While reflecting on our anniversary, we were reminded of how many women have come before us, paving the way for straightforward conversations about women’s sexuality. This is the fourth in a series (read the first, second, and third) launching our sixth year with gratitude!
Helen Gurley grew up in the Ozarks, “ordinary, hillbilly, and poor,” but determined not to stay that way. When she was 10, her father died in an elevator accident. Her mother struggled for years to provide for her two daughters, then moved the family to Los Angeles in hopes of getting help from a relative. Helen Gurley, the valedictorian of her high school class, learned to type. She said she went through 17 secretarial jobs before a boss finally promoted her: to advertising copywriter. She never looked back.
She was a highly successful career woman but chafed at remaining unmarried well into her 30s, so she plotted to snare the movie producer David Brown (later known for The Sting, Jaws, and Driving Miss Daisy). Among her wiles: she put her phone in the fridge so she wouldn’t hear it ring, making her suitor think she was out with some other man. They stayed married for more than 50 years, until he died at the age of 93. She had told the New York Times, “I look after him like a geisha girl.”
When Helen Gurley Brown published Sex and the Single Girl in 1962, she was 40 years old and married; her husband had suggested the subject. She later recalled, “Before I wrote my book, the thought was that sex was for men and women only caved in to please men. But I wrote what I knew to be true—that sex is pleasurable for both women and men.”
The book’s notoriety led to her becoming the editor of Cosmopolitan. Her first cover, in the summer of 1965, featured ample cleavage, pouting pink lips, and heavily made-up eyes. She was aiming for the “grown-up girl, interested in whatever can give you a richer, more exciting, fun-filled, friend-filled, man-loved kind of life!” Her underlings were told, “no glums, no dour feminist anger and no motherhood.” She remained the editor of Cosmopolitan for 32 years. She claimed that her husband wrote the cover lines.
Helen Gurley Brown insisted that she was a feminist but others disagreed. One year after Sex and the Single Girl, Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique heralded a new wave of feminism. In 1970 Kate Millett led a sit-in in the Cosmopolitan office. Jennifer Pozner called Cosmopolitan “one of the most body-shaming, insecurity-provoking, long-lasting sexist media products of the last 100 years.”
Helen Gurley Brown died in 2012 at the age of 90. She had suggested that her epitaph say, “She worked very hard.” She claimed never to have taken a day off except for plastic surgery. As Margalit Fox’s obituary slyly put it, “She was 90, though parts of her were considerably younger.”
But Dr. Ruth had a gracious tribute. “What Helen Gurley Brown taught women was how to use their bodies not to give someone else pleasure but to give themselves pleasure, and that is a tremendous contribution for which I thank her on behalf of all the women who are now orgasmic and might never have been without her pioneering efforts.”
While reflecting on our anniversary, we were reminded of how many women have come before us, paving the way for straightforward conversations about women’s sexuality. This is the third in a series (read the first and second) launching our sixth year with gratitude to them!
Eve Ensler was an obscure New York playwright until she debuted her one-woman play, The Vagina Monologues. The very title was electrifying. Suddenly, audiences were being asked to say the word “vagina” out loud.
Ensler got the idea for the play when a woman she knew said “really hideous, demeaning things about her vagina.” That spurred her to interview more than 200 women. “It’s the easiest thing I’ve ever done in my life. People long to talk about their vaginas. It’s like a secret code between women.”
“Once they got going, you couldn’t stop them,” she said in a 2004 TED talk. “No one’s ever asked them before.”
She assembled some of their stories into a series of short monologues, ranging from humor (“Hurry, nurse, bring me the vagina”), to tragedy (gang rape as a weapon of war); from the birth of her own grandchild, to a fake orgasm more stupendous than the one in When Harry Met Sally.
In 1996, The Vagina Monologues won an Obie for best new play. There were other effects that Ensler had never anticipated. “Women would literally line up after the show because they wanted to tell me their story.” She had thought they would want to talk about sex. Instead, many told heart-rending tales of rape, incest, and violence. She found out that the UN estimates 1 in 3 women worldwide are beaten or raped. That number enraged her.
