Lots of attention has focused on the finicky female orgasm in recent years, from Dr. Rosemary Basson’s model of the female sexual response cycle to the helpful finding of just how female anatomy influences the probability of vaginal orgasm.
A new study from Chapman University, Indiana University, and the Kinsey Institute colored in some details of female sexual response, in part by rounding up a wide net of participants. Over 52,000 men and women between the ages of 18 and 65 responded to an online survey, including a more robust sample of those who identify as gay, lesbian, and bisexual.
The take-away from all this analysis was the jaw-dropping finding (tongue in cheek) that men (95 percent) orgasm dependably, while women, not so much (65 percent). About 44 percent of women said they rarely or never reach orgasm with vaginal intercourse alone, a number that is quite low compared to other studies suggesting that fully 70 percent of women don’t orgasm with vaginal penetration. These numbers point (again) to some very significant differences in sexual response, which in turn, lead to significant misunderstanding between Venus and Mars.
“About 30 percent of men actually think that intercourse is the best way for women to have orgasm, and that is sort of a tragic figure because it couldn’t be more incorrect,” said Dr. Elisabeth Lloyd, a professor of biology at Indiana University and author of The Case of the Female Orgasm in this article.
Additionally, while 41 percent of men think their partner orgasms frequently, far fewer women (33 percent) say they actually do orgasm. The researchers note that this difference could be due to women faking orgasm for several reasons: “to protect their partner’s self-esteem, intoxication, or to bring the sexual encounter to an end.”
The researchers were particularly interested in the disparity between how dependably lesbian women orgasm (89 percent) versus heterosexual women (that 65 percent figure). They theorize that this is due, in part, to women having a better anatomical understanding of each other’s needs.
The headliner result of all those survey is a “Golden Trio” of sexual moves that the researchers say are almost guaranteed to induce the Meg Ryan-style “Yes! Yes! Yes!” in women: clitoral stimulation, deep kissing, and oral sex. Even without vaginal penetration, 80 percent of heterosexual woman and 91 percent of lesbian women were able to orgasm dependably with this magic trio. (Although deep kissing and oral sex seem either mutually exclusive or tremendously acrobatic.)
The research noted that women who orgasm more frequently also have sex more frequently and are more likely to be satisfied with their relationships. Whether satisfying sex is the chicken or the egg—a contributor to a satisfying relationship or an effect of a good relationship, it’s safe to say that the two go hand-in-hand. Good sex and good relationships are both enhanced when partners communicate about what works and include a healthy dollop of fun and flirtation.
“I would like [women] to take that home and think about it, and to think about it with their partners and talk about it with their partners,” said Lloyd. “If they are not fully experiencing their fullest sexual expression to the maximum of their ability, then I think our paper has something to contribute to their wellbeing.”
Sexual satisfaction has many components, involving the emotional and physical health of both partners. Premature ejaculation is a common condition that can frustrate both, and can be difficult to talk about. Women who’ve had relatively few partners may not recognize premature ejaculation, and men sometimes respond to our cultural cues by pretending it hasn’t happened. So when Dr. Zvi Zuckerman MD offered to contribute an article on the topic, I accepted! (And I do note that couples who can talk about changes in their sex lives are well-equipped to navigate menopause.)
Premature ejaculation can have both physical and emotional ramifications for partners, as well as on men experiencing it. Women dealing with a partner’s premature ejaculation typically report reduced sexual satisfaction, loss of desire and orgasms, and an increase in both distress and interpersonal difficulties.
The abrupt end to sexual intercourse that accompanies premature ejaculation can result in a woman’s inability to climax, even from clitoral stimulation. Especially when not recognized and talked about, this can lead to resentment and anger, and even the refusal to engage in intimate relations.
So what exactly is premature ejaculation? According to the medical definition, premature ejaculation is ejaculation that always or almost always occurs within one minute of vaginal penetration; it’s also the inability to delay ejaculation in all or nearly all vaginal penetrations. But these days more and more sex therapists describe premature ejaculation as ejaculation that occurs before the male wants it to occur. According to an extensive review published in the International Journal of Impotence Research: the Journal of Sexual Medicine, about 30 percent of men worldwide suffer from premature ejaculation.
