Good Sexual Relationship Essentials: Easier Than You Think

This August, Vancouver hosted the 33rd annual meeting of the International Academy of Sex Research, where I was privileged to meet the stars in the field of sexuality research and to hear them present their latest findings. Among them was Dr Peggy Kleinplatz, an Ottawa-based sex therapist who has been gathering data from seniors in long-term, sexually-successful relationships. Her subjects were all over 60, in their relationships for 25 years or more, and happy with their sex lives. Dr. Kleinplatz and her team wanted to know how they had done it.

They designed the study along scientifically rigorous guidelines. Only Kleinplatz and her assistant knew the identity of the respondents. Once the interviews were completed, they coded the responses and had them processed by other researchers who were blind to ages, genders, and other demographics. What did those researchers learn?

One interesting finding was that the researchers could not identify older from younger, male from female, nor geographical, ethnic, or any other specific differences among the happy couples. This indicates that when we form long-standing, contented, mutually beneficial relationships and are bolstered by meaningful, joyous sexuality, differences between people vanish. Erasing those disparities enables peaceful co-existence and encourages sexual adventurousness.

As well, there were no complicated magical formulae, no unusual practices that these couples used to preserve good sex for twenty-five years or more, other than a sustained insistence on the importance of sexuality in their lives. Though all of these couples were devoted and loving, the majority were polyamorous, or had become so during the course of their relationships. Surely this signals a confidence not only personally but also in their union, so that fidelity was not confused with possession. They viewed sex as a natural and healthy human expression and revelled in its open expression.

These couples set aside time for sex on a regular basis. Being older, they gave sex more time than they did when they were younger and distracted by work and family duties. Some began planning their weekend of sex on Thursday by preparing finger food so they would not be interrupted by hunger over the next few days. Then they spent the weekend luxuriating in lazy, playful sex until Monday started another week’s routine.

Note the word “playful” in that sentence. That’s the key factor found by Kleinplatz’s team. When they analyzed all the data, laughter was the key element. Those couples who laughed, giggled, and thoroughly enjoyed themselves during sex reported solid, happy relationships. Given that one feature, other demographics fell away, leaving happy, loving, communicative couples. Simple, eh?

This is the newest research–cutting edge stuff–performed under rigorous conditions by highly educated, dedicated professionals hungry for accurate information. And the answer? Laughter! Fun! Taking time to enjoy playful sex on a regular basis for many happy years!

This is great news. We can all do this. True, some relationships may need remedial work, but that’s available through sex therapy with dedication, hard work and open hearts. If you already have a strong and loving union, this new research is the hopeful and confirming news you need to fuel years of ongoing love, sex, and companionship.

But I Can’t Say THAT

– Originally published on

Sexual communication? It’s easy, when our message is “Oh, Sweetheart, that was just the BEST!”. It becomes more thorny when we need to express disappointment, anger, or disinterest; and it seems futile when our partner can no longer even comprehend the discussion, as can be the case with Alzheimer’s, dementia, and brain injury. Perhaps all of us wish we could speak easily about sex and intimacy, though few of us escape the pleasure-phobic societal taboos and innuendos that teach us we must not talk about sex. And when we throw into the mix our misconceptions and unrealistic expectations about romance and marriage, it is no wonder we hesitate to blunder forward in an area in which we are uninformed and in which our partner’s response is unpredictable and important.

Romance and new love are fertile ground for verbal exchanges about lovemaking, but it doesn’t take long for the honeymoon stage to spend itself. (The word ‘honeymoon’ refers to the concept of the time from one full moon to the next–only twenty-eight days!). Thereafter, it is as important to learn to speak about our most vulnerable and intimate wishes as it is to discuss healthy styles of co-habitation, decision-making, and conflict resolution. But most of us soon establish unspoken sexual codes, and verbal communication steadily wanes.

The danger is that silence guarantees constancy or deterioration of a situation. When we want change, we must stop being silent. We have a much better chance of getting what we want if we ask for it. One of the myths we learn about love and romance is that “If you really loved me, you’d know what I want.” Deciphered, this means we expect our partners to read our minds. Not only is this impossible, but it sets us up for disappointment when our lovers (predictably) fail the test, proving to us that we are unloved. Then, unsure of our status, we feel vulnerable and powerless, further silencing us. Such an ugly cycle, and an unnecessary one!

