voiced what I didn’t.

The night that I started watching Dunham’s series, I shared all my impressions and feelings about the show with my new boyfriend. We had dated once before, but just for a little while. We had the same taste in music, and I found him achingly beautiful. Our conversations seemed to take off—when we were together, I lost all sense of time.

Girls made him uncomfortable—the Adam character reminded him of how he used to be when he was younger and less self-aware. Eventually we stopped talking about the show altogether. But I kept watching, and I kept seeing what had disturbed me at Oberlin: empty sex and easy exhibitionism, with no grounding in intimacy and, as a result, no satisfaction or pleasure. I saw Hannah have sex, but I never saw her appear to have an orgasm or to even remotely enjoy the experience.

My boyfriend and I were getting closer, but still I avoided sex. It had been years since I had allowed a man inside, and the prospect of going through the attempts and the failures was too painful.

One summer evening, exhausted after a long night out, my boyfriend and I were sitting together on his living room couch in Philadelphia. Suddenly we heard someone firing a gun two houses down, so we ran upstairs and threw ourselves on the floor. I tearfully confessed that I loved him, not knowing how he would respond. “Oh,” he said, with relief in his voice, “I love you, too.”

A few nights later, I told him that I wanted to try having sex. There was still fear, but I found that my desire to be close to him was much stronger. I wasn’t waiting for marriage as my Lutheran Sunday school teacher would have wanted. But I also wasn’t just doing it to please a man, the way Hannah seems to.

I asked him to get off the bed and follow me to the floor. I lay flat on the surface and felt his heart beating on top of me. The night air was humid, and the heat from his body made me almost feverish. I suddenly felt that I was now less motivated by fear than by desire. The room was dark, and I closed my eyes to be even more in the moment.

With one deep breath, he was inside, and I was open, pulling him closer.