If you are considering asking your partner to treat his premature ejaculation (PE), it is important that you understand the reasons underlying it and the importance of your role in the treatment.
Premature ejaculation is not a choice. It is important to know that PE is not dependent on your partner’s willingness; he most likely is interested in satisfying you and making you feel good. It is most likely that your partner truly wants to control his ejaculation, enjoy sex, and pleasure you but it just doesn’t happen. It is neither his fault nor yours. The inability to control the ejaculation reflex is a common problem among men. Why does it happen? The commonly accepted explanation is a connection between PE and the level of serotonin in the brain. If this level is too low (and, unfortunately, there is currently no way to measure this level in the brain), it might lead to this symptom. Your partner simply has no control over it. Given cultural norms, he’s probably insecure about it; talking about it at all can be perceived as criticism, which makes it a tough problem to solve.
PE can be resolved through practice. There is a treatment for premature ejaculation with a success rate of up to 90 percent. The treatment includes masturbation and full-penetration exercises for maintaining control over the ejaculation reflex. The results are long term and do not require the use of medication or chemicals. The treatment can be obtained in up to 12 clinical sessions with a sex therapist, or alternatively, at home with an online program that we have developed – the PE Program. The treatment will change your sexual relations: the erotic touch will become natural. His anxiety about PE will be a thing of the past and both of you will be able to give and take pleasure in your renewed sexual relationship.
The treatment is important to your partner’s self-esteem, your sexual relations and your relationship as a whole. Research shows that women in relationships with men who suffer from PE experience less sexual satisfaction. As important, the man’s anxiety can lead to the loss of intimacy and, especially if unexplained, stress in the relationship. Within up to three months of consistent practice of the exercises mentioned above, you can overcome this problem. The satisfaction that you will feel will improve not only your sex life but also the relationship itself, leading to greater intimacy and increasing your man’s self-esteem.
Be caring, supporting and loving toward your partner. You will benefit from the treatment by caring for your man, showing patience and openness, and being genuine in placing the aim of the treatment as your goal. If you are caring, loving and supportive toward your partner during the exercises, you increase your partner’s success in overcoming the problem. PE can cause men anxiety, frustration, and embarrassment in sexual encounters. As a supporting and loving anchor, you can help your partner to reclaim your love life together. Show understanding toward him; addressing PE requires that he make himself vulnerable. Avoid criticism and negative comments; encourage him and show empathy. He can gain better control over the ejaculation reflex, and make intimacy more satisfying for both of you.
My friend has a story that her family laughs at now. She was a young adolescent when her mother hit menopause. She recalls tiptoeing to her mom’s bedroom with breakfast on a tray, opening the door very carefully, and sliding the tray through on the floor.
Then she braced for the explosion. Sometimes it came; sometimes it didn’t.
While this story became just a funny anecdote about mom’s menopausal years—part of the family lore—sometimes, the damage of menopausal misbehavior cuts deeper. Rather than a fond and humorous memory, when severe menopausal symptoms go unacknowledged and unrestrained, they can tear a family apart.
As I mentioned in my last post, many women suffer from sudden and uncontrollable emotional extremes. They truly can’t control the overwhelming depression, anger, and anxiety. But for every woman I see who is suffering from difficult menopausal symptoms, a family is often suffering right along with her. And just as often, this family consists of teens in the throes of their own hormonal stew and a spouse who may be confronting a mid-life transition as well.
The family doesn’t understand what’s happening to mom, and information is scarce as aphids on ice cream.
In the book, Sex, Meaning and the Menopause by British author Sue Brayne, one husband lamented, “I wanted to know about these hot flushes, so I trawled the internet. All I could understand is that the menopause is tied up with a system failure of some kind, which can end up with a hysterectomy. I’ve read virtually nothing about how relationships can become difficult at this time. GPs have leaflets on everything from bunions to teeth whitening, so why not this?”