At this point we are influenced not only by the belief in mind-reading, but are broadsided by yet another myth, that any suggestion involving our mate’s sexual performance will be unbearably painful and scar the relationship. This is another manifestation of our culture’s ‘silence about sex’ credo, firmly ingrained in our social code. Typical of myths, it just is not true. In fact, most of us hunger for a little direction, a small suggestion, that informs us how better to please our sexual partner. Since we are given little or no information about sexual relationships as we grow up, and since we are expected to be proficient lovers upon marriage, we are left in a Catch-22: just how is this transformation to happen? We do a lot of groping, and assuming, and hoping, and sometimes we read each other well enough, and reveal enough of ourselves, that we can and do build solid, loving sexual relationships. Most of us are not that lucky. And all of us could improve what we have if we can learn to speak honestly and open heartedly about what we really like (and really don’t like) about sex.

How do we learn to be fluent in the language of sexuality?

We begin with an examination of our personal beliefs and attitudes about our bodies and about sex. For instance, who is responsible for our bodies? Who is responsible for our body’s pleasure? If we give ourselves away to another person, we lose the privilege and right to govern our own experiences. It is when we take full responsibility and control of ourselves that we can assess clearly what we need and want.

Regarding sexuality specifically, what kinds of sexual activities do we want? How often do we want to be sexual? How important, or insignificant, is sexuality to us? What compromises and accommodations are we willing to make to keep sex central in our lives? How do we differentiate sex from lust/ love/care/duty? When is sex personal and when is it a marital issue?

When we have these pieces figured out, we can attend to our needs and desires. Now comes the task of determining exactly what we would ask for if we could write our own script, if we could eloquently ask for things to be precisely as we wished and our mate’s response would be “Oh, Darling, I’m so glad you asked; I’ve been hoping for the same changes!” If there were no reason for fear and many for daring, what, exactly, would we ask for? The little things offer a good beginning. There are some relatively safe situations where we can practice our communication skills. Asking to bathe together, or suggesting a massage, or gesturing with a ‘come hither’ look and a smile, are easy places to start. We can begin the flow of language ourselves, telling our mates that we appreciate them sexually and listing the things they do to please us. We can touch more, mentioning how marvelous skin feels touching skin. We can learn this unfamiliar language as we would acquire any other, with patience, and courage, and practice.

So far, so good. But what do we do when we’re well beyond stifled communication? What if we no longer desire our mate, or they us? What if illness or injury makes sexual expression impossible? What if verbal negotiation is impossible?

We begin by acknowledging and embracing our grief for a situation that may well be beyond our control and which is unjust and unfair. We enter loving relationships full of promise and the expectation that we will have happy lives together. When those dreams are dashed, for whatever reasons, we are filled with sorrow, rage, and resentment. Dreams die hard, and it hurts very much to lose them. When illness or injury takes away the lover with whom we once shared those dreams, we lack a dividing line between the marriage that was before and the relationship henceforth. Sometimes things appear pretty much the same as before, even though they feel completely different, and we invariably feel guilty that we don’t feel gracious at all about the changes. Because routine settles us into recognizable lives, we try to ignore our sense of betrayal and rage, and get on with necessary tasks. Family and friends, as helpless as we, feel incompetent (often rightly so) to help. When sex is one of the casualties of a medical crisis, we become mute once again, struck dumb with helplessness and blind to workable options.

It is at this frightening juncture that we are most affected by our abundance (or lack) of preparation regarding the inevitable changes in our sexual relationships. The silence which marks our childhood and early adulthood often invades our marriages, too. Many couples have never had conversations about topics as vital as childbearing philosophies, disparate desire levels, beliefs about sexual exclusivity, and sexual fantasies and fears.