On Valentine’s Day of 1998, she began a new campaign: performances of The Vagina Monologues to raise money to stop the violence. The first year, she enlisted high-profile actresses like Whoopi Goldberg, Lily Tomlin, Glenn Close, and Susan Sarandon. Sony and ABC were corporate sponsors.
The V-Day movement has continued ever since. The money raised has gone to safe houses in Kenya for girls escaping genital mutilation; to the City of Joy in Congo for victims of rape; to Juarez, Mexico, where bones of murdered women were washing up on the beach. Money has gone to Haiti, Afghanistan, Egypt, and Iraq.
Women in the U.S. have also benefited. During the month of February, local productions pay nothing for the rights to the play, provided that all proceeds go to organizations working to stop violence against women.
Eve Ensler herself suffered abuse as a child. “I left my body at a very young age . . . I wasn’t informed by the intelligence of my body.” Living without connection to the body means “we are not living in our full creativity and intelligence.”
Her body received a shattering challenge in the form of stage 3 uterine cancer, but she never lost sight of the suffering of other women. In a 2010 Guardian article, she wrote with fury about the world’s indifference to the plight of women in the Congo, while she herself received excellent, curative care for her cancer. She remained, as the title of her 2013 memoir has it, In the Body of the World.
It’s March 1: Do you know where your New Year’s resolution is? You may be thinking, “It’s here, somewhere.”
I have a guess about where it is—collecting dust in a corner, where you left it when you “failed.” I’ve left a few there, myself.
Making a resolution is a positive step that makes it more likely we’ll change a behavior. But when we don’t follow through in the way we envisioned, that resolution becomes something that makes us feel worse about ourselves. When we don’t meet whatever goal we’ve set—whether it’s doing Kegels every day, ramping up a moisturizer habit, or setting aside time for intimacy—the easiest thing to do is give up altogether. “I don’t know why I even bother to make a resolution,” you might say. “I never keep them.”
I’d like to suggest that that’s a story you tell yourself. And the great thing about stories is that you can change them. In fact, research shows that telling yourself a different story has a lasting effect on performance. The researcher had students who thought of themselves as “bad at school” do a story editing exercise that included the idea “everyone fails at first.” Those students went on to get better grades and were more likely to stay in college.
So if you’re telling yourself that old story about your lack of self-discipline or your complete inability to follow through, stop. Retire that old story. Get yourself a new one. Tell yourself you’re learning how to integrate that new thing into your life, and learning takes time. Congratulate yourself on the effort. Look to the past for a time when you did follow through and change something about yourself or your life, and draw inspiration from it.
Then dust off that resolution—yes now!—and try again. Haven’t you heard? March is the new New Year.
A couple of weeks ago, I talked about an article I’d seen about how sexual intimacy is linked to marital happiness. The research, by Adena M. Galinsky and Linda J. Waite, found that continued healthy sex-lives help couples dealing with physical illness, especially chronic health problems.
Couples who had sex frequently (and sex was defined broadly—it didn’t need to include vaginal intercourse) were more likely to say they had a good relationship.
This is, of course, a chicken and egg: More sex doesn’t automatically make a relationship good. It’s more likely—and perfectly reasonable—that an unsatisfying relationship will include less sex. And the women I meet through my practice as well as the rest of life show me that this is often a time when our relationships get some re-evaluation.
Sometimes it’s the empty nest, and the change in schedules and priorities that comes with it. Sometimes it’s retirement, for one or both partners, which means a lot more together time. Sometimes it’s the stress of caring for aging parents along with everything else. Whatever the prompt, when some of us look at our relationships, we say, “Is this really what I want?”
So it was interesting to me to read the details of the Galinsky Waite study, to see how they measured the quality of relationships. These are the questions they asked:
If you’re feeling some vague discontent, those questions might help you with a conversation with your partner—or with a couples therapist if you decide some outside perspective and coaching would be helpful. If you’re feeling angry, or resentful, or isolated in your relationship, it’s no surprise that you’re not feeling sexy.
