Films to Fuel the Fire

When I read the results of a new study showing that couples who watch and then discuss movies about relationships could reduce the likelihood they would divorce, it occurred to me that watching movies that include sex scenes might have a similarly positive effect on one’s sex life.

Friend, it does, and the reason is simple. Sitting down and watching a movie together on any topic—be it global warming, relationships, or sex—creates mindshare for that topic. And when it comes to sex, once you’ve created mindshare, the rest often takes care of itself.

We’ve talked about movies before, and our difficulty in finding them. I’ve been pressed for time the last month or so, so I asked a friend for some recommendations to pass along. She did some research—and a lot of movie-watching—on our behalf and recommends these three movies—movies with real storylines, acting, cinematography, and sex scenes that spring organically from the plot—guaranteed to remind you and your significant other that each of you are not only a spouse, parent, child, employee, or committee chair, but also a lover. (The comments are hers, but she also helpfully included links to New York Times reviews if you’d like confirmation!)

Y Tu Mamá También (NR, subtitles, New York Times review)

Julio and Tenoch, teenage boys in Mexico, can’t believe their luck when Luisa, a (slightly) older woman, agrees on a whim to go on a road trip with them to find a beach. Carnal relations ensue, some more surprising than others, but so does self-awareness. If, at the outset, the movie feels like a Mexican American Pie (the first sex scene occurs 20 seconds in, and the boys have a manifesto that includes “do whatever you feel like” and “don’t marry a virgin”), don’t be discouraged. It gets better. Luisa eventually tires of their immaturity and makes the rules, which the boys agree to follow. Her own manifesto includes “I pick the music,” “You cook,” and “You’re not allowed to contradict me.” Now that’s sexy! And there is a secondary storyline that hints at Mexico’s political and economic landscape seen from the car windows as the threesome cross the country. Sexy, funny, sad, and smart.
Sex and Lucía (NR, subtitles New York Times review)
This movie had me at the premise: Lorenzo is a writer; Lucía is an avid fan. She tracks him down, says she loves him and his novel, and moves in with him that same night. “I always liked people who tell good stories,” she says. “I trust them.” But should she? Lorenzo has a complicated past, and he’s also writing another novel; in the movie, you can’t always tell whether a scene is real or one he’s writing for his novel. No matter. Just enjoy the ride, particularly during the sweet and explicit (yes, both!) photo shoot L&L do together at 28 minutes, and a sexy (Lucía’s) and funny (Lorenzo’s) strip tease a few minutes later. A person might pause the movie there and get down to business with the one you’re with. Later you can resume the film, which gets a good deal darker, and try to untangle fact from fiction over a nice glass of wine.
The Lover (NR, New York Times review)
French Indochina, 1929, is the setting for this story about forbidden love between a French teenager from a dysfunctional family and a wealthy Chinese man who is besotted with her—but betrothed to another. The plot unfolds in a leisurely fashion, giving the story time to build. Looks are exchanged and fingers are tentatively touched, before they give in, but oh, when they do (38 minutes in for about 10 minutes), it’s a beautiful, aesthetically pleasing thing. The lovers are doomed, of course, but until the day of reckoning, they escape their own pain and inflict (primarily emotional) pain on each other. As with Sex and Lucía, to avoid having the plot spoil the mood, pursue your own agenda whenever you’re ready (if not by the 54-minute mark, then certainly after).

In fact, that’s good advice for watching any of these movies. Act now (and now, and ohhh, now); discuss later. According to research, both are good for your relationship.

And we’re always happy to hear from you about movies that stoke your flames!

Fifty Shades of Grey: What's All the Fuss?

Recently, I was interviewed by Dr. Michael Krychman, a gynecologist and MiddlesexMD adviser, about the 50 Shades of Grey series. In case you’ve been, um, visiting another galaxy for the past few months, 50 Shades is a trilogy that follows the romance of Christian Grey, a suave billionaire with some unusual sexual notions, and Ana, the timid virginal woman who has become his obsession.

While the books make no pretence at literature, they have become enormously popular with women. The raw sex, the romance, the twist in the traditional love affair—Christian is into dominance and control to the point of implied threat. Yet, the books have sold 10 million copies and created a genre called “mommy porn.”

“This book is a revival of the Harlequin romances but without the ‘fade to black’ love scenes,” Michael said in an article in the Washington Post, “which is nice because it helps with creativity and imagination, and can give people ideas that help counter sexual boredom.”

Yup. Those love scenes are there all right, in explicit living color.