These silences cripple us when we are dealt a bad hand and must make unilateral decisions that involve both people. Often ignorance, fear, and isolation conspire to freeze us into inaction that can last indefinitely, leaving us a life devoid of fulfillment and scarred with resentment and suffering. There are three simple and vital questions to any decision that clarify our goals and options. These questions are:

1) What do I want?
2) How much does it cost?
3) How much am I willing to pay?

When our emotional dust settles and we get clear about our personal expectations, it is time to compile a list of options and determine the costs and rewards of each. This is a difficult process, complicated by the personal and culturally loaded nature of sexual issues, and by our heartfelt desire to do no harm to our loved ones, to impact them as little as possible. Struggling with these issues may bring us to realize a need for a more distant perspective to help us analyze our choices, and sexual or marital therapy may be appropriate at this time. It is vitally important that we choose a qualified (look for certification by the American Board of Sexologists and/or affiliation with AASECT or SSSS), sex-positive therapist. Well-intentioned but unqualified counsellors who labor under their own unexamined sexual beliefs can misinform and limit rather than expand the options in such complex situations.

We may also find that our best solutions are ones that we would normally find unacceptable. Extraordinary circumstances sometimes require extraordinary measures, and needing to make dispassionate choices about
our sexuality certainly qualifies. Judith Light and Jay Thomas star in a daring movie entitled “A Husband, A Wife, and A Lover,” in which Ms. Light plays a woman who (conveniently) has just left her husband when she is notified that he has had a physically compromising stroke from which he will not recover. She dutifully returns to care for him, and shortly meets a man who becomes her supportive friend and eventually her lover. Together, they care for her husband throughout his illness and eventual death, the three of them redesigning their definitions of fidelity to accommodate the reality of their lives. This is a tender yet controversial movie, and even though the often negative responses of their family and friends are downplayed, it illustrates the creativity of those determined to maintain happiness to design affirmative solutions.

A Husband, A Wife, and A Lover illustrates but one solution to the problem of what to do when a sexual relationship with our partner is no longer possible or fulfilling. Some are able to redirect their sexual energy, and experience little loss. Others rely on masturbation and fantasy to fill their sexual needs. Still others frequent prostitutes, offering experienced, made-to-order sex devoid of emotional involvement. Others enjoy short-lived, serial affairs, providing the thrill of novelty and the safety of short duration. Some invest in an open, committed relationship with a person fully aware of our commitments and obligations at home. There is not one right answer to this question, and the appropriate decision must be made personally, following fearless and heartfelt analysis of our situation and consideration of the broadest possible choice of options.

We must each decide what is best for us and those we love and care for. We may well have to stretch to learn how to think ‘outside the box’. We may risk censure and rejection from those who oppose our choices. We may not be able to make everything work perfectly for everyone. We may have to learn to rely on logic as much as faith. We may have to question our commitments, our beliefs and value structures, and our loyalties. We may have to keep private parts of our lives that we would rather share, a frequent cost of sexual iconoclasm.

The test is this: if, after weighing our options honestly and making a decision, we feel that we have made the fairest choice possible, for all concerned, then we have done all we can do. If we aim to act with integrity, we will hit the correct target.

The Invisibility of Aging


When I asked my new client what had prompted our visit, she responded simply, “I’m distressed.”

“About something in particular?” I queried.

“No, that’s part of the problem,” she lamented. And then she told me her story.

“The other day I was introduced to a man about my same age. When I commented on his striking grey hair, he responded, with what I’m sure he thought was a compliment, that he supposed I “probably used to be a ‘real looker’.” Used to be? That remark unleashed a torrent of thoughts that have boiled into a sort of impotent frustration.

I’m in my sixties. I’m still the same woman I was when I could command notice, but now people look at me as simply old, if they look at me at all. Somehow I became invisible, and the more I think about that, the angrier become.”

I validated her experience, adding that many women first note these societal attitudes when we are called ‘ma’am’ or offered a seat on a bus. We perceive different treatment in restaurants and stores. We see other women our age in the media only if they’re selling skin cream or step-in tubs, symbols of withering and helplessness.

Then we looked in the mirror. The woman looking back at us has indeed faded. Skin grows loose, hair pale, and body soft.

“And I’m seen as sexless,” she complained.