And you deserve to.
My last blog post, about thinking about sex as we think about exercise to encourage us to keep our sexuality alive, reminded me of another article I saw a while back.
In “Men Don’t Think about Sex Every Seven Seconds,” Dr. Laura Berman set out to debunk the urban legend alluded to in the headline. She cited a study done at Ohio State University, which concluded that men think about sex, on average, 19 times a day; women think about sex about 10 times a day.
That’s a far cry from every seven seconds, which works out to somewhere over 8,000 times per day, if my math is right and assuming eight hours of sleep.
Now, that research was done with college-age men and women, and I’m willing to cross-reference the National Surveys of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (NATSAL), recently completed in Britain, to guess that by midlife, the rate is reduced by as much as 60 percent. For women like me, that means thinking about sex three or four times a day.
I don’t know how that strikes you—as too much or too little! Laura made another comment in her article that resonates with what I’ve seen in my practice: Researchers “found that incidence of sexual thoughts were most highly governed by one’s own sexual belief system. …People who had anxiety, shame, or guilt around their sexuality were less likely to have sexual thoughts, while people who were comfortable and secure in their sexuality were more likely to have sexual thoughts.”
That’s especially important to us as midlife women. We get lots of messages that conflict with the reality that we are still vital, complete, sensual, sexual creatures. As we watch our bodies change—through childbearing, decades, illness, losing and gaining (and losing and gaining) weight, new wrinkles—we ourselves sometimes question whether we are still sexual, attractive to ourselves as well as to our partners.
Dissatisfaction with our bodies is hardly exclusive to us midlife women, sadly. But when it affects what we decide to do or not to do, it begins to matter more to us. You’ve no doubt seen articles about staying active, because the more active you remain as you grow older, the more active you’re able to remain. You keep muscle tone, bone mass, and balance only as you exert yourself.
The same is true of our sexual selves. Physically, being sexually engaged increases circulation to vaginal tissues, which naturally thin and become more fragile as we lose estrogen. It’s equally important that we’re attuned to the mental part of the equation.
Remember Stuart Smalley on Saturday Night Live? The nerdy guy with the affirmations? “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me.” What if we midlife women had affirmations for ourselves? Could we use them to both reclaim our bodies and nurture our sexual selves?
I’ll have to give that some thought. Possibly up to ten times a day.
This is a common question; unfortunately, it’s complicated to answer. First let me say that while I know weight gain affects many women’s sense of being desirable, what I read and my own informal research suggests it’s rarely an issue for their partners (some of whom are, in fact, oblivious—in a good way—and just as attracted as ever).
There does seem to be a physiologic drive to deposit fat during the menopause transition. The theory is that fat produces estrogen (estrone—a relatively weak estrogen), so in the presence of impending organ failure (menopause) and loss of estrogen from the ovaries (estradiol-the major, more important estrogen) that will occur, the body does its defensive thing: It deposits fat, really efficiently and effectively.
Unfortunately, estrone doesn’t provide many favorable effects. The major location for depositing fat is the midsection. Women who have yo-yoed in weight over the years seem to struggle more; those fat cells seem to remember readily how to deposit fat. Even women who have no weight gain during this transition will have a waist circumference increase of up to two inches.
Minimizing the weight gain starts with maintaining a healthy weight over time; those who are most successful in this transition benefit from years of stability at a healthy body weight leading into those years.
Those menopause transition years will be an added challenge, so start to make small healthy changes early on. Women lose muscle mass quite readily at this time of life, so work to maintain or gain muscle with strength training activities.
It’s a fact of life that at this point, it takes more effort to get the same results, requires more dietary caution and exercise, and leaves little room for not paying attention. My motto: You’re now high maintenance; behave like it!
Dr. Susan Kellogg Spadt on Sex and Aging
Have I mentioned recently what a great team of medical advisors is associated with MiddlesexMD? We regularly draw from the wisdom and experience of leaders in the field of aging and sexuality. In the next two posts, we’ll hear from Dr. Susan Kellogg, who is not only one of our esteemed advisors, but who also co-founded and directs the Pelvic and Sexual Health Institute in Philadelphia. Read on as Dr. Susan shares with us some of the barriers to sexuality for older women. And thanks, Susan!
