Grappling with how difficult consent, pleasure, sex – and talking about sex – can be, comedian Fran Bushe turned her one-woman show Ad Libido into The Diary Of My Broken Vagina (an 11-minute Channel 4 Comedy Blap) and the non-fiction book My Broken Vagina: One Woman’s Quest To Fix Her Sex Life, And Yours. In it she describes her adventures in a dolphin costume onstage, at a sex camp and between the sheets – and throughout she draws on the sex and relationships experiences she catalogued in her diaries at age 16.
Here Fran, now 35, talks to us frankly about misinformation in school corridors, accidentally being “a bit of a vagina activist” and how her teenage diaries became a touchstone for understanding her feelings about sex, desire and her body both then and now…
All through all my teenage years I kept a diary about friendships, strife and exam worries – then at age 16, I heavily documented trying to lose my virginity and worrying about what that would be like. I treated the diary as a confidant in my sexual struggles because I wasn’t talking to my friends about it.
It would have felt like such a confession, a failure, to say: “Actually it’s not working for me.” Because everyone else seemed to be having lovely sex that worked every time. I wasn’t fitting into that group, and when you’re a teenager you want to fit in.
What struck me when I re-read the diaries at 30 was how little had changed. I’d thought it would get better, but it hadn’t. That made me sad because at 16 you think: “By the time I’m 30 I’ll understand completely how my body works and I’ll be having incredible sex four times a day. It’ll be beautiful; there’ll be fireworks.”
As someone with a vagina, you’re told that your first time will hurt, you’ll probably bleed like a waterfall, it will be pretty excruciating and then it’ll be fine. No one ever mentions the second or third or fourth time.
I was taught at school that virginity was a penis entering a vagina. Losing your V plates was like perforating the lid of a yogurt pot – your hymen was a dairy freshness seal and once opened your value was questionable. The word and concept of virginity just isn’t very useful for most people, especially for anyone not having penetrative sex. It was however deeply carved into my teenage self, which is why the grand opening of my Müller Corner had to be perfect
– From My Broken Vagina by Fran Bushe
I’m pretty impressed with 16-year-old Fran and her diaries. She was articulate. She had a weird half-knowledge of things: she talks about pretending to enjoy sex but says she’d never fake orgasms. At 30 it had become the norm – I still performed pleasure for my partners.
OK I’d never fake anything but sometimes I may emphasise my enthusiasm when he’s down there just because it boosts his confidence and I can see how happy it makes him and I don’t want us both to feel like total failures
Actually 16-year-old Fran was having conversations with her boyfriend in a way that at 30 I wasn’t anymore because I’d become so concerned about my partners’ experiences that I’d stopped telling them sex was painful so as not to hurt their feelings, pride or sense of self. So in some ways 16-year-old Fran was way ahead of 30-year-old Fran, in some ways not at all and in some ways nothing had changed.
Me and Lee had some serious chats and decided that we were both ready to take our relationship to the next level. So, I went down on him. It is very rewarding to be able to do something like that for your loved one and for them to really enjoy it. Upon writing this in hindsight I’m unsure if I ought to have done it as now it feels like it is all I do and I am beginning to get a sore neck. The difference is he is for sure far more AHEM turned on by it and I can bring him to AHEM climax every single time. But I don’t think I’ve ever been close. This of course isn’t his fault as I’m unsure I will ever be “turned on”, I’m just, as I told him, not wired up right. But this is not important – physicality isn’t important – I love his company and that is all that matters to me. Yesterday we went to the football and after worrying that Blackburn Rovers were a rubbish team, they beat Chelsea 2–1.
Luv n hugs, Fran x
ON BEING A TEEN
The book is just a good reminder of what it’s like to be a teenager and to have all those feelings about sex and your body and to be told all this stuff that’s not right.
You’re told: “Boys just want to have sex all the time – that’s all they want – and for girls it’s difficult and emotional.” Actually it’s so much more complicated on both sides, and we never feel like we’re doing it right or that we’re normal.
You’re told in the school corridors that vaginas are disgusting, vaginas should smell a certain way and you shouldn’t have any kind of pubic hair.