“The older I’ve gotten, the better I am at sex. Sure, I sometimes need to apply extra cream or lube before any sex that involves penetration, but I’ve learned how to show up for sex. I know what I like and how to ask for it and my partner responds languidly and perceptively. It wasn’t like that in the beginning— our sexual confidence and power were earned! Neither of us had the information we needed early on. It was only with time and practice that we knew each other well enough to become really great lovers, to learn how to be truly intimate”.

“You’re so right,” I agreed. “It’s difficult enough for women to resist society’s disapproval of our sexuality, called slut shaming. We’re supposed to be sexy, but not sexual. When we layer on the attitude that we’re not sexually interesting–or interested–because we’re older, it makes maintaining our sexual identity that much harder. And when you’re actually feeling smokin’ hot, it’s frustrating and maddening.”

My client is not alone in her lament. Older couples enjoy their sexual proficiency, and research (Kleinplatz) proves this is so. Long term loving couples report that sex just keeps getting better and better.

Still, the loss of public recognition of us as sexually potent women robs of us of an important part of our identity, our self esteem. Our grief about this loss is denied publicly. If we complain about losing the elasticity in our skin, or those intractable five kilos added with menopause, we’ll be told we look just fine “for our age.” Does no one understand our sorrow?

It is difficult to change, to age, to watch one’s vitality ebb. We need confirmation of this transition, acknowledgement of our grief at losing what was and accepting what is now.

“Yes,” she nodded. “Like everyone else, I grieve the loss of my youth.  And I suppose my frustration at being seeing differently won’t change cultural norms. I’m glad to know the belief that sex evaporates when wrinkles arrive is false. I want great sex till I die. I suppose I should start seeing every new wrinkle as an indicator of all the great sex I’m having!”

The session ended with a recap: although society doesn’t acknowledge that, with age, sex grows ripe and full, this lack of recognition is surely outweighed by sexual satisfaction grown only with time and practice. In all, it’s not such a bad trade.



Lesbian Fisting: Intensity and Intimacy

When a group of women friends get together over a meal, the conversation often turns to matters of sex. When those friends represent various numbers on the Kinsey scale (zero being entirely heterosexual and six referring to completely homosexual), those conversations take on a depth and complexity—and sometimes hilarity—not found in textbooks on female sexuality.

I was fortunate to be privy to one such exchange not long ago. We weren’t far into our discussion before I realized I was immersed in valuable information for my readers. I began to take mental notes.

When the topic of vaginal fisting arose, the lesbians at the table nodded knowingly while most of the straight women scratched their heads. We women, all with the same physiological anatomy, realized some fundamental differences in how we experience lovemaking. I found it all fascinating, as did they.

The heterosexual women wondered why the lesbian women were interested in fisting. They spent their energy trying to get their partners to focus on their clitoris and to pay perhaps less attention to their vagina. It seemed to them that sex was forever concentrated on something being put inside them and, though they enjoyed that aspect of their sexuality, more penetration felt, well, redundant.

They threw the question back to the lesbians.

The lesbians’ experience of lovemaking was quite different. The clitoris is queen between women, who understand and appreciate that the sole purpose of that glorious organ is to produce pleasure. Much time is spent tending to the clitoris. By the time penetration comes onstage, arousal is high and lubrication copious. Endorphins, the bonding chemicals, are surging. Both women are seeking and experiencing intimacy.

When the bottom, the receptive woman, opens her body to her lover’s fingers, she does so devoid of the stereotypical power imbalance inherent in male/female dynamics. No one needs to jostle for power as they are equal everywhere except in this delicious act of penetrator and receiver. The opening up is simultaneously erotic and boundary-breaking. The act of penetrating personal and powerful. What could be more intimate than holding your hand inside your lover’s body? Or containing your lover’s hand inside your own?

Fisting takes practice. It requires relaxation, muscle control and great trust in your partner. It is very intense, which is another part of its attraction. Sex that includes fisting is memorable sex, notable sex. It is the kind of sex that forms a bond between women, tells a story between them that they never forget.

One woman said she “finally felt close enough”. Another described fisting as “the epitome of intimacy”. Yet another defined it as “the quintessence of lovemaking”.

