Q&A with Fran Bushe, author of My Broken Vagina: One woman’s quest to fix her sex life and yours

My Broken Vagina, published on 13 May, is comedian Fran Bushe’s funny, moving, and sometimes awkward quest to fix her sex life. But it’s also the story of millions of women everywhere – half of all women have felt pain during sex.

During Fran’s journey towards building a better relationship with her genitals, doctors advised her to have a glass of wine to loosen up, and male friends suggested she simply hadn’t ‘tried’ the right penis yet. Unsurprisingly, neither worked.

Fran has previously written about her experiences in her award-winning comedy show Ad Libido, and Channel 4’s The Diary of My Broken Vagina. Her book blends funny and moving accounts of Fran’s attempts to fix her broken vagina – including a trip to Sex Camp – with enlightening interviews about other people’s experiences.

She spoke to Hysterical Women about what she’s learned, and why so many women experience medical gaslighting when it comes to issues like vaginismus and painful sex.

SG: What made you start talking and writing so frankly about your vagina?

FB: I was so sure that it was just me [struggling with these issues] for so long. Even just the small confirmation of other people clapping or laughing along, or staying to have a chat after seeing me do a show, that was so incredibly powerful – after 14 years of thinking this was just me – to know that actually I wasn’t on my own.

Talking about it really helps because I’d been quiet about it for a really long time. I’d been quiet about it in relationships, I’d been quiet about it in friendships – even with friends who I trust with everything. I felt embarrassed and ashamed that my body didn’t work the way it should, and they were all having these wonderful sexual adventures – or so I thought – so I didn’t trust them with it because it felt like such a big personal failing. Talking about it on stage gave me a real feeling of voice and community.

What do you feel you’ve learned, both from your own experiences but also from your interviews with all the other people who shared their vagina experiences for the book?

We assume everyone’s having a perfect sex life. We don’t talk about when sex is painful, or when someone loses their erection. No matter how shiny and glowing we present our sex lives, it isn’t always straightforward and it wasn’t always easy – in fact, far from it a lot of the time. The weight of the shame on top of that is actually the most harmful thing.

One of the interviews that stuck with me the most was with someone who is asexual. Their story resonated so much with me because, in many ways, our paths were the same. They were told to just use more lube and keep trying. They discovered asexuality on a web forum and realised that actually reflected their experience. No doctor had ever mentioned it to them and they felt very, very on their own with that. Our journeys were very similar in terms of being in relationships, being in love with our partners and having sex because our partners wanted to have sex. It was interesting thinking about how different our lives might have been if we’d both had little bits of other information at different points.

I’ve been thinking a lot about whether or not my sex life and my relationship with my body are better because of going on this journey. I’ve learnt so much, and I’ve had to get to know my body and learn to communicate. Even if I hadn’t found sex painful at all, I am definitely not assertive. I often put other people’s experiences before my own, and want my partner to be having a really lovely time. Actually, by having to be more straightforward about whether or not I’m experiencing pain, or if something is working for me or not, I’ve learned to communicate in ways that have helped me more generally in life.

Was there anything you were surprised by while you were researching and writing the book?

The lengths some people go to for sex to be good. If a doctor can’t help you, or says there’s nothing they can do for you, you go to the internet – and the internet is full of quite scary solutions to these problems. There are all kinds of supplements and sex liquids, or you can go and get a massage performed on you called a yoni de-armouring. I’m fairly open minded about holistic solutions and alternative therapies, but I worry about vulnerable people being taken advantage of.

When I was at sex camp, one of the first things someone said to me was, ‘do you want to come to my tent and I’ll perform a yoni de-armouring on you?’ Essentially it’s where someone puts their fingers inside you and they apply pressure at certain points in your vagina to create a release. I’m sure there is merit in it, but the idea of how vulnerable you are in that situation makes me very nervous. But, because there is so little help and support available in places that are safe, people are pushed to these alternative, unregulated options.

Why do you think there is so much medical gaslighting around vaginas and female sexual pleasure?

The doctors I spoke to said there just wasn’t any training or information on the curriculum; there’s no time allotted to it. Other doctors said there was a feeling of sex still being quite an embarrassing thing, so they worried they might say something inappropriate.

What is interesting though is it’s the same stock phrases that many doctors seem to say. “Have a glass of wine to loosen yourself up a bit” was one that was said to me, but I have now heard it echoed by so many people. There does seem to be this mindset that enjoying sex isn’t really important and that it’s all in your head. I mean, everything is all in our head really, because that’s how brains work. But I left so many appointments feeling like I shouldn’t have gone, or that I was wasting their time; that it was a silly problem that wasn’t as big or as bad as other problems and I didn’t have a right to it being solved.

It had taken so much courage to get there, at all stages of my life. I’d like to say it’s got easier, but I actually think it’s got harder. I was quite a plucky 16 year old, but there’s a feeling of exhaustion now, like how am I still asking this? In fact, I had a smear test a couple of days ago and they asked me some general questions about my vagina. I hadn’t been planning on it, but I thought I’d give it a go – I’ve just written a book about it – so I said I’m finding sex painful. I thought I’d just see what happened, because I hadn’t said it out loud in a medical context for a while, but it wasn’t even commented on. Nothing was said at all. Imagine if that was the first time I’d said it out loud, and how empty I probably would have felt afterwards.

Is there anything that you wish all doctors knew about dealing with vagina problems?

For me personally, because it feels like such a big thing to share, you just want to feel like you are being listened to and not hurried through. I’ve always felt like there’s a standard set of questions when anything vagina related comes up. When I was a teenager it was all about birth control: ‘here’s some condoms, take these and use them’. I would have loved to have just felt listened to. No one ever had a term for what I was experiencing. It would have been useful for a doctor to have said this is really common, lots of people with vaginas experience this, and there are lots of options.

I always felt like I was a nuisance, because I was asking for sex to be nice – or, at first, to be able to have sex at all. I needed a doctor to treat me as an individual in that moment. I was told that I should expect sex to be painful because I hadn’t been doing it for very long, and to get out there and have more sex. It felt very much like, ‘all vaginas work this way, this is how they work’, but there wasn’t anything about what happens if they don’t work. Just having the correct words for things, and compassion, and being listened to, are huge.

What do you hope readers take away from the book?

If they’re like 16-year-old Fran was, feeling like they’re completely on their own, then I hope it’s knowing that actually an awful lot of people experience this, and that there is support and community out there. The community I’ve found since speaking about it has made such an enormous difference. Although there aren’t enough solutions at the minute, and it is difficult to talk about, there are people out there going through similar things to you. Every vagina is different, every sexual experience is different, and every context or circumstance that we’re in is different, but I hope knowing it isn’t just you might make it easier for people to talk about.

I’m not expecting everyone to go out and put on a show about it, but even if it’s feeling like they can have a conversation with a friend, or go to the doctor with a bit more information. I hope it helps people to put themselves first a little bit, and to actually consider what they want. Lots of people are really happy without having penetrative sex in their life. Lots of people are really happy having loads and loads and loads of sex. Lots of people are really happy having no sex at all. People have sex in lots of different ways, so whatever you are doing, find the kind of sex you like and that works for you. It’s absolutely fine if that is no sex at all.

You can find Fran online, and on Twitter and Instagram @franbushe

Buy My Broken Vagina from Bookshop.org*:

*Affiliate link – Hysterical Women is not for profit; the commission I receive from any sales helps to fund paid guest posts by writers from marginalised and under-represented backgrounds.