If you follow us on Facebook or on Twitter, you’ve likely seen us posting stuff by and about Mary Jo Rapini, a psychotherapist who specializes in intimacy, sex and relationships. You may have “met” her already in her work with print and television media. She is often consulted as an expert in keeping relationships hot for a long, long time.
Well, Mary Jo has become our friend. She is helping us understand how we can help midlife women get their heads in the game, if you pardon the sports analogy. As they say, the best sex organ we have is our brains. When our sexuality gets away from us, the help of a specialist like Mary Jo can be the best first step to bring it back.
We will sit down with Mary Jo regularly, with our questions, and with yours, too. We caught up with her a little while ago, and put this question to her: If a midlife woman came to you looking for help to reinvigorate or retrieve her sex life, where would you typically begin?
“I will first make her aware that her sexuality is hers to claim,” says Mary Jo. “I want her to understand that her sexuality is one of the gifts every woman is born with. To hand that gift over to someone else to take care of is not only unfair to the person she has given that power to, it’s unfair to her too. When she understands that her sexuality and her pleasure is up to her, not up to her partner, the doors open, and we can move along.
“That’s usually a pretty big piece of the work right there, but I try to move quickly from that point to exploration. Once a woman knows she is in charge of her own pleasure, the next logical step is to find out what pleases her. And it’s surprising, but many, many women don’t know what pleases them because they haven’t spent much time exploring their bodies at all. Either they were trained not to or told that nice girls don’t do that, or whatever. But they haven’t been in touch with their own skin.
“So I try to get a woman to give herself permission to explore her body, explore her sexuality. If women only understood how much their partners really respond to being told what feels good. It’s impossible to do if you don’t know your own body. That’s one good reason to explore. Another is that the more options we have in sexual expression, the less trouble we have with our sexuality as we age. As we lose the ability to perform in sexual expression A, we still have expressions C, D, and E, you know? This is the pragamatic side of exploration and sexual play: Finding more options.
“But to start a woman off, I tell her that her first job is touch. I give her homework: ten minutes a day, sometimes in a nice warm bath, she is to touch her body. With her hands, with a feather, with fur, with scratchy things, with silky things. As many different textures and pressures and places she can find. And she is just to note: What feels good where? What is exciting? She is to do this by herself.
“Even women who have been pretty comfortable with sex, pretty expressive, can be surprised by this exercise, because our sense of touch changes, and what we like today may be very different from what we like in a couple of years. It’s fair to say most of us like different things every two to three years.
“The next week invites a partner into the picture, but we are not leading to sex yet. We are still just touching, but touching one another with different textures and pressures and parts of our bodies.
"Then comes talking, clothes on, outside the bedroom, for 10 minutes a day. Talking about what feels good and what doesn’t. Removing the expectation of sex from this work really helps to keep the couple focused on the importance of touch and cuddle, affection and care for each other’s pleasure. We can be a little too goal-oriented in our sexuality, and forget that half the fun is in the play and the arousal.
“I have some of my favorite toys for this work. A nice feather tickler is especially good for a woman to use, because when she uses it with her eyes closed, the textures can surprise her. So can a mitt made of fur. I like good tasting products that are good for keeping this exploration going, like tasty massage oils and creams and powders. Men, especially, respond to flavored products. I don’t really know why, but it works.
“These first meetings and assignments are there to demystify sex a bit, and maybe reset the target, making it all about feeling good. That helps a single woman who has no sexual partner, and it helps couples who have been happy together for years. Frankly these assignments are good for all of us to do every now and then just to stay in tune with our skin."