Forums on the Internet sag under the weight of sad or angry comments about the state of life at home. “My mother’s menopause was the worst two years of my life,” writes one woman. “Unfortunately, it coincided with my being a teenager and living with her.”
“Our house is like a war zone,” writes another. “My mum behaves like a woman possessed... nothing seems to get through to her anymore.”
In her book, Brayne spoke with four men about their experience with menopausal wives. Of the four, one had become divorced, another had had an affair, which he ended. All four spoke with deep feeling about how the menopausal years had affected them.
And often, the most poignant regret has to do with sex.
“Sometimes it got so bad that I thought our marriage was over,” said one man. “I didn’t want to go near her. It was too dangerous because I never knew what response I would get.”
“The word I would use is despair,” said another. “It’s the recognition that, at the age of 62, I’ve had the best of my sex life. I don’t feel ready to give it up and I don’t want to give up my marriage either.”
“But sex was the glue that bound us together,” said yet another. “It helped us to feel warm towards each other. When that went, we were thrown back on our differences.”
The misery in these comments is mirrored in statistics. While divorce rates among younger people have stabilized, rates among those over 50 have tripled in the last 10 years and are mostly initiated by women. During menopause we tend to drop our pretenses and lose the filters. Doing what’s expected of us no longer seems as important as reclaiming who we are. These are all good things. But when our behavior is abusive, out-of-control, and damaging to our family, well… we wouldn’t allow our hormonal teens to act out like that, would we?
No matter how we feel, it isn’t okay to unleash our hormonal rage on those closest to us just because they have to take it. It isn’t okay to deny the damage or blame the hormones or model that behavior for our children.
And it’s critically important to keep the sex alive. You’ll find lots of solid information, suggestions, and products to help with that on this site. In the next post, we’ll talk about treatment options and strategies for dealing with out-of-control hormones.
This is the fifth post in our occasional series inspired by the results of a survey we co-sponsored with PrevaLeaf, makers of natural products for intimate wellness. You can read our first post here and browse back to this one from there: You spoke. We’re listening.
We’ve already established that the women who took our survey tend to talk openly and regularly with their doctors and partners about their issues with vaginal dryness (and, presumably, about other menopausal symptoms as well).
This is excellent!
But I was puzzled by your responses to one of the survey questions. Over half (54.55 percent) of you never talk with your girlfriends about your desert vagina, and again, presumably, you don’t talk with them about other sexual menopausal issues, either.
I understand that it’s embarrassing to talk about vaginal dryness, but I’m sure you discuss other embarrassing menopausal topics with your BFFs, right? Maybe you joke about hot flashes and weight gain and mood swings and insomnia. Why avoid very common yet troubling sexual problems?
After all, who else (besides Mom) would really understand what you’re going through? Much as your spouse may want to be loving and supportive, it’s hard to really walk a mile in your menopausal shoes without being on the same biological journey.
So, why aren’t we talking? Why do we continue to soldier on in silence? Isn’t it time to reach out to the sisterhood? “Create a support network to sustain you through the experience,” writes Ellen Dolgen, author of Menopause Mondays: the Girlfriends’ Guide to Surviving and Thriving During Perimenopause and Menopause. “From my experience the menopause support I received from close friends has been invaluable.”
Amen to that, Sister!
I don’t mean complaining (although some griping is in order), or a revisiting of old wives’ tales and menopausal home remedies. I mean creating an emotional space in which we feel safe to talk about what we’re experiencing, whether it’s a bone-dry vagina or hair-trigger emotions, either of which may be wreaking havoc on our intimate relationships. And then to share credible information and to seek solutions.
In the interest of jump-starting some good BFF conversation, here are a few ideas:
Breaking the shroud of silence surrounding the sexual issues of menopause empowers us to seek and share solutions. Along the way, we discover that a lot of other women are in the same boat. The message is the same, isn’t it? You are not alone.
Almost as soon as we posted the piece on how to bring up difficult topics, a reader asked “But how do I get my husband to listen?”
