Nothing surpasses it on the Richter scale of pure pleasure (except perhaps chocolate). Not many women can live without it. And the mere mention of it can silence a cacophonous cocktail party (“You slept with whom?”).
Ah, sex. Thousands of books, studies, and surveys have explored everything from why we love it and why it’s good for us to how our sex drive has inexplicably run out of gas. Despite this constant flood of information (and misinformation), most of us demur when asked to discuss sex, silently worrying that we barely even register on society’s sex meter.
Madison Avenue fuels much of this anxiety by telling us we should strive to look and play like we’re 20 years old, and when we can’t, drug companies push Viagra and other quick fixes in front of us, making millions off our perceived sexual “dysfunction.” But Betty Dodson, PhD, one of America’s most well-known feminist sexperts, doesn’t believe the hype for a minute. “I question any pharmaceutical drug and all that stuff about “female sexual dysfunction,” says the 79-year-old Dodson. “It’s how we define sex that’s the problem. The best aphrodisiacs I’ve ever found are a healthy body and an open mind.”
Amen, Betty. But as we approach our mid-40s, how do we define sex? Many of us–single or married, gay or straight, male or female–want deeper sexual relationships and yearn to feel our sexuality more fully. For some that might mean more frequent and full-bodied orgasms; for others, a deeper spiritual connection between ourselves and our lovers.
Admittedly, I’ve been feeling a little less desirous myself lately. Could be menopause; I went through it about a year ago, feeling some residual remorse about not having borne my own children (even though I had become a stepmother to two teenagers a couple of years earlier). At the same time, I noticed that the thought of sex didn’t excite or arouse me as much as it used to, despite being in a relatively new relationship and deeply in love with a man who still wakes up, shall we say, plenty perky. My experience didn’t concern me enough to talk to my gynecologist about it; after all, I reasoned, I was 50 years old and still enjoyed multiple orgasms when we did get it on. But I couldn’t help wondering whether my menopausal hormone changes had made my libido flag or if our sex lacked a little something. The answer–more than the sum of its parts–unraveled in a circuitous and richly sensual fashion, leading me to rediscover not only the sweet benefits of intercourse but also find surprising ways to give my sex life a makeover.
Why Sex is Good For You
Never underestimate the power of good sex to keep you physically and mentally vibrant. Who knew, for instance, that having sex regularly strengthens the immune system, enhances sleep, reduces stress levels, and possibly even forestalls the onslaught of wrinkles? A Scottish study found that people in their mid-40s who had sex every other day looked roughly seven to 12 years younger, on average, than those who didn’t enjoy sex as often. Also, people who have sex once or twice a week show increased levels of immunoglobulin A (IgA), an antigen found in saliva and mucosal linings that helps combat colds and flu, according to researchers at Wilkes University in Pennsylvania.
Of course, as Gina Ogden, PhD, author of The Return of Desire (Shambhala Publications, 2008) points out, sex is more than intercourse with orgasm as the goal, and sexuality isn’t something you can measure through surveys. “If you see sexuality as connected to our whole lives,” she says, “you see that sexual experience touches our hearts and souls and can change our lives.”
To boost your chances of having a healthy sex life, make sure you take good care of the largest sex organ in the body–your brain, says Daniel Amen, MD, a clinical neuroscientist and author of Sex on the Brain (Harmony Books, 2007). The brain responds quickly to fluctuations in estrogen and testosterone, and “low testosterone levels are disaster for people’s sexuality,” he says. So if you find yourself consistently unable to muster up any sexual excitement, get your hormone levels checked.
Untreated depression can put a damper on your love life, too. The chronic “poor me” can make you feel decidedly unsexy, so you come across as negative, unresponsive, and uninterested in your partner sexually, Amen adds. He suggests a simple solution to jump-start your brain-to-libido connection, unless, of course, you suffer from clinical depression: “Focus on what you love about your life.” Hanging out with the one you love “outside the bedroom” can take performance pressure off both of you and allow you quality time to play, laugh, and just be together.
Another free, albeit not-so-easy antidote to sexual challenges may be to talk about them. Dodson, the sexologist, argues that despite the progress we’ve made in recent years, talking about sex and sharing our sexual experiences is still quite awkward, a social taboo that women and men must overcome before they can feel fully alive sexually. My husband put it another way: “We turn 15 and take driver’s education to learn how to drive. We’re not expected to master driving just by sitting in the passenger’s seat. But with sex, we’re expected to just suddenly know how to do it and never talk about it. What a setup for failure.”
Sex in the Sahara
Another hurdle on the road to a satisfying sex life is the conventional belief–largely driven by drug companies–that a woman’s sex drive continues to shrink until she dies. This happens, or so the pundits tell us, most notably around menopause, when menstruation stops and hormone levels plummet. While some women do experience a flagging sex drive, compounded by vaginal dryness–which can make them feel as juicy as the Sahara–withering on the vine is hardly the norm.
