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An image from the film Winning My Virginity by Shelby Hadden

Q&A | Shelby Hadden Celebrates Her Post-Vaginismus Sex Life

Shelby Hadden is the writer and filmmaker behind Tightly Wound, a short film animated by Sebastian Bisbal that depicts Shelby’s early struggles with vaginismus, from her first attempt to insert a tampon (which resulted in a waste basket full of discarded Tampax), to the cringe-inducing conversation she endured with a clueless 20-something guy who referred to her painful condition as 'hilarious.'

Hadden, an award-winning film producer and director in Austin, TX, is now raising money to support her latest short film Winning My Virginity, which is as much a follow-up to her TEDx Talk Why We All Lose When We Talk About Virginity, as it is a sequel to Tightly Wound.

We caught up with Shelby to learn more about the in-progress film and how seeing a pelvic floor PT for vaginismus helped set the stage for a feel-good sexual debut.

(Click here to Support Winning My Virginity with a tax-free donation.)

For anyone who isn’t familiar with your first film, tell us a little about Tightly Wound.

Tightly Wound is a 10-minute short animated film about my experience with vaginismus. It’s like an animated personal essay that chronicles my life from age 14 to about 24. So many doctors told me that the pain was all in my head. Nobody validated what I was going through. No one accepted it until I found pelvic floor physical therapy and my physical therapists finally said to me, 'yes, yes, yes, this is real.'

How do you find the courage to share your experiences? Did you have to overcome any fears?

I think there's this fear of ‘what if I tell my story and nobody cares?’ But eventually, I felt like, ‘if I don't share it, this story is going to eat me alive.’ Honestly. We finished the film in 2018, but I started writing it and exploring this project in 2015, which was almost 10 years ago.

And things were different back then. There weren't people on Instagram and TikTok talking about the pelvic floor. That was not a thing. It really was a kind of coming out. I think I had the courage to go through with it because I shared the story in small stages, starting with opportunities to read the story and perform it locally.

Then, with Winning My Virginity, I thought ‘I have to share this story, because younger Shelby needed it.’ There are so many other people who need this. As a filmmaker and an artist, there’s also this sense of ‘if I don’t do it, who will?’

Tell us about the story behind Winning My Virginity.

It’s the story of me overcoming vaginismus and making my sexual debut on a trip through South Korea with a man I refer to as Jack in the film. I was there for a friend's wedding and it was a magical experience. It kind of felt like a movie as I was experiencing it, like Eat Pray Love.

I had been working on dilator therapy with my pelvic floor PT and knew that penetrative sex was now possible for me. But I had been holding out for someone like Jack, a person who was able to support me and take the pressure off. He wasn’t at all goal-oriented about it. He said ‘You know, that's not all we can do. And we can still have fun, even if we don’t do that.’

I had read a lot of books, articles, and blogs about sex. I had talked a lot about sex with all my friends, I listened to lots of podcasts. I was very educated about sex at this point, but in practice, it was totally new to me.

A still from Winning My Virginity by Shelby Hadden

It’s so lovely that you held out for what you knew would be — or at least had a really strong hunch would be — a positive and supportive experience.

It was. And I want anyone watching this film who has vaginismus and is stressing about their ‘first time’ to see the benefits of waiting until it feels right vs. just ‘getting it over with.’

I also want to mention that there are plenty of people who aren’t focused on or interested in having sex at all or at this point in their lives. All choices should be respected, accepted, and celebrated. There's nothing wrong with not having sex or with having sex without penetration if that's what you want to do.

To what extent did being on vacation in South Korea help make the timing feel right?

I think there was an element of, well, I'm on the other side of the world. Jack was living in Asia at the time so I assumed I was never going to see him again. So it was pretty low stakes.

But, at one point, we had a moment alone together where things started to happen. And then we were interrupted and had to break apart to do something else. I was relieved because it gave me a chance to step back and think about how I wanted this to go.

With other potential partners in the past, I always waited until we were in the moment of being physical to talk about vaginismus because I didn’t want to bring it up until I absolutely had to. I didn’t know how to have a conversation about it outside the bedroom. With Jack, I was really ready to have sex and I wanted to be upfront about it. I wanted to have a conversation before we were caught up in the heat of the moment.

Why was that conversation so key for you?

It's always better to talk about sex when you’re in a level-headed place and can communicate clearly about what does and doesn’t work for you, but it’s not an easy topic to bring up. With Jack, his reaction was ‘There's no pressure here. I want to be intimate with you and we'll have fun no matter what we do.’

The next day, we had the opportunity to try again, and my mindset was so different going into it. I wasn’t worried about ‘oh, what's he gonna think? Is this gonna happen to me or that?’ I just felt safe with him.

Shelby Hadden visits Origin in Austin, TX, to talk about her first film Tightly Wound.

Did all the advocating that you had to do for yourself with doctors all those years help you speak up for yourself when it came to sex?

I had come from a more empowered, knowledgeable, educated place in that conversation with him. And that's what led to it working out.

And the end of that movie is really the beginning for my character. It wasn’t about being in a relationship or being in love. It was about pleasure and connection. I had worked so hard to get to a place where penetrative sex was possible.

I didn’t lose my virginity — I didn’t lose anything, hence the title of the film. Everything about the experience was something to celebrate.

How intimate does the film get when it comes to the details? Will this be an R-rated animated film?

Well, there is an orgy scene. Really, there is! We plan to make two versions — a PG and an R-rated version. When it comes to how we depict my first time, the sex will be intercut with a dance sequence, but we’re gonna be showing the lube and the condoms and like getting in there for sure.

It’s so amazing that you’re making films about sex and vaginismus from your unique point of view. What do you love most about putting them out into the world?

When you have a medical condition that people have never heard of and they don't know anything about, they often just want to fix it for you. They want to give you solutions that are not real solutions.

With these films, I can kind of force people to really listen. I can give them a real sense of what this all feels like in your body and in your heart. That’s one of the best parts, for sure.

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Nicole Zeman
Nicole Zeman

Nikki Zeman is the Head of Content & Community at Origin — a dream job that allows her to create eye-opening content about pelvic and sexual health. Before Origin, Nikki worked at Cosmopolitan, Women's Health, and Parents Magazine as an editor, health journalist, and advice columnist.

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