You have all of misinformation in your brain going into your first sexual experiences.
It would have been useful to know SEX IS FUN AND ENJOYABLE and that SEX IS FOR YOU TOO and that YOUR VAGINA IS SELF-CLEANSING and DO WHATEVER YOU WANT WITH YOUR PUBES. Without this knowledge, the danger is you endure. You are passive. You are done to…
Growing up I had no idea why I was finding sex painful. I didn’t have a computer at home, so I did any secret Googling in the school library, which was terrifying because my peers were looking over my shoulder.
I only learned about vulvas and vaginas being different things in my late 20s. I was proudly calling the whole thing vagina but I was being completely inaccurate.
In my head sex was just the idea of penis-in-vagina. If at any point someone had been like: “That’s not all sex is”, if I’d been told about other kinds of sex first, I don’t think I would have felt that my vagina was broken at all.
It was as if my vulva had been replaced by a brick wall
I mostly just imagined an “out of order” sign dangling over my pants
The word “dysfunction” didn’t sit well with me. It made me feel like a faulty vending machine, stuck halfway through releasing a KitKat
ON CONSENT AND THE CLITORIS
My consent education came down to: don’t get yourself in trouble, don’t get drunk, don’t let yourself be vulnerable, don’t go down dark alleyways, don’t have your hair in a ponytail because it could get grabbed easily and don’t wear a skirt that’s too short or a top that’s too low because those are all confusing in terms of consent.
My idea of consent was always negative. Because I didn’t learn that I had any agency – that consent was not just about what I didn’t want but also about what I wanted to do and what I wanted someone to do to me – I spent so many years having the sex that other people wanted. I hadn’t realised that I was allowed to ask for things or even work out what I liked myself, because I was worried about my partner’s feelings.
I just want to make him happy. I let him do things to me because it makes him happy. And it makes me happy to see him happy. How else will he be happy?
I wish someone had told me about the clitoris earlier. I wish someone had said: “Sex is for you as well.” For so many years I believed that sex was for people with penises, that my body was there to facilitate them having a nice time – job done; shall we all clock off for the day? And no one said: “Actually you can enjoy sex yourself. You can enjoy sex on your own. You can have as much pleasure as your partner, and their ejaculation is not the end of sex.”
There is a chance that I might have gone: “That’s so embarrassing. Stop it.” But at least I would have heard them.
MY BRAIN This is your fault, Fran, you should tell him what is and isn’t working, he isn’t a mind reader for heaven’s sake! How is he meant to drive the car without a road map?
ME I don’t even know how to drive the car, I’m not even sure where it’s parked, I think I’ve lost the car keys!
ON HOW PARENTS CAN TALK OPENLY WITH THEIR KIDS ABOUT SEX AND RELATIONSHIPS ISSUES
The earlier the better. I know it is frightening to make sex and relationships stuff feel part of the conversation, but it shouldn’t be frightening. It’s OK for your child to ask questions. The more normal these things are – kind of like a low-level, gradual constant – the less it will be: “We’re going to have the big birds and bees chat.” The next time they have a question it won’t feel like such a big jump but just a conversation like any other.
For kids knowing more about their body and that they have ownership of it can come in really early. Then when they become sexually active they’ll know that their body is theirs and they can say no – those things are already embedded in there.
My female friends who have the best sex lives all had open conversations with their parents about sex – it just wasn’t a big deal. They were told to explore their bodies on their own. One even got handed a little mirror: “Go and have a look – see what you’ve got.”
Can you share your first memory of having a vulva or vagina? (Even if these weren’t the words you were using for them at the time)
When I was 4 I thought of my labia as tiny curtains to a theatre stage and made them “open and close” – 22, female
Watching The X-Files as a kid and getting turned on by the main guy and experiencing a “feeling” down there
I think I was about 3 when I realised I had a “front bottom” instead of a “sausage bottom” – 30, female
I read a book at 12 about a girl masturbating, poked my finger in there and was like “This doesn’t live up to the hype” – 27, female
ON GETTING OVER A MILLION VIEWS ON YOUTUBE
I’m a writer, performer and comedian, and I wanted to speak about the sex that didn’t go to plan or was difficult or painful because that had been my experience, to varying degrees, up until I was 30. So I explored that in my stage show Ad Libido.
