Painful sex affects millions of women every year. The exact numbers are unaccounted for because doctors don’t always believe women’s pain and other women feel shame or guilt about their experience and don’t come forward. I struggled with vaginismus, an involuntary muscle spasm, for eight years and found solace at Spectrum Boutique (a Detriot-based sex shop), where I purchased my first dilators. Soon I was on my way to a happy, healthy sex life. It came with successes, a lot of failures, and immense stress. It wasn’t easy by any means—it was alienating, terrifying, and exhausting. So that’s why when I heard about the comedy short 8,000, I was thrilled that women, specifically queer women, are talking about a topic so terribly ignored.
Ally Nikolaus, 27, completed 8,000—named for the number of nerve endings in the clitoris—at a rapid pace in September of 2019. After the idea was born, the first draft was completed the next day. The River West comedian and writer based the film on her own experience with endometriosis, a medical issue that affects 11 percent of women, where the tissue that lines the uterus grows outside of the organ. The main character in the film, Ryann, is trying to find relief during sex and goes to a sex shop, Early to Bed, with her best friend, Noor.
Before 8,000, Nikolaus wrote her last script two years ago. She took a year off to focus on her health and a coming-out memoir, which is still in-process. Previously, she worked on sketch shows and is currently in the Conservatory at Second City and also runs a monthly LGBTQ+ writers workshop. After starting a fundraiser for 8,000 on Kickstarter in October, the comedy was fully funded within 16 days. Nikolaus approached Nikki Kanjiani (who plays Noor and is also the producer on the film) with her script, which Kanjiani describes as a “comedic take on a very serious issue.”
Amanda J. Adeleye, an assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Chicago, says, “The most common symptom of endometriosis is pain.” She explains that “endometriosis can be associated with more depressive symptoms or more stress. There are other impacts of endometriosis on one’s life—if symptoms are bad enough they can interfere with work and relationships. On the other hand, we know that there are women with endometriosis who have no pain at all, sometimes it is diagnosed incidentally when a person has a pelvic surgery for another reason.”
Nikolaus started to experience pain after her first period. In 2017 she realized that the pain was permanent. After being misdiagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome with constipation (IBS-C) and having her gynecologist advise that she just “take some Tylenol,” Nikolaus was determined to get to the root of her pain.
“I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, stomach ulcers, esophagitis, and a touch of diverticulitis within a three-month span,” she says. “The endometriosis diagnosis came after a fibroid was found stemming from my uterus like a goddamn piece of broccoli.” After the fibroid was removed in 2018, the doctors found endometriosis.
“Sometimes, endometriosis can lead to the development of scar tissue in the pelvis,” Adeleye says. “When pelvic structures like the cervix, uterus, and ovaries are moved around during intercourse, it can cause stretching and possibly pain. It is also possible that some people have endometriosis implants in places that when they are touched, they hurt.”
With nearly three out of four women-identifying people struggling with painful intercourse at some point in their life, it isn’t a rare experience. But we aren’t talking about it enough. Without an open dialogue about this health concern, people are struggling in silence. Statistics may be lower than reality because patients are apprehensive about speaking about their pain.
Adeleye says “all people are deserving of having a quality sex life if they desire to,” which is why it’s imperative that we normalize our discussions around sex. A film like 8,000 is just what people like me, and thousands of others, deserve when feeling embarrassed or misunderstood about their experience. To see someone on a screen who feels what you’re feeling is a sort of sick relief—ah, to know I’m not alone in this labyrinth of pain.
In 8,000 the stars tackle another “taboo” topic—masturbation. “The act of sexual intercourse is not as taboo as self-pleasuring, especially for women,” Kanjiani says. “Noor, Ryann’s best friend, fights this stigma by being the WOC that loves masturbation with toys in all its glory and doesn’t care who knows it. Bringing Ryann into new territory, Noor gently leads her friend into a world where a painless orgasm is not just the goal, but actually achievable.”
Not only does the comedy star two queer women, its crew is largely LGBTQ and POC—86 percent to be exact. “I’m a Pakistani immigrant,” Kanjiani says. “Growing up, I didn’t see myself and my experience reflected in the media. This being my first film as a producer, I wanted to give opportunities to my talented siblings. If we’re not going to lift each other up, the white man certainly won’t.”
8,000 is not just a love letter to people struggling with pain, but also a love song for those still experimenting with their body and discovering the magic of lube, vibrators, and everything in between. Through comedy, Ryann and Noor work towards eradicating Ryann’s pain one dildo at a time. And this isn’t as rare or absurd as you may think. When I was 18, I visited the sex shop in my hometown to purchase my own vibrator in hopes of curing whatever the hell was happening with my body. “It’s too big!” I would shout across the store as a friend would flop around a purple and veiny phallus-shaped piece of silicone. I settled on a blue Jack Rabbit, small enough not to terrify me but large enough to do the deed. It wouldn’t be until years later that I would move to Chicago, find a great doctor, and cure my vaginismus. The sex shop for Ryann is the doctor’s office, as it was mine. When no one’s listening and no one knows a cure, your friends and rows of colorful peters, pricks, and johnsons are there for you. v
8,000 is currently in post-production so make sure to follow Ally (@allyxxnik) and Nikki (@nikkikanjiani) for personal updates and @8000themovie on Instagram for future screening times and upcoming viewings at festivals.