My conversations with patients, blog readers, and visitors to MiddlesexMD tell me that once a person’s gotten past her own discomfort with the idea of a vibrator, there can lurk another obstacle: How to introduce it to intimacy with a partner.
I’ve heard from both men and women on this topic: Both have asked how to introduce a vibrator into a relationship or how to overcome resistance. A recent study done at the Center for Sexual Health Promotion at Indiana University suggests some couples have figured it out. Half of both men and women have used a vibrator with a partner at least once. Slightly more men than women agree that vibrators can make sex with a partner more exciting, but for both the number is close to 60 percent.
And we know from other research that about two-thirds of women don’t experience orgasm with penetration alone; the IU study says half of women agree that a vibrator helps.
But in spite of that evidence that couples are using vibrators, and that women find them satisfying, there’s still resistance. I talked to Mary Jo Rapini, psychotherapist and one of the MiddlesexMD advisors, to learn more.
The first issue for some women is their preconceptions, Mary Jo says. “If you think of vibrators—or any other part of sex—as ‘creepy,’ you’re showing resistance. Resistance is a product of your own thoughts, which means you can change it and open yourself up to communication and growth. My first request would be that she use the word ‘uncomfortable.’ This opens up a wonderful conversation—if you’re uncomfortable with something, you can add something else to lovemaking, and not necessarily all at once. You might not be comfortable with a vibrator, but you may like being massaged during lovemaking with wonderful massage oil. Lovemaking is exciting and it’s so healthy for the heart, immune system, and hormone levels; I encourage women—and couples—to try new things, slowly, without rejecting the concept of lovemaking with new items.”
“Women are sometimes reluctant to own their own sexuality,” Mary Jo says, which works against introducing a vibrator—and other things—into a couple’s intimacy.
“Men are so visual in regards to sex,” Mary Jo says. “Many men enjoy watching their partner masturbate with a vibrator—especially if their partner is able to enjoy it. Men love watching the woman they love enjoy sex. They also want to please the woman. When the woman is able to let the man hold the vibrator for her, or use it gently on him, he begins to see the benefits.
“He may feel rejected if she prefers the vibrator to him, but including him and showing him what feels best being touched is a big turn-on for men. If she can talk about what feels good, how she likes to be touched, the intimacy will be a thousand times stronger.”
The IU study, by the way, confirms that seventy percent of men don’t find a vibrator intimidating during sex.
But that may be beside the point. The real focus, Mary Jo says, is something different: “Sex is not about the penis or vagina, but your ability to let go, explore, and broaden your awareness and understanding of your sexual self—and your partner. Being able to express yourself sexually and feeling safe and secure in that relationship heightens your health both physically and emotionally.”
We'd love to hear your experiences and questions!
Maybe your last child left home, as mine just did this fall. Maybe you (or your partner) retired. Maybe your partner became ill. The catalyst could be one of many life events, or it could simply be the realization of time passing, but at some point you look at your partner and realize that you’ll be spending the rest of your lives alone together.
Do you need to hit the “reset” button?
Life passages tend to elicit examination and reassessment. These bittersweet moments give you an opportunity to readjust and re-evaluate. They give you a second (and third, and fourth…) chance to get things right. You tend to be more receptive to feedback and direction during those times. You tend to be less complacent.
Chances are that after years of distraction—raising a family, building a career—your relationship needs some attention, and that includes the sex. “Sex is always where the grit of a relationship settles,” writes a reader to the UK’s Globe and Mail. In that sense, sex is like the canary in the coal mine—an early warning system that all may not be so copacetic in the relationship.
So, how is your sex life? Robust and satisfying? Routine and uninspiring? Or is it non-existent? If your answer falls into the “boring” or “non-existent” categories, it’s time to reset.
“When sex drops off there’s a lot more at stake than missing out on pleasure,” says Joan Sauers, author of Sex Lives of Australian Women. “A healthy sex life is critical to the survival of a relationship. Without it, our happiness and overall health can suffer.”
Begin with reflection. Is infrequent, boring, or non-existent sex perhaps an indication of deeper trouble—entrenched lack of communication, trust, or respect? Is it due to physical changes or limitations that you haven’t risked discussing? In this case, hitting the “reset” button should include some honest soul-searching with your partner and maybe some sessions either with a sex therapist or a marriage counselor. Simply addressing the sexual issues without tackling the underlying problem is like painting over rotten wood. The veneer won’t hold for very long.