At this point some of the straight women shared that they, too, enjoyed fisting, and also enjoyed quite egalitarian relationships with their male lovers. Some of the women-identified women added that they weren’t into fisting at all.

We simply don’t fit into neat little boxes when it comes to sex. We are as individual as fingerprints. Still, we can learn from the stories we hear when we put our feet under our friends’ kitchen tables and share our experiences about what turns us on.

Intimate and intense. Has a lot going for it.

Low Self Confidence? Here’s Help

Do you suspect that if only you had more self-confidence, you’d be able to make your life work better? Chances are you’re right! The primary tools for effecting change are believing in 1) our ability to make it happen and 2) our right to happiness. Power and entitlement. Those are the ingredients of self-confidence. Self-confidence fluctuates with our circumstances. When we’re happy, we feel strong and effective. Blue? Not so much. Do not, however, think that it just happens tous. We have control over how we respond to the world, and the stronger our self-confidence, the better we fare, regardless the situation. How do we build self-confidence? There are five components of self-confidence, all of which interlace and build upon one another. They form a sort of circle, or perhaps an ever-ascending spiral. If we were to draw it, it might look like this: Self Confidence Cycle Graphic   The great thing about this tool is that you can get on anywhere. You only need to start somewhere and the process of improving your self-confidence has begun. Let’s say you begin with Acceptance of Personal Rights. Think about what that means, do an internet search, seek out books relating to that topic (librarians are great help here). Whatever you do, you’ll find that as you accept and internalize your own personal rights, you’ll find yourself… Behaving more assertively. And now you’ve quite smoothly moved on to the next phase of becoming self-confident. As you act assertively out there in your world, you ‘naturally’ begin to take better care of yourself, and so on, and so on… Remember, though, that you must commit to the momentum of the process to keep it going. As with any other change, our old behaviours resist and our new ways of being need reinforcement to feel natural. Also, this simple graphic lacks the robust explanations it deserves. Each step benefits from suggestions, recommendations, exercises and discussion. All that is available through brief therapy, which can focus on building self-confidence, tailored to your specific situation. Whatever methods you choose, do work on building your self-confidence. It’s that unmistakeable inner glow that looks so darned good on all of us!

Disappointing Sex. What happened?


Dear Dr Ren and Bloom,

As a woman of a certain age, I learned to follow the rules. That included marrying a man I liked immensely, and burying my sexual attraction to women. My husband died three years ago, after which I decided it was time to act on this attraction.

Recently, I told one of my girlfriends my “secret,” and she shared that she’d had some girl on girl action in college. A bottle of wine later, I got to act on my desires for the first time.

Sadly, this is not a letter of rejoicing. I was ready for anything, but the experience was a complete letdown. I didn’t even have an orgasm.

I’m so depressed. I always thought sex with my husband was dull because I wasn’t really into his body. Now I finally have sex with my body of choice, and the sex is still boring! Is there something wrong with me?

I am so…


Dear Disappointed,

Sex, romance, desire, compatibility—all such complex experiences. We so want them to be straightforward and understandable. Media representations of ‘falling in love’ look so easy. Real life, however, requires some basic skills.

Not only do we need to know what it is that we like personally, we need to know how to communicate those wishes and how to hear the longings of our partners at times when blood is literally and figuratively rushing in our ears…and other bits.

First time sex is a cache of material for comics. We can all recount stories of sex gone wrong on first encounters. Add that bottle of wine, so useful to drown inhibitions but also so conducive to sloppiness, and you have the makings of a regretful evening. Please don’t use your one, sodden lesbian tryst as a yardstick for what your future sex life may be! I’ll bet if you recall your initial heterosexual encounter, you’ll nod with humorous recognition as well!

Another factor at play here is that, to date, you have been sexual with two friends. I suspect that if you play with someone to whom you are erotically attracted—I mean really sexually besotted—you’ll feel the earth move. Desire and arousal fuel one another.

So far you’ve been a good girl. You’ve followed the rules, played it safe, coloured inside the lines.  You have, quite correctly, identified this period in your life as time for you to meet your own needs. Your task now is to identify what those needs are.