It’s an excellent question, and we put it to our friend Ann McKnight, a social worker and psychotherapist. Her answer might surprise you. If you feel like you’re not being heard, you might want to look at yourself first. “You have to ask yourself, ‘Is this really about me getting my way?’ If it is, you’re virtually guaranteed the conversation won’t go anywhere,” she says. “Most of the time, we engender defensiveness in the other person because of the way we say things.”
That defensiveness shuts down the opportunity for real communication, and the conversation ends before you’ve gotten to the issue, even if you’re still talking. That defensiveness is rooted in fear—fear of being judged, criticized, blamed, shamed, cut off. Just as fear interferes with our willingness to bring up difficult issues, it interferes with the other person’s willingness and even ability to really listen. Fear is the ultimate intimacy blocker.
Your genuine desire to understand what’s going on with the other person is critical to that person’s listening skills. Arriving and hanging onto that desire while you’re talking about a touchy subject isn’t easy, but it is possible.
Here are three things Ann says you can do to improve the chances that your beloved will be able to hear what you’re saying.
Be curious. That thing your loved one is doing? He or she is probably doing it for a good reason. “The conversation needs to be ‘There are clearly some things about this behavior that are working for you, so let’s talk about those.’ After you connect about those reasons, then you have a more interested audience. Repeat the reasons back in a nonjudgmental way, and then ask if the person is willing to hear what’s not working for you. If you can get to that place, then you have an opportunity for an open dialogue.”
Make sure you’re staying connected. “That means the other person is experiencing that I am in a place that’s open to hearing them. It doesn’t mean I have to agree. Only that I care if they are feeling judged and I care about their thoughts,” says Ann.
If the other person hears judgment or criticism or blame—even if you don’t think you’re conveying any of that—the connection will be lost. Increase your chances of maintaining the connection by, at the outset of the conversation, saying something like: “I have something to share with you and I’m not coming from a place of criticism [or blame or whatever], so if you could raise your hand when you’re feeling that, then I can reassure you in the moment or I can say, ‘You’re right. I am being critical.’”
Let go of the outcome. Finally, go into the conversation with absolutely no attachment to the outcome, and keep an open mind the entire time. Once you hear what it is about the other person’s behavior that is working for them, says Ann, “your attachment to ‘You need to stop this right now’ changes and you think, ‘Maybe, given what works for other person, there’s a different way to solve this.’”
Throughout the conversation, keep demonstrating to the other person that the conversation is not just about you getting your way. “You keep throwing them a lifeline by asking ‘What is it like for you to hear what I just said?’ That shows the person that you actually care about their response to what you’re saying.”
Throw that lifeline enough times and your partner just might start throwing it back to you. That’s not just a way to resolve a difficult issue—it’s also the way to increased intimacy.
“I just cannot talk to him about this!” I’ve heard that declaration from patients and friends alike over the years. Sometimes the “this” is something related to sex, but sometimes it’s related to issues that have festered—everything from “he doesn’t spend time with my side of the family” to “I always have to be the ‘bad cop’ to his ‘good cop’ with the kids.”
The topic itself doesn’t matter much because all topics come down to the same things: “Do you care about me? Can I trust you?” says Ann McKnight, an experienced social worker and psychotherapist in my community. “We want to tell ourselves it’s just about this one issue, whatever that is, but this issue is often sitting on top of other hurt that hasn’t been addressed.”
Intimacy is all about connection and trust. Deepening intimacy involves making yourself vulnerable. Being real. What makes it so difficult to talk about things that really matter? Ann says reasons vary. We might do it because we think we are being considerate of the other person. (“He’s under so much stress right now. The last thing he needs is another problem.”) We might not feel confident in our ability to navigate through the conversation. Or we might worry that the conversation will result in so much anger that the relationship will never recover. And the longer we don’t talk about the topic, the harder it becomes. The resulting resentment can erode even the best relationships.
But it’s actually the very things we try to avoid, like sensitive topics, that increase intimacy. Ann asks, “What would happen if we saw these conversations and the pain and anger that come up in them as an opportunity to learn something that might result in growing closer to each other?” While there are no guarantees, Ann has seen this happen over and over in her practice.