However, working to improve your sex life ipso facto improves the relationship as well, because both rely on intimacy, connection, and communication. “Keeping things interesting outside of the bedroom also plays an important part in keeping things exciting in the bedroom,” writes Rhegan Lundborg, sex and relationships expert for the Omaha Examiner. “Doing new and fun things completely outside of the bedroom can be a great way to reconnect emotionally as well as take sole focus off the sex and just spend time enjoying each others company.”
Focus on reconnecting. In a quiet, intimate surrounding, reminisce about the day you met, your first kiss, what attracted you to your partner. Go through a photo album together. Talk about key moments in your relationship—adventures you shared, challenges you got through. Few people in your life know you as well as this person. That’s a rare and precious treasure. Make time to appreciate it.
From memories, move on to fantasies. In a perfect world, what would you like to accomplish or experience together—or separately? What’s still important?
Don’t be stingy with the sugar. Express approval. Say thank you. Notice the small ways your partner is thoughtful.
It takes time and careful tending to reignite a flame. As you rebuild intimacy on other levels, communication about your sexual connection could follow naturally. Or you may have to initiate the conversation when the time is right. Or—you may have to initiate the conversation with professional help.
Start the conversation in a safe, accepting, non-judgmental space. You both are likely to be experiencing changes, whether physical or emotional. You may have fears; you may be vulnerable. And you may also have fantasies—things you’d like to try but never had the guts to ask.
Isn’t it time to hit the “reset” button and get this conversation started?
We all remember Maslow… don’t we? That noted psychologist who, in 1954, published his famous hierarchy of human needs that we all learned about in high school psychology?
Maslow determined that we all have basic physical and psychological needs that fall into an orderly hierarchy and are necessary to achieve happiness. But, he propositioned, basic survival needs for food and shelter had to be met before we’d benefit from higher levels of need fulfillment, such as the love and belonging or self-esteem.
To test whether Maslow’s theory would hold up under modern scrutiny, two researchers designed a massive Gallup poll of well-being. Almost 61,000 people in 123 countries were quizzed about fulfillment of specific needs and daily feelings of joy and unhappiness as well as on overall life satisfaction. Maslow was correct that people everywhere share the same basic needs, beginning with physical needs and ending with self-actualization (a “fuzzy” term that scientists don’t much like).
However, this survey found that, although Maslow was on target about his list of universal human needs, he was wrong about their orderly nature. People seem to need everything all at once. People can (and do) enjoy the higher-level needs for love and friendship, for example, even if they may be lacking some basic needs. “They’re like vitamins,” said one of the researchers in a recent article in the Atlantic. “We need them all.”
So where do we fit in—midlife women who probably have our basic physical needs met, but who still are actively engaged in life’s endeavors?
While the Gallup researchers were revisiting Maslow, Jaki Scarcello, author of Fifty and Fabulous, was conducting a little survey of her own, interviewing older women between the ages of 45 and 102 around the globe. She wanted to find out what happens when women grow old. How do we evolve?
What she discovered was that many of us do indeed reach Maslow’s highest levels of human development. We become wise, accepting, purposeful—you know, self-actualized—and this at times despite living under difficult challenging circumstances at times.
“I think the Maslow link is that perhaps self-actualization and improved self-esteem are more available to us as we age, which, ironically, may be a time in our lives when our basic needs are once again threatened,” said Jaki.
Jaki calls these the Women of the Harvest.
“Many older women told me they were experiencing a confidence they had never felt before in their lives,” says Jaki, “that they had found their voice, they were daring to do things they had not dared to do before.”
Younger women, on the other hand, tend to look to external sources for validation, to be more invested in appearances, and to be more distressed when basic needs weren’t met.
This serenity and self-acceptance applies to our sexual selves as well. “And so our sexuality is still important to us, but it does not suffer as much interference from self-deprecating mind chatter and from external reactions,” she said.
So, despite the physical and emotional changes of aging, we may be more confident in our own sexuality and look to others less for approval and validation.
“If it seems that the sparkle in a Woman of the Harvest deepens with age, perhaps it’s because her fire is fed in part by the internalization of sexual energy. This beauty is truly no longer skin deep. Instead, it radiates from some knowing place inside a woman who has ceased to need the outer world to know herself,” writes Jaki in Fifty and Fabulous.