I accidentally became a bit of a vagina activist. There’s still so much stigma, shame and secrecy around sex, the body and desire that just doing the show was like an act of rebellion. I thought I’d do it a couple of times and people would be like: “Please stop talking about your vagina. Put your metaphorical literary pants back on. We’re not ready for this.” So I was really surprised when it gathered a following and people wanted to talk and share their experiences with me.
I pitched The Diary Of My Broken Vagina to Channel 4 as a series and they really liked it and let me make an 11-minute Comedy Blap. Then the pandemic struck, so it’s been a little on ice, but I’m writing a new version of the pilot and the series outline with the British Film Institute (BFI). Fingers crossed, I think there’s still space for some vagina TV.
More and more we’re seeing exciting female-centred stories on TV, stories that never used to be told. When I was growing up, I had no idea why I was finding sex painful, so later it felt brilliant and important to be telling that story, which didn’t exist as far as I knew.
When anything about pain or struggle is on TV, there’s a temptation for it to be gritty and dark, with music in the minor key. I wanted to make something that felt like a party – the pain and difficulty are wrapped up in such a bright, colourful package that we can engage with it a lot more.
Adults will watch the programme from nostalgia, but teenagers will hopefully see themselves slightly represented. Actually teenagers now are knowledgeable and savvy. It’s easy for them to access information – on gender, bodies, rights, pretty much anything – online.
Couldn’t get condom on (realise we’ve been putting it on back-to-front and that’s why it won’t roll down). Had to use second condom, lucky I bought so many. Couldn’t get penis in. No sex
There’s a lot of love for the programme, a real community behind it, but there are also comments underneath the video like: “This is just pornography” and: “The idea of women experiencing pleasure makes me feel all weird and icky.” I used to find a lot of the comments a bit unsettling. But now it feels more like proof. Because my own echo chamber is very sex positive, and everyone around me is just “vagina vagina vagina”, I forget that people don’t like saying the word vagina. The worlds of YouTube and social media are probably a bit less tolerant of hearing it.
The Diary Of My Broken Vagina has had well over 1 million views on YouTube. Maybe 500,000 was just my dad hitting refresh – but the reaction has been amazing.
About the book: whatever your experience of sex has been, and whether you have a vagina or a penis, there are things in it to relate to. It just reminds us that it’s OK for sex not to be easy – we’ve all had times when it hasn’t worked for us for whatever reason.
My book isn’t a guidebook – it deals with the subject with humour and gentleness and makes something that is hard to talk about easier. I can go in front of a big audience or be on the radio or put a TV programme out there and talk about sex all day. But I find sex so hard to discuss with people I care about. Anything, like this book, that bridges that kind of gap is great.
ME Your vagina definitely doesn’t need to smell like a spring breeze or ocean spray. In fact, all of your body is just glorious and so deserving of all of the good things in life. I want to protect you from so much! I want to steer you away from the unhealthy relationships you will get into and defend you from the damage they will do. I want to stand in your corner, a weird sort of sex hype woman, and fill you with the confidence to be able to say “No” or “Yes” and truly completely mean it and…
16-YEAR-OLD ME This is all a bit Ghost of Sex-mas Yet to Come for me. Ha ha… come.
ME It’s quite hard talking to your 16-year-old self about sex, you know. I could draw you a diagram instead?
16-YEAR-OLD ME It’s OK, I won’t interrupt.
ME No, it’s good actually! Keep talking, keep interrupting, keep asking questions. I want your voice to take up space. At the heart of really good sex is communication, so talk to your partners. The expectations on people with penises are huge. They are meant to always want sex, always have rock-hard erections and be able to last for hours and hours in bed, but this simply isn’t realistic, so take some of the pressure off for everyone.
My Broken Vagina: One Woman’s Quest To Fix Her Sex Life, And Yours (Hodder & Stoughton, £16.99) by Fran Bushe is out now. Follow Fran on Instagram and Twitter