After you decide you want to bring up the issue (and you’re sure that you’re not expecting the conversation to lead to a change in behavior for the other person) then you’re ready for the conversation. You might start by saying something like, “Our relationship is so very important to me that I’m willing to risk feeling uncomfortable right now to work on strengthening it. I’d love to know more about what ____[issue] is like for you. Would you be willing to talk with me about this? When would be a good time?” In some cases, you might want a therapist to act as facilitator.
While such conversations are painful, they are also necessary. How can your partner respond if you haven’t shared what’s going on? “If we are not bringing ourselves forward to be known and seen and cared about, it’s easy to tell ourselves we are not lovable to others,” Ann says. “But when we take that risk with people who hang in there, the rewards can be huge. It can be freeing and it can help people shift out of places that seem impossible to get out of.”
We know and have mentioned before that relationships and connection are what make us happy. And yet when it’s time to make a New Year’s Resolution, what do we choose? According to one study, 47 percent of us make self-improvement related resolutions, 38 percent make weight-related resolutions, and 34 percent make money-related resolutions. Only 31 percent of us make relationship-related resolutions. (Respondents could choose more than one answer.) The question didn’t break out romantic from non-romantic relationships, but it’s still fascinating that the response came in last on the list.
I don’t know why we are less likely to make resolutions about improving relationships. Maybe we think our relationships, especially with our significant others, are so deeply grooved that rejuvenation is unlikely. Maybe we underestimate our partners’ willingness to entertain the idea of change. Maybe the idea simply doesn’t occur to us.
Whatever the reason, we’re missing an excellent opportunity. I’d like to challenge you to make a New Year’s resolution to improve your relationship with your partner. It could be as simple as “I will make eye contact when we see each other at the end of the day” or “I will tell my partner one thing I appreciate about him/her every day.” Even simple things increase intimacy, which is the basis for a healthy sexual relationship.
If you have already mastered intimacy, then perhaps make a resolution to try something new in the bedroom—a new position, a new technique, or a new toy. Perhaps you and your partner could decide together what kind of resolution to make. That will increase the comfort level when you actually hit the sheets. On the other hand, don’t underestimate the power of small surprises to reignite passion. As we mentioned in a previous post on the love/desire paradox, we want security and passion, intimacy and mystery, safety and risk. So push that boundary a little and see what happens.
You can increase your chances of keeping your resolution if you:
Be specific. “I will try a new sexual position every month” vs. “I will try new things in the bedroom.”
Tell someone. Preferably your partner! But it could also be a close friend. When others know you have goals, you’re likely to hold yourself more accountable.
Write it down. There’s something about committing it to paper that makes it seem official. And it will help you remember exactly what you committed to!
There are other ways to increase your odds of making your resolutions reality, which is a good thing since only 14 percent of people over 50 keep their resolutions compared to 39 percent of people in their twenties, according to research. Apparently, those of us over 50 need as much help as we can get!
I don’t know about you, but I care about a lot of things: my profession, my daughters, my friends, my community, my church. Because I care about them, I carve out time for them. My calendar is full, and so is my husband’s with the things he cares about. Often, our respective calendars send us in different directions.
When you’ve been together as long as we have, it’s easy to take each other for granted. We can forget to make time for the one you care most about—each other. We’ve talked before about the importance of putting sex on the calendar if you want better sex, and the same is true of intimacy (yes, there’s a difference). To maintain—and deepen—your connection to each other, you need to set aside time in which you focus on each other and have fun together.
How you spend your date night is up to the two of you to decide, and that’s half the fun. I highly recommend that you try something different as a way of avoiding something called “habituation.” New things stimulate the mind, but over time the newness wears off and they become less and less engaging.
That’s habituation, and it’s not great for a marriage.