By the time women reach midlife, we’ve experienced all kinds of things in our relationships, some good, some bad. It’s great to think back on the positive experiences once in a while, maybe even relive them from time to time.
For the negative experiences, that’s not such a good idea.
And the more serious the situation, the harder it is to not think about it. Maybe you’ve had to deal with an infidelity or some other kind of betrayal by your partner. If so, its lingering effects may very well be interfering with your ability to fully embrace your partner in a healthy--and even in a literal--way.
If you’re harboring resentment or anger over some past wrong, you need to address it. As psychotherapist and our relationship coach Mary Jo Rapini has said, “When your relationship struggles with resentment, it can feel like you are sleeping with the enemy. The resentment is felt deeply by one of the partners, and although it is rarely discussed openly, the tension can be felt by anyone close to the couple.”
So how do you let go of it? Well, it’s forgiveness. Dr. Fred Luskin, a psychologist affiliated with Stanford University, has made the study of forgiveness his life’s work; he’s written several books on it. The first, Forgive for Good, is based on the successful workshops he conducts using a step-by-step process to teach people how to forgive.
His second book, Forgive for Love, was written specifically for husbands and wives, and came about, he explains, because so many of his workshop participants were women trying to forgive current or ex-husbands.
Dr. Luskin has done studies that show harboring feelings of resentment and anger is not good for us physically or emotionally. It means we’re in a constant state of stress and negativity. In lectures he often quotes Nelson Mandela: “Harboring resentment is liking drinking poison to kill your enemy.” In other words, it’s doing a lot more harm to you than it is to the person who hurt you.
His methods of letting go of anger are similar to stress management and include mind-over-matter techniques like visualization and focusing on positive thoughts rather than negative ones.
Mary Jo, too, advises those who are angry to “make a peace with your past. Tell whoever hurt you how you feel about what happened.” She also says that “letting go of your ego and learning to forgive your partner for their flaws and weaknesses—as well as forgiving yourself for holding on to that anger—are two of the biggest obstacles to overcome when working through resentment.”
Learning to forgive may not be easy, but it’s worth a try. In fact, it can be a life-changing experience. Because it’s never too late to take action. And you’ll feel much better when you do.
Sex and religion aren’t often mentioned in the same breath. One is fleshly; the other spiritual, right? Like oil and water.
Yet, both are integral to our person and to our psyche. Both faith and sexuality are deep expressions of who we are. We can’t chuck our sexuality at the door of the church or temple or synagogue; nor can we drop whatever we believe about God at the door of the bedroom.
So I was interested to read about a recent survey conducted by psychologist Darrel Ray, who compared the behavior and feeling of nonbelievers (agnostics and atheists) to those of believers (mostly of Christian persuasions). In a nutshell, he found that both groups behave similarly. Both became sexually active at about the same age, have similar levels of sexual activity, do the same things in the bedroom. They even pursue affairs at similar levels. The significant difference was that the believers tended to feel more guilty. This was particularly pronounced in more fundamental denominations: Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventists, Pentecostals, and Baptists. But mainline Protestants and Catholics experienced higher levels of guilt, too, than atheists or agnostics. Not crippling, but noticeable.
Leaving aside for a moment serious questions about Dr. Ray’s motive and methodology (he calls religion a disease and himself a “recovering religionist”), his report raises some interesting questions. Do people who believe in God feel guilty about sex? Are certain acts, masturbation or oral sex, for example, more troubling or guilt-provoking? If so, why would this be? Does guilt derive from actual church teaching or from cultural conditioning or from something misunderstood or misapplied in childhood?
Even the religious institutions themselves struggle to honestly incorporate sex in a faith context. Yes, sex, in the context of a loving, uncoerced relationship, is a beautiful, God-given gift. Just read the Biblical Songs of Songs. However, as it’s practiced on the ground, the message isn’t all that clear, and even some church leaders admit as much.
“In the context of Catholic teaching, I would think it safe to say that the connection [between faith and sexuality] is contorted, controverted, and often confusing,” says Dr. Michael Higgins, vice-president of Mission and Catholic identity at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut.
“If we could only transcend the ‘forbidden fruit’ mindset, perhaps religion could evolve into a much healthier sexual ethic,” said Rabbi Howard Voss-Altman, of the Reformed Jewish tradition.
