'Tightly Wound' Explores Vaginismus And Combats Stigma Around Pelvic Pain

If there's one women's health issue that rarely gets talked about, it's vaginal pain. Vaginismus is a condition where muscle spasms in the vagina make penetrative sex painfully unbearable. But one Texas-based documentary filmmaker hopes to break down stigma with Tightly Wound, a short film about vaginismus and her experiences with female sexual dysfunction. Around two out of 1,000 women will have vaginismus in their lifetime, but many women hesitate to seek treatment out of embarrassment, according to Vaginismus.com.

"I want people to feel less alone, whether they have pelvic floor dysfunction or not," Shelby Hadden, 25, tells Bustle about her film project. "I don't see a ton of narratives about these experiences out there, and I want to talk about expectations around gender and dating and sexuality."

The film, currently in pre-production mode, is based on a personal essay that Hadden wrote for BUST Magazine in September, titled, "So Tight I Can't Have Sex: My Life With Vaginismus." After it was published, Hadden says she received countless messages from women all over the world who said they connected with her story and wanted to share their own struggles with sex, intimacy, and even relationship abuse. "Women have a lot of shame around their bodies in whatever situation they're in," says Hadden.

Hadden, along with a team of producers, a sound editor, composer, and animator, plans to complete Tightly Wound, a 15-minute animated short, by the end of next year. So far, they've produced a 1.5-minute teaser trailer for the project, which has received support from 10 medical facilities in six different states, including the Herman & Wallace Pelvic Rehabilitation Institute in Seattle, Wash., and Women Partners in Health in Austin, Tex.

"We talk a lot about slut shaming a lot but not virgin shaming. There are a lot of reasons why people don't have sex, and all of them are valid."

At the beginning of November, Hadden launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise $20,000 for Tightly Wound. The campaign reached its goal in just 12 days. Now, she hopes to reach $30,000 before the end of the month. All of the proceeds will go toward paying for animation, sound design, and other steps in the time-consuming creative process. In fact, it takes 10 hours to finish producing and editing just six seconds of animation, according to Hadden. "The whole purpose of art is to connect people and make people feel less alone," she says. "I'm a filmmaker, so how I deal with tough situations or issues that I'm wrestling with is to tell stories, to make something ugly beautiful."

How Tightly Wound Started

The idea to make Tightly Wound first surfaced in the summer of 2015, during Hadden's second year of graduate school for film and media production at the University of Texas at Austin. Then, in the Fall, she shared her stories of living with vaginismus as the final project for her "Feminism & Creative Nonfiction" class, which later inspired her BUST essay. "I'd just never been in a class where I had everyone's undivided attention. It was so quiet, no one was on their cell phone," she says. "That was one of the scariest moments of my life. But (the students) were so kind. They're studying women and gender studies, so it was a really empathetic, open crowd."

Since then, Hadden has gone on to share her story and vision for "Tightly Wound" with several public audiences. In March 2016, she attended the "(Un)Soundness of Being: Feminist Approaches to Health and Healing" conference at her university. Last month, she performed at BedPost Confessions, a quarterly storytelling series that focuses on gender, sexuality, and social change. "People ask really intimate, personal follow-up questions and I've had to learn how to navigate a lot of that," Hadden says. "Every time I told my story in public, it drew a bigger and bigger audience. So there's been this kind of this gradual progression."

The Film Highlights The Challenges Of Vaginismus

Recently, Hadden and her team have been applying for grants, maintaining the Kickstarter campaign and writing the script for Tightly Wound. The film chronicles Hadden's own discovery of her vaginismus and the challenges that came with that diagnosis. "I was 21 years old the first time I used a tampon. That's embarrassing, especially when you don't know why. You're just like, 'Oh, something's wrong with me. People my age are having sex and having babies, and I can't stick a tampon inside of me,'" Hadden says. "It took me seven years, visiting about a dozen physicians, to get diagnosed and assigned treatment. That was a very frustrating time. I tried a lot of bad treatments, and I had some really traumatic exams at the gynecologist's. A lot of people who have pelvic pain have been told that it's all in their head, that they just need to drink alcohol to relax, which nobody would tell somebody with back pain to drink alcohol to feel better."

Hadden says she hopes Tightly Wound sheds light not only on the physical ramifications of vaginismus, but also the mental, emotional, and social effects of chronic pelvic pain, such as feeling inadequate during sex with romantic partners or getting made fun of for being a virgin. "We talk a lot about slut shaming a lot but not virgin shaming," she says. "There are a lot of reasons why people don't have sex, and all of them are valid."

Hadden says there are also a lot of misconceptions and expectations around sexuality, like what age you should start having sex and how much sex you should be having. Every time Hadden becomes intimate with a partner and has to explain her vaginismus to them, "I feel like guys don't even know what questions to ask me," she says. For a long time, she didn't even tell her closest friends about her health condition.

She hopes that Tightly Wound will teach people to have more patience and compassion for their partners with sexual dysfunction, and remind those with pelvic pain that they aren't alone. "I think that it's more important than ever to protect and celebrate people's bodies and sexual freedom," she says.

Here's the teaser trailer for Tightly Wound, slated for a 2017 release:

Images: Andrew Zaeh for Bustle; Tightly Wound/Shelby Hadden and Sebastian Bisbal Rivas (3)