Tightly Wound: A review and social commentary

Tightly Wound is a film by Shelby Hadden and Sebastian Bisbal that tells Shelby’s story of dealing with vaginismus and her path to finding treatment.

There is a great deal of raw vulnerability in Shelby’s story, which reflects the experience of many women with vaginismus and other forms of pelvic and vaginal pain syndromes. They feel isolated and alone, they are offered treatment solutions that are painful and embarrassing, and they frequently expose themselves to distressing and painful examinations only to be told by the examining practitioner that he or she can’t find anything wrong.

Shelby imparts wisdom with statements such as “alcohol doesn’t lead to looser muscles, just bad decisions.” She also has clearly developed self -awareness in her journey. She is able to recognize that the words “you’ll never have sex, you will never have children” come from “a mean, nasty voice inside her”, and she hopefully understands that they are not rational or true statements. The insight later in the film that “vaginismus has saved me from wasting time on a lot of jerks” is poignant. On the one hand, she understands the role of her vaginismus in protecting her, and on the other hand, struggles with feeling safe enough to be able to let that defense go.

Fortunately, Shelby found treatment in the hands of a pelvic floor physical therapist. Hands that she described were “put inside me and stretched me out.” This allowed her to be able to use a tampon and ultimately experience sexual intercourse. 

My criticism is less of the film itself and the creators, who, with talent, vulnerability honesty and creativity, produced a powerful film that is sure to help encourage many women suffering with vaginismus. What I found distressful were the cultural and social messages that women receive and believe. “Who would want to date someone who can’t have sex?” (She could have sex, she couldn’t have intercourse.) And, “who wants to be a virgin in their twenties?” About an attempted intercourse experience with a new boyfriend, she says, “I decided to just get it over with.” It is as though being un-penetrated implies some essential deficit in the self, in sexuality and being a woman. To what extent is this feeling of shame perpetuated by these societal messages? 

Shelby’s treatment was successful in that she ultimately was able to allow penetration. Yet, is this a sustainable goal? Just “being able” to have intercourse? There was almost no discussion of pleasure, of the experience of female sexual arousal as facilitative and even necessary for sexual intercourse to occur, in the way a man’s erection is understood to be.

Ideally, vaginal penetration is not only a functional act, but part of a repertoire of activities that heterosexual couples can engage in for bonding, recreation, pleasure and intimacy.  The pelvic floor response of contracting and preventing this penetration is part of a defensive mechanism- a fight or flight reaction to a perceived threat (including the threat of physical pain).  Treatment is not only about relaxing muscles, but also exploring the root of that defensive reactivity and ultimately experiencing penetration as a desired and pleasurable activity. Often, even when the vaginismus preceded a particular relationship, there is a dynamic with the partner that should be explored. Vaginismus is hard on couples and they don’t always manage to navigate the struggle without some couples or sex therapy.

The film ends with Shelby making an appointment to continue physical therapy, indicating that her journey has not yet ended. Congratulations to Shelby, the movie’s creators, and the talented physical therapist practitioners involved in treating Shelby.  May she and her partner not only experience the “ability” to have intercourse, but also mutual and enthusiastically consensual pleasure, joy and satisfaction.

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