In our webcast, Michael and I discussed the effect these books are having on our patients. Michael mentioned that patients come into his office with the cover ripped off the book because they’re embarrassed to have anyone see what they’re reading. But “It allows women to start the conversation,” he says. It’s a form of bibliotherapy, which uses books to help people understand and begin to articulate issues they may struggle with.

I think 50 Shades gives women a sexual voice in a similar way that Sex in the City did. The main character is a woman and the books take readers beyond “vanilla sex” by breaking some boundaries and adding some danger, all within a romantic love story.

So—what can the enormous popularity of these books tell us about how men and women relate as sexual creatures? And how it can enhance our own sex lives?

According to an anonymous online survey conducted by More magazine, while many women fantasize about kinky sex with whips and chains, most (69 percent) of women would never act on those fantasies and actually prefer Christian in scruffy jeans “that hang from his hips just so” rather than with his riding crop.

So, most of you are romantics at heart, but prefer a softer side of sex and aren’t really into submission and dominance.

Female readers love the fact that Christian really wants to please Ana, sexually and otherwise, and that he knows how to do it. She doesn’t have to ask, and she doesn’t have to explain. “Ana is adored by Christian Grey. I think women want to be adored and ravaged,” said one reader.

Of course, in my practice, I encourage women to talk to their partners, communication being a cornerstone of good sex. I tell women to ask for what they want and to be explicit about it. But part of the appeal of this book is that Ana doesn’t have to. “Talking can be difficult, and maybe the popularity of 50 Shades is in part a backlash against the admonishment to talk, a sign that sometimes people yearn for someone who just knows,” suggests one talk-show host.

Some couples, however, are making good use of the book to enhance their own sex lives. As one husband commented in an online forum, “I’m reading 50 Shades of Grey along with my wife, and we are really enjoying the book. It has helped us both open up a bit and start to think about some of these darker desires we both have but never truly expressed.”

Sue, an acquaintance who admits to reading the series, also says that they’ve definitely spiced up her sex life and that makes her husband a very happy camper indeed. Another male caller to a talk show suggested that, if women are embarrassed to discuss the book, they print out the pertinent pages for their partners. “Let the book do the talking,” he says.

Fifty Shades is getting a lot of people thinking and talking more openly about sex, sexuality, desire, and interest,” says Debby Herbenick, a research scientist at Indiana University, in an article in the Washington Post. “It’s helping many women to feel comfortable enjoying something about sexual fantasy and arousal…. Not only is it okay to fantasize, not only is it okay to read really explicit info about sex, but right now, it’s the cool thing to do.”

Literary quality aside, if the books help couples to talk about sex, if they break down inhibitions and encourage fantasy, if they increase libido, then for us older gals, they’ve done their work.

What Turns Us On? It's Complicated.

In past posts we tried to identify books and movies that we thought were hot—the kind of stuff to turn on a more discriminating, mature woman. It wasn’t easy. In the normal course of things, women are simply not turned on by straight-up porn. And sometimes, even if a woman is physically aroused, she can be mentally repulsed.

Experts agree: the arousal/desire circuitry in a woman is complicated.

For men, it’s simple. A two-minute video clip, a sexy photo of a favorite star, a crotch shot, and he’s off to the races. “Give a guy an erection and he basically wants to use it,” writes sex counselor Dr. Ian Kerner, columnist for CNN. “In men, porn initiates the ‘sexual-circuit’ very quickly.”

Guys tend to view porn by themselves; their comments on online sites tend to be monosyllabic: “Hot!” Often, their porn consumption is unpremeditated—they might see a racy photo, and they search for more stimulation, basically to “get it on.” And virtually all men consume porn. In an effort to understand the impact of porn on men, a researcher from the University of Montreal looked for a sample of young men who had never viewed porn. According to Kerner, he couldn’t find any.

By contrast, the process for women, according to the co-authors of A Billion Wicked Thoughts: What the World's Largest Experiment Reveals About Human Desire, “are not explicit scenes of sexual activity but character-driven stories of romantic relationships.”

Neuroscientists Ogi Olgas and Sai Gaddam screened the enormous amount of data available on the Web to analyze who goes where and views what. Unsurprisingly, they found that only 1 in 50 subscribers to major porn sites were women. “In fact, the main billing company for porn sites flags female names as potential fraud, since so many of these charges result in an angry wife or mother demanding a refund for the misuse of her card,” writes Olgas.