In order to find lovers in synch with you, you’ll need to learn your own body’s appetites, so long buried. Become your own best lover so you can teach others what your body likes.

Experiment with masturbation toys. Learn whether you respond to penetration by using dildos and smooth, insertable vibrators. Think you are a clitoral gal? Your choices are many and varied. Do your swelling labia beg for attention? Or perhaps you respond wildly to anal or nipple stimulation. You don’t have to choose just one. Each of us expresses a unique symphony of preferences.

The point is there is no right—or wrong—answer to the ways arousal works for you, and Bloom is here to respond to the full range of women’s sexuality. There are toys for every woman’s choices.

Do not be discouraged. You are new to a grand journey of discovery. Give yourself permission to explore your possibilities. You’ll then be ready to share your knowledge with partners who can appreciate and augment your power and joy.

First Time Lesbian Sex

Dear Dr Ren and Bloom,

I’ve always dated men, and happily so. I like sex with men. But recently I watched some lesbian porn that really turned me on. I would like to find out what sex with another woman would be like, but I’m not interested in adopting a lesbian lifestyle.


restful bedroomDear Curious,

You are what we describe as “bi-curious.” Though you are not actually questioning your heterosexual orientation, you would like to experiment with what sex with a woman feels like. This is common, especially as our culture is becoming more tolerant of sexual experimentation. Recent research, notably by Meston and Diamond, validates the fluidity of women’s erotic arousal targets throughout their lifespans.

With access to internet dating, realizing our fantasies can be a reality fairly easily. Remember that the majority of lesbian porn is still made by men, for men. The sex you are likely watching would not approximate your real life experience. To see how lesbian sex is in real life, seek out erotica made by and for lesbians.

How will sex with another woman be different?

First of all, there will be a lot more talking, and sex will take hours. Women tend to put emphasis on different aspects of sex. You will likely discover a more languid pace. Penetration is not a given. Dominant and submissive roles are not based on sex-role stereotyping, so initiation and flirtation must be shared or at least negotiated on some level.

Your emotions, too, will need to be managed. Sex with someone new is captivating, and the cascade of endorphins you’ll enjoy will feel a whole lot like falling in love. To avoid appropriately hurt feelings, you’ll need to stay aware.

Choose your partners carefully. Be clear with your intentions. Nobody wants to be a science experiment.

Once you’ve contemplated these factors and are ready to try dating, consider seeking bi-sexual women rather than those who identify as lesbian. The advantages are:

  • Bisexual women will better understand your primary identification as a straight woman. Many of them will share your diversity of attraction.
  • Bisexual women have a comfort with the bodies of both men and women, and what sex with same and divergent sex parts is like.
  • Identify yourself clearly as bisexual seeking an experience. This alerts lesbian women looking for another woman who DOES live the lifestyle.

If you want to proceed to finding a suitable date for this new adventure, see

Does this make you a lesbian?

You tell me you are curious about sex with a woman, but don’t want to adopt a lesbian lifestyle. There’s not one model, you know.

In other words, be willing to change your plans. Sex is mightily powerful, and so is friendship, and sex between women involves both. If you find yourself happy and content with a woman you intended to be solely an experiment, be prepared to change course. It is always your choice.

Don’t let these considerations to deter you from indulging your curiosity. Indeed, it is repressing our eroticisms that torments us and our lovers far more greatly than those we realize. Still, these are not mathematical equations you are trying to solve. Expecting this to go smoothly is unrealistic.

Be brave, be adventuresome, and be prepared. Immerse yourself in the heady intoxication of discovering something about yourself that you didn’t know beforehand. It will leave you smiling.


Sex Changes with Aging

Dear Dr Ren/Bloom,

I’ve been married over three decadues, and over those years my husband and I have developed a fulfilling sexual relationship. Ironically, now that we’ve gotten really good at this, age is throwing us some curves. My husband now has some trouble maintaining his erections, and my vagina becomes easily irritated during intercourse.

What can we do to help overcome these obstacles to great sex?

Older but Determined

Dear Older but Determined,

It’s true that getting older gives with one hand and takes with the other. While we enjoy the benefits of learned intimacy and performance skills, our bodies fall prey to decline. You are wise to be seeking remedies, as there are many.

