Bonus Material

How Cursed Is My Body? 'Teeth' and Vaginismus

Guest Essays

March 28, 2024

Victoria Provost

Victoria Provost (she/her) is a New York-based playwright, performer, and producer. Her plays STARRY FRIENDSHIP, I’M STILL HERE, and THE FRIGHTENING DOOR have been produced in NYC and elsewhere. The focus of her art primarily lies in the intersection of trauma theory and long-form storytelling; her writing is informed by this and by her biracial and bisexual identities. She works in the artistic department at Playwrights Horizons. In addition to Playwrights, she has worked with Paper Kraine (JIN AND JULIE, I MISS ENGLISH HOMEWORK, LAST CALL), the Firebird Project (R.U.R, THE SEAGULL), Irish Arts Center, the Public Theater, Little Island, the TEAM Plays, and Soft Shell Productions. Victoria is the author of Stringfoot, a poetry chapbook via Bottlecap Press. She is an alumna of NYU’s English and Anthropology departments. On weekends she sells books. Find her on Instagram (@victoriaplaywright) and New Play Exchange.

Before I was twenty years old, with my feet in the stirrups of a gynecologist’s examination chair for the first time, I had never heard the word vaginismus before. Have you?

Dr. Godfrey, the inevitably doomed GYN of Teeth, mentions that word in what could easily have been a cut throwaway line:

“Vaginismus… Vulvular vestibulitis, maybe… But teeth? Nah.”

Vaginismus is a condition that causes involuntary muscle spasms in the vagina during penetration, during sex or otherwise. Whenever penetration is attempted, your vaginal muscles tighten. This reaction often makes sex prohibitively painful for someone with a vagina. You might say that vaginismus is the body’s reaction to one’s fear, conscious or unconscious, of vaginal penetration–the real-life counterpart to the legend of vagina dentata that Teeth brings to life. A powerful thread throughout Teeth is the pain we carry in our bodies, sexually or otherwise. As a woman with vaginismus, this message resonates with an exceptional sting.

Like Dawn’s teeth, vaginismus is automatic; it flares when something pushes inside you for which your body is not ready, whether you are conscious of it or not. Unlike Dawn’s teeth, however, the only person my vaginismus hurts is me. Vaginismus can be treated, but, as is the case for many chronic pain conditions that affect people with vaginas, there is no known cure, and little research has been done to discover more about the causes.

At eighteen, fearful and nervous, I struggled to make myself look forward to sex. I wanted to shed that fear, and the sexual trauma I carried that, like Dawn, I did not even yet understand or know was there. All this, only to find that, instead of the pleasure my peers recounted and irreverently joked about when I first encountered sex, I was met with agonizing pain.

“Feeling good is a lie, it’s a LIE.”

I was raised Catholic–nowhere near the same level of praise and vitriol that the Promise Keeper Girls uphold in the New Testament Village, but enough that when I felt the hurt of my vaginismus inside me, I thought it was God’s sign calling me to join a Sisterhood. I had never bought into the ideology of purity before, but now that I had so much pain and regret around sex, it started to make terrible sense. All the fears I’d had that sex wasn’t worth the contrition had only been confirmed. Where was my fig leaf? Where was my shame? Please, God, I would pray, give me a fig leaf, give me anything to make it stop hurting. My shame had been in my body all along.

How could something I wanted so badly hurt me so much? After Tobey’s rape of Dawn, Dawn defends his actions and blames herself instead. “It wasn’t rape, he was my husband.” Sex

couldn’t be painful for me; I wanted it. When I had sex, it was excruciating, and I often wanted to continue even though it hurt me. What did that mean? Was I a masochist? Why had my body betrayed me like this? If I was a real, grown woman, capable of having sex, wouldn’t I be able to feel something inside of me without it hurting me? Like Dawn, I struggled with the belief that an issue with my vagina could be anything other than a myth, or a curse, or my fault.