Date night is an opportunity to continually introduce the new and keep your relationship interesting. Attend a concert, take a class (cooking, art appreciation, Italian), or learn a new sport together. If money is tight, try one of these ideas:
Regardless of what you choose, try to build in some time to talk either before or after the event. You’ll be surprised at how changing up the scenery and your activities will also change the nature of your conversation.
Date night creates a lovely cycle, really. Spending quality time together increases intimacy, which sets the stage for better sex, which further increases intimacy. So compare calendars and pencil in date night for the next six months. We’d love to hear what you choose!
In the last post, I ran up the flag for oral sex—mostly as a way of keeping our repertoire broad and deep as we and our partners face age-related issues with sexual sensitivity and/or function. After all, there are many ways to skin this particular cat.
But, as with any kind of sex, a little technique and creativity can put some spice into what too often devolves into a boring routine. All the tricks in the world, however, can’t take the place of communication and some interest and even excitement about the task at, um, hand.
Some level of communication is fundamental to sexual play and exploration. You can encourage: “I love it when you do that.” You can ask: “Does this feel good?” “What would you like better?” And you can pay attention to non-verbal cues: breathing, muscle tension, sounds, movement.
I’d also like to emphasize that, while it’s good to push your boundaries, if any part of sexual exploration feels really uncomfortable or off-putting, you don’t have to go there. We all have lines, and it’s important for both partners both to draw them and to respect them. But don’t just draw lines, continue to look for ways to keep the intimacy alive.
I’ve had women tell me that fellatio (oral sex on men) gave them a sense of empowerment, because they were controlling the action. By the same token, it gives the guy a break—he’s not in charge, plus he still has a good view of the action, which can be its own kind of turn-on.
With loving attention and communication on the front burner, here are some ways to change up your oral sex technique.
Of course, the need for skill and technique apply equally to cunnilingus (oral sex on female genitalia). If your partner could use some coaching, slip him the highly rated “essential guidebook to oral sex,” She Comes First: The Thinking Man’s Guide to Pleasuring a Woman by Ian Kerner.
Women whose men have taken it to heart (and to bed) give it rave reviews.
Kerner also has a female guide to men’s sexuality, which includes pointers on oral sex: Passionista: The Empowered Woman’s Guide to Pleasuring a Man.
Now that you have your required bedtime reading, maybe you want to give each other an occasional pop quiz.
I have a lot of conversations with women about sex, given my line of work. And, because of that little pink “Ask Dr. Barb” button on our website, I get some cryptic emails, too. Sometimes I have to read between the lines, both in person and online, to understand what the situation—and therefore the question—might be.
One recent email referred to male partners who were not especially “gifted.” As I think about it, I suspect that my correspondent was wondering about her own orgasm—or her failure to experience it. That’s not the topic we corresponded about, since she went on to ask a different question, but because I’m sure that woman is not alone, let me lay it out here.
In spite of the passionate scenes we see in movies, most of us—70 percent—don’t experience orgasm during intercourse without additional stimulation. For most of us, it’s the clitoris that’s the key to orgasm, and most positions for intercourse just don’t provide enough stimulation. There are other sources of stimulation that can lead to orgasm—some of us have very sensitive nipples, for example, and some of us have found success with the G-spot.
It’s rare for a partner, whether “gifted” or not, to be psychic; and most women I know would prefer that their partner not be too widely experienced in the varieties of women’s responses. And that’s why I encourage women to know their own bodies, exploring either on their own or in the presence of their partners (many of whom find the experience quite erotic, by the way). Vibrators have proven to be very effective in clitoral stimulation; adding internal stimulation is helpful for about a third of us.
When you find what works for you, you can give your partner some suggestions, which will be much appreciated. (If, by the way, you’re wondering whether you’ve experienced an orgasm, keep exploring. You’ll know when you have.)
Ninety-six percent of us can experience orgasm. Be assured of that and relax. Being focused on that goal can inhibit your ability to achieve it. And let’s affirm one more time that sex can be pleasurable without orgasm, too, for the intimacy you share with your partner, for the feeling of wholeness and power it gives you.
Another email exchange—with a woman who experienced her first orgasm at 70—confirms that it’s never too late.