The female version of porn, according to Olgas and Gaddam, are “fan fiction” sites that peddle racy romance novels. Literally millions of women across the globe visit these sites to read and discuss the stories. The most popular of these is FanFiction.net. Discussion boards and comments on the novels are often long and probing, examining character and plot—it’s very much a group experience. Women can also be turned on by sexual scenes outside their own orientation—women having sex, for example, whereas straight men tend to stick with the flavor they like.

The times may be a-changin’, however, as women find their own voice in this formerly men’s world. We wrote about the new, couples-oriented porn format on the Playboy channel. There are also porn sites for women, and even a Feminist Porn award. And women seem to be seeking them out for the same reasons men do—to “get in the mood,” for pleasure, to learn new tricks.

For a girlfriend guide to the world of erotica for women, check out sex therapist Violet Blue’s The Smart Girl’s Guide to PornYou could also check out the queen of literati porn, Rachel Kramer Bussel, for her popular anthologies of sexy writing as well as her own four-alarm work. Happy hunting!

Disincentives: Sex Is Boring

“I can tell you the movements he’s going to make step-by-step. He can get me off, but it’s sex. It’s not making love.”

--quoted by Marta Meana, Ph.D., University of Nevada, Las Vegas, “When Feeling Desire Is Not Enough: Investigating Disincentives to Sex”

If I had a nickel for every woman with this complaint, I could retire tomorrow. According to Dr. Meana and others who study female sexuality, boredom is the second biggest disincentive to sex in married women. But of all the sexual challenges, this one is the most fun—because the cure requires creativity, lightheartedness, and the willingness to play.

No matter how red-hot the passion once was, over time it’s bound to cool to glowing embers. Left unattended for years, however, that flame will begin looking more like gray ash. Doctors and counselors—and your girlfriends—all have recipes for bringing the romance back into your relationship. I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel, but here are some suggestions I’ve gathered from various sources that look like fun to me. I would, however, encourage you to take the initiative in this endeavor to reinvigorate your sex life. It’s too easy to take a passive “hurry up and get it over” attitude. You’re half the partnership, so you bear some of the responsibility for your love life. You can be more forthcoming with what feels good to you and what you’d like to try. I’m betting that your partner will be pleasantly surprised and willing to try.
  1. Spend time together doing nonsexual things. For women “it's not what happens in the bedroom—their desire arises when they are interacting with their partner, just touching, talking, when they go on a hike or a picnic, that starts to get them sexually interested,” said Patricia Koch, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Biobehavioral Health & Women's Studies at Pennsylvania State University in a recent article. The first step, then, in rekindling the flame is to become romantically reconnected outside the bedroom.
  2. Try self-stimulation. This may sound counterintuitive, but the idea is to “get your head in the game,” not to create a substitute for sex as a couple. Sometimes masturbation can reignite that spark of sexual interest that leaves you wanting more.
  3. Talk about what you like and what you want to try. As a more mature woman, you know what you want; you’re more confident in asking for it. Maybe your partner has some idea to try as well.
  4. Break the mold. No doubt, routine is boring. New places, positions, accessories, and techniques are an antidote to routine. Check out our website for suggestions or this list of romantic movies. Read an erotic book together. You’re only limited by your imagination.
  5. Keep it light. This should be a fun exploration, not a do-or-die ordeal. The goal is to expand your sexual repertoire as a couple, to pleasure each other, to reconnect both sexually and emotionally. You aren’t trying to become sexual athletes or to experience orgasm every time.
So—boring sex? Not to be glib, but what a great problem to have. Its solution lies at least fifty percent in your hands.

Q: Should I worry if I found an erotic video arousing?

Absolutely not! As we grow older, it takes more stimulation for us to arouse and lubricate, and that stimulation can come in many forms--physical or mental.If watching an erotic video provided visual stimulation for you... well, you're not alone!

It's sometimes a challenge to find the right material--arousing but not offensive--but it sounds like you found it! Don't feel guilty or embarrassed. Most women need to change things up a bit and adding erotica is a perfectly acceptable option.

Couples Pornography: What’s In It for You?

An article in The New York Times last week reports that, come January, Playboy TV will begin “shifting from traditional pornography toward a higher-quality, female-friendly slate of of reality shows,” called “TV for 2.” Designed to appeal to women’s preferences for “contextualized sex” -- intimate scenes that are part of realistic stories that feature believable characters -- the new programming will have an emphasis on intimacy and “learning as a couple.”

It will be interesting to see how their new market responds.