Dr. Sheema Khan, a practicing Muslim, said that “…sexuality forms part and parcel of [Muslim] spirituality. There are even prayers prior to sexual intercourse, and… foreplay is encouraged (as part of religious teachings).” But she also condemned the Muslim preoccupation with the “purity of women,” which could result in the ritual killing of a woman suspected of having sex outside of marriage.
So it would seem that if we aren’t sure how to feel about sex or some sexual behaviors, or if some indefinite guilt is associated with sex, we aren’t alone. Our religious institutions are grappling with the same issues.
But isn’t this the nature of life—to honestly articulate and wrestle with our inconsistencies? And in the end, to become more mature and integrated?
I remember the advice a wise old pastor gave my mother when she was trying to reconcile church teaching with the expression of sex in her marriage. “I don’t think that anything a loving couple does in the bedroom to give each other pleasure can possibly be sinful,” said this man of God. Amen to that.
A wonderful and unexpected benefit of starting MiddlesexMD has been meeting other women and men who are like-minded, who see the value in—have a passion for—supporting sexuality throughout our lives. As we’ve gone to conferences and association events, I’ve been able to talk to doctors, nurse practitioners, and therapists who are eager to spread the word and join forces.
I’ve talked before about how the mind is as important for women as the body; that’s what makes the Basson model of female sexual response so helpful for my conversations with patients. Our need to address the emotional as well as physical aspects of sexuality made one of our encounters especially fortuitous: We met Mary Jo Rapini, a Texas-based psychotherapist who specializes in intimacy, sex, and relationships.
As a psychotherapist, Mary Jo can help us to round out the resources we offer you—so we’re thrilled that she’s offered her expertise to MiddlesexMD! Mary Jo has a private practice, but also publishes and speaks in a variety of places; you’ll learn more over the next several months. Plus we’ll interview her from time to time on topics of particular interest to us as midlife women.
To give you an idea of what’s in store, here is an excerpt from Mary Jo’s recent post, “Women Need Time to Get Their Sexy On,” in YourTango (read the whole article online):
“Body image is so highly correlated with women’s sexuality that in a recent study reported in the Journal of Sex Research, Dr. Patricia Barthalow Koch PhD discovered that body image was one of the top reasons women don’t want to have sex. Men may have difficulty understanding this because many of them tell their wives every day how beautiful she looks only to realize their wife still doesn’t want to have sex. The husbands may not understand that although their intentions are good, their wife doesn’t derive her body image by what he says. It may help and reassure his wife, but more helpful is if she believes that she is beautiful and desirable. In other words, if she beats herself up, or is critical in regards to her looks when she compares herself to others no matter what her husband tells her, it falls on deaf ears.”
“Women need different stimuli to turn them on than men. We don’t get excited when we see a naked man. In fact, most women prefer a man with shorts on to a man in the buff…. Your sex text may not do it for us, but if we catch a glance at your jaw while you are drinking from a water fountain in the right lighting, we may feel a sexual impulse. Women don’t talk to you about this, because we know you won’t understand. Women are also somewhat reticent about telling you what turns them on, because it is so different than what turns men on, or what media believes should turn them on.”
You can see why I’m glad to have Mary Jo’s perspective and expertise with us for our exploration. Watch the blog and our Facebook page for more results of our work together. We can’t wait!
It’s been a long time since your partner’s been able to “get it up.” And truth be told, you’d grown accustomed to a platonic relationship. You haven’t missed the sex. Frankly, it was never all that great, anyway.
Now, thanks to the marvels of medical science, your man’s erectile dysfunction is a thing of the past. In fact, he may be more “vigorous” now than ever before—and more eager to test his newfound prowess. Which certainly presents you with a challenge. And some choices.
You can roll your eyes and sigh. You can respond in a way that communicates indifference or irritation and that perpetuates the status quo. And, indeed, if the lack of intimacy in your relationship reflects problems with trust or resentment, suddenly regaining the ability to have sex won’t mend the relationship—or make sex any more appealing.
But you could also analyze the reason for your mixed feelings. Maybe your lack of interest stems from remembering a former boring sexual rut. In all likelihood, you’re experiencing physical changes of your own that make it harder to respond to your partner’s new emotional and physical demands. Or maybe your own passivity contributed to the lackluster sex—you always took the passenger seat, never the driver’s seat.