In Teeth, Dawn asks the same questions that I did as a younger woman with a new vaginismus diagnosis–only with more manslaughter. The closest I ever feel to Dawn is when she steps out from behind a privacy screen at the gynecologist's office, vulnerable and wrapped in a hospital gown. In my first GYN examination room, with my tears making dark spots on my own paper gown, all I wanted was for someone to scream “SINNER, WITCH, SLUT” at me. I would write

these words and worse on my body in Sharpie and wait for them to fade before writing back over them again. When her PKG sisters scream “whore, whore, WHORE,” Dawn welcomes it, too. “Yes, punish me, destroy me, I deserve it,” she says. “How’s your heart,” Dawn asks. My heart was frozen. I numbed it–I couldn’t take the reconciliation of my hurt and shame with the connection of those feelings to my body’s sexuality. I had to keep the “gates of hell” between my thighs shut, no matter how much it hurt my heart or made me hate myself.

“Are you sexually active?” “Not exactly no, but not exactly yes.”

How do you say you want to have sex, but your vagina won’t let you? How do you say you’re sexually active when you don’t yet know how to be? Dawn still has desire, even though she has horror and holy hell in between her thighs–she wants sex, even though she has seen herself kill. She desperately turns to Dr. Godfrey in the hopes he can “remove her teeth.” I still had desires, even though I knew they would only hurt me. For someone with vaginismus, the pain scale at the gynecologist is on another plane of feeling altogether. I feel so palpably for Dawn, alone on Godfrey’s table, feeling like she is committing a sin simply to be there. The shame of turning to a medical professional to help “fix your vagina” so you can do something as whorish as painlessly participating in hookup culture is alien, and strange. No one ever talks about that part of prom night in the movies, in health class, or even in church. My best option was to seek out physical therapy and take medication to achieve painless sex, to achieve something I had to talk myself into accepting in the first place.

Dawn’s stepfather never allowed her to go to a gynecologist. Neither did my own mother. She said it was for “whores” and that the HPV vaccine was “for sluts,” sentiments that Pastor O’Keefe would agree with. I know now that my vaginismus, and my mother’s unwillingness to allow me this essential medical care, were as rooted in the ideation of purity as they were in how I experienced sexual abuse at the hands of my mother, under the guise of religious concern over my intact hymen. My mother passed her abuse, her shame and her pain down to me, as hers did to her, so on and so on, mother to daughter. She was the origin of my pain. She was my monster, but I had no teeth with which to bite off her violating hands.

My vaginismus, like Dawn’s teeth, was there in my body all along. It was my body’s way of carrying the fear and pain I experienced before I was cognizant of it. My “vaginal lips” speak to a greater awareness of my body and safety than my mind is often able to. Teeth calls attention to our childhood traumas–that afternoon with Dawn and Brad in their kiddie pool, and Brad’s blood in the water, shaped their destinies. Things happen to our bodies before we understand our bodies. High schoolers like Dawn and the PKGs have their burgeoning adult sexuality and adult agency, but no adult experience. No one can remove my “teeth,” the fact of my body’s betrayal and resistance to my sexuality, and the reasons for my body’s responses. All I can do is work to remove my belief in my own wrongdoing, the belief that had been instilled in me, insidiously, all through my girlhood and my as-yet few adult years.

If Dawn’s vagina dentata are a harbinger of the “feminocracy,” then vaginismus is symbolic of the patriarchy–causing pain only to the bearer and, if romance novels are to be believed, only making sex more pleasurable for someone with a penis. In actuality, the two are not so different–both show a body revolting against something you believe it should want, because the patriarchy tells us so. This conditioning, like a serpent, moves through us and in us, until we reject pleasure as sin, until we crave pain as penance.

The characters of Teeth repeatedly evoke the dichotomy of guilt and innocence, but the show’s parting message defies this: if everyone is the monster, if we are all guilty, then how could anyone truly be so? We, in more sexually liberated places than the New Testament Village of Eden, still have our demons to battle, our shame to cast off. Teeth wows and amazes with pyrotechnics, rain, confetti and blood, but its greatest, most precious gift is simpler: by the end of the play, we are all empowered to reject the violence of purity alongside Dawn. We are cleansed, we are released from our old world of sin, shame, right and wrong, and we are free–if only to run for our lives.

Beyond accepting her vaginal abnormality, Dawn reveres and uplifts it to the status of goddess. My self-acceptance has not yet reached that far… But I have learned to live with my vaginismus, even though the shadow of that pain springing to life again never really goes away. What Teeth so gorily and resplendently speaks to my shame, to the pain that I carry in between my legs, is the unapologetic bravery to learn to live with the demons inside your vagina, much as you may wish they weren’t there. After all, you’ve only got one, and you always carry her with you. You may as well worship her.

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