In fact recent research and stories from thousands of women challenge the myth that menopause delivers the kiss of death to fun in bed. One renowned proponent of a vibrant–and sexy–menopause is Christiane Northrup, MD, an ob-gyn and author of The Secret Pleasures of Menopause (Hay House, 2008). “If you look at the data, there’s nothing about menopause that decreases sexual desire or the ease of reaching orgasm,” she says. Northrup points to research showing that the number one predictor of a good libido at midlife is a new partner. “I say don’t ditch your partner, unless you need to, but become a new partner.” She notes some women do find themselves sexually dried up when they hit menopause–but for other reasons: They’re tired of running the household, raising kids, and taking care of their husband, and they haven’t yet learned how to nurture and empower themselves, sexually or otherwise. “When we switch roles, our sex desire comes roaring back,” she says.
Joining an increasing number of health practitioners, Northrup has taken an interest in tantra, the ancient Indian practice of sacred sexuality, that brings to mind those ubiquitous statues of graphically intertwined gods and goddesses at Hindu temples. While tantra actually leans toward the practical–you learn sexual positions, breathing practices, and emotional healing techniques through sacred spot (G-spot) vaginal massage and anal massage for men–the practice embraces a philosophy that views sexuality and spirituality as interwoven.
The Down Low on Tantra
After hearing more about the wonders of sacred sex, I decided to do some investigating on my own and convinced my husband to attend a weekend workshop on tantric sexuality. Teacher Charles Muir, who has been a leader in the Western tantra movement since the 1980s, put it this way as he welcomed the group of nearly 70 people, ranging in age from their early twenties to their mid-seventies: “Orgasm is energy in motion. It’s the one of the only meditative experiences that all cultures share. And when you extend it longer and [increase intensity], it can light up the entire brain.”
I don’t need proof from scientists to know that orgasms feed my brain–my husband and I confirmed that after our weekend workshop. And, of course, we continue to practice our techniques–synchronizing our breathing, making eye contact, kissing more, contracting and expanding my pubococcygeus (PC) muscle to extend and deepen orgasm, and making more sounds while we make love. All of this has certainly helped me forget that I ever suffered from vaginal dryness and libido recession. I’ve also started using more lubrication, which not only makes intercourse and stroking more pleasurable, but also heightens my arousal, which in turn creates more natural wetness.
So even if tantra isn’t your thing, trying something different, intriguing, and edgy can help get your motor running. Arthur Aron, PhD, a social psychologist at New York’s Stony Brook University, says the secret of eternal–or at least very long-term–passionate love may boil down to this: “doing exciting, novel, and challenging things together.”
Sure menopause can bring with it some unpleasant side effects, but I’ve learned to envision it not as a disease but as a rite of passage that opens the space for deep reflection, allowing me to listen to my body and my heart–and drop any expectations about what a normal sex drive should be. “In our culture, we have a sense of what sex and sexual desire are supposed to be, and if 20 or 30 years down the line it isn’t the same way, we think there’s something wrong with us. I’m saying, that’s weird,” says Ogden, who is working on a new book, The Best Is Yet To Come: Women Talk About Love, Sex, and Growing Older (Shambhala, 2009).
If you do suffer from a sagging libido, remember, it’s not a terminal condition. Give supplements a try; there are quite a few on the market that restore sexual vitality, such as maca, horny goat weed, damiana leaf, and schizandra. Others like black cohosh may even stabilize your pesky mood swings. Avoid hormone-replacement therapy (HRT), if you can. Since the release in 2002 of an alarming government study linking HRT and breast cancer, many holistic docs now prescribe alternative treatments, including plant-based hormones (known as bioidentical hormones) and herbal remedies.
No matter what type of sexual challenges you face, psychologists, neuroscientists, and sex therapists alike agree that you can move toward sexual healing by exploring these healthy solutions:
• Break the taboos and talk about your feelings, whether with your partner, a therapist, or your closest friends.
• De-emphasize genital sex. If you can’t have an orgasm or just don’t feel like having intercourse, explore neglected zones on your body and see if that doesn’t raise your sexual desire level.
• Exercise regularly and eat well to keep your brain and the rest of your body in shape.
• Use it or lose it, as Northrup points out. Researchers say that women feel more pain during intercourse when they have not had vaginal sex in a long while, and conversely, that pain from vaginal atrophy often diminishes with more frequent use.
I no longer worry about atrophy–at least not of the sexual kind. Sure there are nights when I’d rather be reading (and eating chocolate), but something fundamental has shifted: sex doesn’t feel like a chore. Perhaps that tantra workshop did the trick, but I feel sexier now than I have in years–with no sign of a recession in sight.
Susan Moran teaches journalism at the University of Colorado at Boulder and is a freelance writer who has written for The New York Times, Newsweek, and Yoga Journal.
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