But could it also be possible that your partner’s new ability could be the catalyst for a renaissance of romance in your golden years? For an unexpected reawakening of desire and intimacy? Stranger things have happened.
Embracing this new situation enthusiastically needs to take place at two levels: first, rekindling the emotional connection in the relationship and second, fine-tuning your body to be a sexual creature again. For women, sexual desire and arousal is part of a complex brew of intellectual belief and emotional feelings about yourself, your partner, and sex in general. You need to feel emotionally connected to your partner in order to respond well sexually. For men, it’s just the opposite: It’s the sex that creates intimacy.
Working on the intimacy that can rekindle desire can be as pleasurable and easy as spending time together, lingering over coffee in the morning, taking a walk, holding hands. Remember the romance? Even if you don’t, it isn’t too late to learn.
Second, you’ll need to recondition your body, especially if you’re dealing with menopausal changes. Consider yourself an athlete in training. Regular use of vaginal moisturizers may improve the overall health and condition of your vagina. Don’t overlook the use of lubricants during sex, which not only improve comfort, but can also make intercourse more exciting. You might benefit from a regimen of vaginal dilators to improve your “vaginal capacity.” Talk with your doctor about using a topical estrogen product in your vagina, which can improve elasticity and lubrication, or your doctor might recommend testosterone therapy to boost your libido. In fact, talk to your doctor about any sexual issue that arises; it’s his or her job to have resources to help.
While you’re working on rekindling intimacy and rebuilding your sexual muscle tone, you can also take an active role rebuilding your reinvigorated sex life. It’s too easy to write off sex as a nuisance when you haven’t done anything to change the script. You now have a second chance and the maturity to create the sex life you always wanted as a full and equal partner. Experiment. Play. Communicate.
In the end, your partner’s newfound prowess could be a catalyst for reenergizing your relationship and for rekindling passion. The process may be uncomfortable; it may be a little scary, even; and it will definitely take work. But doesn’t anything worthwhile?
Being completely vulnerable to another human being can be scary, even if that person is our life partner. Yet, just as sex involves physical nudity, great sex demands a similar level of psychological nakedness. So, vulnerability is one of the eight components of great sex identified by a team of researchers in a study published in The Canadian Journal of Sexuality.
Study participants described this level of vulnerability as “being able to put your entire being in someone else’s hands” or “like jumping off a cliff” and yet feeling safe. It’s a deliberate act of surrender to your partner with nothing held back. And for the respondents of this study, vulnerability made the difference between good sex and great sex.
Vulnerability cuts to the heart of self-preservation. Our instinct is to protect ourselves, to hide just a little, not to completely bare our throats. We may do this because we’re afraid of rejection, or of being ignored, or of being controlled, or because we’ve been hurt in the past, maybe even in loving relationships. We may also be dragging into our adult lives some unexamined anxieties from our childhood—fears that can exert a powerful influence no matter how outdated or irrational they may be. And the bedroom with all its intimacy and nakedness is just the place where these fears, past and present, are likely to intrude.
Acknowledging and examining what holds us back from self-surrender to a trusted and loved partner is a good and healthy exercise. After all, we’ve probably developed more mature ways to handle pain and rejection than when we were children. And these unpleasant emotions can also reveal to us areas in which we still need to grow. What better place to practice trust, vulnerability, and self-revelation than in the midst of a loving relationship?
So examine your barriers to intimacy. What’s holding you back? What are you afraid of? What keeps you from being vulnerable? Then risk sharing those fears. That’s the first important step toward deeper levels of intimacy. You might also practice asking for what you want as well as asking your partner what feels good or what you could do that would be more pleasurable.
Taking the risk of deeper self-revelation can also encourage our partners to respond in kind. But in any case, what do we have to lose? Some outdated fears? A twinge of embarrassment or pain? And we stand to gain a deeper, more satisfying relationship with the person we’re closest to. And, maybe, great sex.
So, go ahead. Jump.
I've talked before about the benefits of touch and said that we’d give you some tips on how to give a “sexy” massage. Well, here they are!
While professional massage therapists are trained to really work the muscles, our suggestions are more about achieving intimacy in a sensual, relaxing way. So it’s more about technique than strength. Giving a massage requires emotional generosity and presence, so take your time. Don’t rush and enjoy the moment alone together. And let us know how it goes!