Regarding your husband’s less reliable erections, reassure him that this change does not indicate his failure to be a good lover. Explore the delights of sensual touch and reconsider the requirement of intercourse in defining what good sex means to you both. Intercourse and orgasm may no longer be so tightly linked, though both can continue to be enjoyable.

Long term happy couples who report ever-deepening sexual connection tell us that they attribute this success to two primary elements, keeping sex a priority and laughter. Yes, laughter! They celebrate every opportunity to have fun together sexually and otherwise. And they make sure the pressures of daily life don’t interfere with their private time together. It proves to be a winning combination.

With all this going for you, don’t let the changes of age dampen your spirits or your enjoyment. Your husband can find help for his flagging erections by using a cock ring which traps blood in the penis. Add to the fun by choosing one that adds vibrations. It will boost pleasure and performance in an unobtrusive, fun way, and you’ll both benefit.

Your growing vaginal discomfort is likely caused by the thinning tissues and decreasing lubrication brought about by menopause and declining hormone levels. Keep lubricant handy and use it liberally.

Those delicate tissues require ongoing ‘exercise’ to stay healthy. If you appreciate more penetration than you may now receive from intercourse alone, treat yourself to a dildo designed for older women, one that is firm yet pliable, and smooth in texture. You can use this for solo sex, or your husband can use it with you when his erections flag at inopportune moments. This will keep your genital tissues active and healthy and relieve any pressure your partner may feel regarding his erections.

Perhaps most importantly, remember that changes to your bodies will continue. We need to develop and maintain a certain sense of humour and philosophical attitude about the loss of our robust youth. However, you have already discovered the compensation of vulnerability, intimacy and trust in your decades-long sexual relationship. That openness and experimental attitude will do you well as you learn to accommodate the obstacles that aging bodies can set before us.

Don’t let embarrassment silence you. Keep talking openly with your partner about how sex works—and doesn’t. Solve the issues as they arise, together. With good communication, an experimental attitude, and sex toys designed for your particular needs, there’s no reason you two can’t continue to enjoy great sex for the rest of your lives!



Consequences of Sensual Expression

Dear Dr Ren,

When I relocated from a city to the town where my sister lives, she gave me a gift certificate for a massage with Kelly, her regular RMT. Following that session, I mentioned intending to rebook another appointment. My sister said she’d give me another recommendation, but Kelly wouldn’t see me again. I had to pry to get the reason.

It seems I moaned during my massage and that offended Kelly. Apparently I sounded “sexual.” It wasn’t sexual…I was just responding to my pleasure! I was shocked and angry at first, but those emotions gave way to a deep internal shame. I had embarrassed my dear sister, and potentially damaged my reputation.

I wondered who else judged me for what I considered simple expressions of pleasure.

Now I find myself hyper aware of how I express my response to any kind of pleasure, lest I’ll be judged. I’m less quick to hug, or even touch someone casually. How can I know what’s acceptable?

Have I missed an etiquette lesson?


Dear Moana,

This incident has clearly had a profound effect on you. Kelly’s response to your coos of pleasure during your massage is an example of what we call sex panic or pleasure phobia.

As a culture, we are confused and conflicted about sex, touch and pleasure, and how we combine and differentiate them. Sex’s power sometimes frightens us. That can stop us from fully expressing ourselves so that we don’t risk appearing sexually motivated even when we’re not.

All touch becomes suspect when we’re nervous about sexuality. Because sex and touch are so intertwined in our society, it can be difficult to disentangle them in every context without additional cues to how to interpret the touch correctly. Kelly’s discomfort with sensual sound resulted from her misinterpretation of your sounds as sexual, and that frightened her.

We go so far with this fear that a parochial school recently imposed a No Touch rule for its students. That’s right: elementary school kids will be punished if they are ‘caught’ touching! Teachers, sadly, have long been advised about the ‘inappropriateness’ of touching their students, even when they need comforting.