Sexual advisors and therapists frequently recommend watching sexy movies together as a way for couples to stimulate or improve or add spice to monogamous sex. But finding “explicit sexual content” that appeals to both partners can be tricky.

As the Playboy Channel has (rather belatedly) learned, women are not typically turned on -- and many of them are downright turned off -- by the purely visual, graphic sex that men find arousing to watch. More than a few of my patients have told me that they felt less (sometimes much less) sexually attracted to their husbands after viewing pornographic material their partners had inadvertently left open on shared computer screens.

And for a woman in her 40s or 50s who may be starting to feel less confident about her own body and its appeal, the air-brushed young women who appear on the covers of men’s magazines can make it even harder to conceive of herself as someone who’s still  got what it takes to be a desirable partner in bed.

Of course, watching X-rated movies together -- even ones that don’t appeal to both (or either) of the people watching -- can help a couple communicate about what each of them likes or doesn’t like and what they both might be interested in and willing to try. And anything that helps a couple talk about sex has the promise of increasing their erotic connection and their understanding of each other’s pleasures and desires.

What do you think? Will the business of producing “porn aimed at couples” be a good thing for women who want to have an active and satisfying sex life in their middle years? What role, if any, does sexually explicit media play in your own relationships? Are you planning to check out “TV for 2?” We’d love to hear what you think!

In Search of Hot Lit

We’ve written before about our efforts to find erotica to recommend to our growing MiddlesexMD community (Hi there, community!). Our efforts are are purely pragmatic, you understand. By subjecting ourselves to hours of film, reams of erotica, searing our eyeballs with the online offerings — all off this sacrifice, all for YOU, we are looking to find the good stuff, the stuff that really does, in fact, heat up a grown woman. (Real life experience has a way of turning an awful lot of porn and romance into comedy, we have found.)

If you haven’t been following the posts here, let me explain briefly: In menopause, our circulating sex hormones dimish. That can sometimes, not always, lead to a drop in libido. Even when the libido is willing, becoming aroused enough for sex can take a little time and effort. We need to step in, do the work our hormones did for us when we were young.

An easy and inexpensive way to adjust to this new reality is to give ourselves more opportunities to have sexual thoughts -- i.e., watching sexy movies, reading sexy literature, masturbating, wearing/doing sexy things.

Sexy literature… That's my subject. I've been poking around just a bit, looking at collections of erotica, some of it good fun, much of it yawningly dopey. While I’ve been looking, I’ve been thinking about the guideline we established during our silly, foiled movie night: We much prefer a Great Story That is Sexy to a sex story.

Enter Jacqueline Carey. When I think of great stories that are sexy, she springs immediately to mind. Her New York Times bestselling Kushiel’s Legacy Series encompass great epic tales full of romance, politics, turmoil, grief, tragic loss, breathtaking triumphs, and plenty of sex. Most of the sex is great, some of it is frightening, but all of it is integral to the storyline. I love that. Her novels are fat and involving enough to keep me diving into them night after night. Sexy enough to keep me on the edge of my libido for hundreds of pages.

So, why not ask the author herself about “Great Stories that are Sexy”?

I put the question to her, and waited. At first, coming up with a list stumped Carey too, which made me feel a little better about coming up with so few recommendations of my own. She's trolling for answers among her friends, too, but did come up with a starter set. Ms. Carey says:

*Try Diana Gabaldon's "Outlander" series.
*For fun, sexy fluff, Janet Evanovich's "Stephanie Plum" series.
*I don't know how well it stands the test of time, but I thought Colleen McCullough's The Thorn Birds was hella sexy and a good read back in the day.
*And check out Smart Bitches, Trashy Books for romance reviews. The genre's come a long way in the past decades.
I feel as if we've finally got a foothold on Hot Lit. The birth of a canon. But it's not really very big, is it? We need to feed this list. And for that, we need to hear from you. What do you think? Have you found writers whose work does it for you? Please share. We will keep adding to the list and will republish it as it grows. Those of us who read constantly need a steady supply…!

Dean Martin. Found.

My libido woke up.

This week we shoveled out a room to make room for a new hobby. In the unearthing, my husband found my long-lost, autographed picture of Dean Martin:

Autographed photo of Dean Martin

Oh, be still, foolish heart!

My grandmother snagged two of these, one for my sister, and one for me, in Rome, when Martin was shooting there on location. She sent them to us when we were still too young to really understand what Dean could do for us.