The concept of ‘pleasure’ gets even more confusing. It’s difficult to pigeon-hole the source of pleasure, as it lives in a multitude of settings, situations and contexts.  If Kelly’s frame of reference regarding pleasure is limited, she’ll lack an appreciation for context. Hence, she interpreted your appreciative moans as your aching muscles eased as love calls.

So yes, Moana, I do think it’s easy to offend the skittish. Those who are uncomfortable with sex will likely be judgmental about expressions of pleasure as well. You experienced deep shame as a result of her judgment.

Perhaps your new town is less enlightened than your old one. You may have to reign in your exuberance to fit in. That’s the sad but realistic news.

The good news is that, once behind the walls of your own home, you can set the rules. Enjoy hugging family and friends. Set an ethic of abundant physical interaction within your inner circle.

And inside your bedroom, you can express yourself with abandon, free from judgment. No need to hold back here. Here you can be as expressive as you want to be. Create an environment in which pleasure and erotic heat can flourish. Design your own personal oasis where unfettered emotion and expression always welcome you!

You’ll encounter lots of Kellys. Though you may resent having to trim your expressive sails to avoid the shame they would have you wear, you can balance the injustice by building a judgment free, touch positive zone within your own home.




Post-Menopausal Hibernation


Dear Dr Ren,

After making it through the hot flashes and mood swings of menopause a couple of years ago, I started to feel like my (old) self again. Sex actually improved and I felt more alive than I had in years.

Then about six months ago, my libido vanished. And not just the desire part, but the physical sensations in my body flattened, too. Even when I talk myself into masturbating, nothing happens. I can’t even unearth any hot images, never a problem in the past.

Needless to say, this has been perplexing for me and frustrating for my partner.

Is this normal? Will my libido ever come back?  What can I do?

Sexually Dead

Dear Sexually Dead,

First of all, you’re not dead; you’re just hibernating.

Yes, it’s normal in some women, though rarely discussed. Your libido will likely return. This is a naturally-occurring and benign phase in our sexual development.

The fact that you are about six months into this period, and perplexed, is a sign that you are already reawakening sexually. I suspect you’d not have penned this letter a few months ago when you were feeling even more deeply “dead” because you would have been comfortable in your sexless cocoon then.

In other words, your depressed sexuality may resolve itself. Some research (Weinstock) suggests that “between one-half and three quarters of women age 45 to 58 report a significant drop in sex drive.”  So you are in good company.

There is considerable anecdotal information that many women experience this slump about two to five years after the start of menopause (when you have your last menstrual period). Further, these women report that it quite often passes in less than a year.

Most research concentrates on hormone “deficiency.” Loss of estrogen may play a part in your sexual suppression, as may a deficiency in testosterone, though this latter is rare. Low estrogen levels can cause your vaginal tissues to become thin and dry, which necessitates adaptations for penetrative sex. You would be wise to check with your doctor, though a hormone deficiency would likely result in low libido from the very beginning of menopause, not several years later.

The emotional changes that often accompany menopause, including anxiety and depression, can also add to your loss of interest in sex or your inability to appreciate arousal. Monitor your psychological health as you move through this stage.

You are now playing with a different body, and the old game plans may no longer work for you. Try masturbating in different ways, and expand your partner repertoire as well, including ongoing communication. Encourage your girlfriend to stay sexy herself and resist becoming complacent.

You see, to some extent, your libido depends upon your personal expectation of what it should be. Many of us don’t really understand our own bodies and how they work sexually. If you relied on clitoral orgasms in the past, deeper cervical stimulation may be what you need now—or vice versa.

Be patient if it takes longer to get in the mood, and to be open to new means of eroticism like vibrators or dildos, the visual stimulation of porn, or trying new positions or techniques in the bedroom. And always use a lubricant for those drier, estrogen-depleted bits!

Our erogenous zones are limited only by our imagination and exploration. Experiment till you find what works now. Remember though, you don’t need to rush this process. Pace yourself and listen to your body’s cues.

Once you have eliminated any physiological or psychological causes for your decreased libido, relax. Give yourself time to leave this transitional stage behind and move into the confident, unhurried joy that generally accompanies our older sexual years.


Originally published in Xtra newspaper, October 2013.









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