But at the time, we were living on a naval base in the tropics, where it was hot, hot, hot. We spent most of our time in the base movie theatre, which had a sound track that ran the same songs over and over and over again between films. That track included “Everybody Loves Somebody, Some Time.” That voice could tease desire out of even a 10 year old. It turns out.

We fell a little in love then, but a lot in love later when we returned to the States and snuck around to watch Dean Martin on his television shows, and Dean Martin movies and listened even more to Dean Martin records. We have loved him ever since.

A quick quiz among a gathering of girlfriends suggests we are not alone. Dean still does it for a remarkably wide age demographic, doesn’t he? I know it included my mother, who would be in her late 70s now. And it extends to friends in their 40s…. I wonder if he could have ever known what lust he could inspire?

Anyway. Dean’s there for you on YouTube, whenever you want him. Here’s hoping he still works for you the way he does for me:

Especially for my sister:

That’s Amore:

Innamorata, sizzle

That’s just a sampling, friends. Happy memories…

Q: Am I stuck with an unfulfilling sex life?

No!  It’s great that you recognize the value of remaining sexually active, despite your decreasing libido.

As we get older, we have to learn some new techniques to continue to enjoy sex. You can use the MiddlesexMD website to have a discussion with your husband:  Take him to the site.  It will help him understand what you're experiencing, and that it's not "about him."  Review together the bonding behaviors and alternatives to intercourse.

You may find a role for erotica, like DVDs or books. Just this week a woman told me that she keeps a book of erotica nearby. It works really well for her to read from it in anticipation of sex (although her husband isn’t aware she has it for this purpose).

If you're comfortable with the idea, incorporating a vibrator may help; after menopause we do require more stimulation for arousal and orgasm. Healthy relationships require intimacy -- it's worth the effort.

Seeking Worthy Erotica

As a general rule, women over 40 need more stimulation to become aroused enough for good sex. When we were young, just thinking about making love with our partners may have been enough to arouse us physically, but as we grow older, as sex hormones decrease and distractions build, it takes more. But not too much more. For some of us, reading a steamy novel will do it. For others, visual stimulation works better. A hot movie, for instance.

Ever since I first conceived of MiddlesexMD, one of my goals has been to gather a tasteful collection of erotica, visual and verbal art that will stimulate arousal in older women. All we had to do is find it, right? How hard could that be?

None of us at MiddlesexMD had really explored the world of erotic art. So we set our product buyer to work, buying up a sampling of the “state of the art,” beginning with films. She studied and chose a good selection, from how-to films to soft-boiled, story-centered erotic movies. We chose films targeted at women. And films targeted at older women. As the DVDs piled up in our product room, we decided to take an analytical approach to our selection.

Sort of analytical. We each invited a few girlfriends over for glass of wine, a viewing and a discussion.

Our goal was to review these films to gather criteria and characteristics of films that most appealed to our friends — some way to inform our buying choices for the store.  Which would they use? Which would they recommend to their friends or watch with their partners? How would they rate them? What, specifically did they like about each? We had our notepads and our pens poised. We had poured the wine, curled up in front of the TV…

And then, showtime!

One film after another… fell flat on its face. We couldn’t watch more than a minute or two of any of them without reaching for the eject button. There was no analysis, no rating, no pulling apart criteria. We all… hated everything about all of them.

And we were disappointed. Really? Does it all really have to be so awful? We began again, discussing scenes in mainstream movies that we love, that work for us.  We could easily name dozens of scenes that made us blush just recalling them. Scenes from the English Patient, Room with a View, Breathless, Nine and a Half Weeks, Body Heat, The Piano, Atonement, Shakespeare in Love, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Looking for Mr. Goodbar, The Godfather, Sweetland, The Graduate, Under the Tuscan Sun, Thief of Hearts, Vicky Christina Barcelona, Moonstruck, anything with Daniel Craig in it. We exausted ourselves thinking of the scenes.

And what characteristics did these movies and scenes have that mattered to us? The story is important, the emotions feel real. There is a buildup of passion, tension, and release. The woman’s seduction receives detailed attention. In short, there is romance.

What we didn’t like? Explicit sex. Mechanics. We really enjoy using our imaginations to fill in, and are perfectly happy with closeups of rapt faces.

We learned a lot from each other that night. We learned, too, that among our friends, at least, we’d all rather read a good sex scene than watch one. So now we’re looking for really good erotica to offer in our store.

How about you? Have you found tried-and-true erotica that works for you? What do you like about it? Have you failed to find anything? What is it about the works you’ve tried that doesn’t work for you?