In my practice I regularly see women in their 60s and 70s. What often impresses me is how unique each is in her experience of sexuality.
Some still like sex and remain sexually active, while others just aren’t interested—even if they have a functional partner.
Of course, there’s been a lot of research, mostly on the age-related changes men experience. I think this is because male sexuality is more straightforward. With women, as has been said elsewhere on MiddlesexMD, it’s complicated.
So, let’s look at some of the impediments to sexuality for women as they age.
Internalized ageism. We absorb cultural messages all our lives. They bombard us from the media, from religion, maybe from the region we live in or the ethnic group we belong to. The messages can be subtle (“Good girls don’t…”) or they can be in-your-face (“You’ve come a long way, Baby.”)
While the messages have shifted over the years, some are inconsistent and some remain the same. For example, one consistent message is that “real” men remain sexually active as they age. (Which, I’m thinking, can be pretty tough on men, too.) For example, an older man’s ability to attract (and, presumably, to satisfy) the “trophy” wife is a status symbol synonymous with wealth, virility, and power. The messages are mixed for older women. It’s desirable to be a “cougar” in your 40s and 50s, but the ground shifts subtly after that. Despite the sexual older woman portrayed by the Golden Girls, or by Diane Keaton in Something’s Gotta Give, or Meryl Streep in Mamma Mia, the word on the street is that we older women ought to settle gracefully into our roles as the sexless Grandma. A foxy granny just doesn’t play well.
We, in turn, can be very sensitive to these cultural expectations, and we can allow them to define us. We can internalize them.
In fact, research suggests that gay men and heterosexual women are highly susceptible to internalizing cultural messages that equate aging with loss of interest in sex.
When we implicitly assent to the message that we’re old and therefore no longer sexually attractive or viable, it can affect our self-esteem and our experience of sex and intimacy. The message is false, and believing it is a shame.
Sexual scripts from families-of-origin. Just like societal messages, we absorb beliefs and assumptions about sex from our families. They can be deeply imprinted on our young minds, and they don’t have to be clear or verbalized. In fact, our families are often the first place we learned about sex.
Did our parents smooch and cuddle or were they cold and distant? Did sex seem natural and loving or was it something shameful and dirty? Did the sex stop at some point? Did they move to separate beds or separate bedrooms? Did this seem to be expected at a certain age?
Women commonly internalize direct and indirect messages about aging and sexuality from family members. Usually, we’re not even aware of it.
Low self esteem. It’s hard enough to maintain a strong sense of self-worth in this world without the added insult of getting old in a culture that absolutely idolizes youth and beauty.
We may have survived the adolescent jungle and our family of origin with, I hope, few scars. Many of us have struggled with self-esteem, and that struggle has only changed, not ended.
Now we’re hit with an entirely new challenge: how to maintain our confidence and positive self-image as we grow old in a culture that seems to have no use for us simply because we’re not young.
It’s unfair and it’s insulting, and it takes a strong sense of self to stand against that bias.
Unfortunately, for some women, feelings of low self-worth become an impediment to sex. I think this is why some women complain about feeling unattractive and losing desire. It’s hard to feel sexy when you feel dowdy and useless.
One client even said that when she saw her sagging breasts in the mirror she felt that she did not “deserve to have sex.”
The truth is, of course, that beauty has a lot more to do with confidence and creativity than with perfectly taut skin. Cover up the mirrors. Be proud of your wrinkles! You’ve earned them. To be continued…
Before Sex and the City, before Gloria Steinem, before Jane Fonda, there was Helen Gurley Brown. She was the creator of the iconic Cosmo Girl, wearer of organza and décolletage, and advocate of a woman’s right to a career, sex, and life on her own terms.
It may be hard to remember or to appreciate how radical her approach to a woman’s place in the world was as we look back through the lens of rapid change in women’s rights and cultural expectations.
In the old-school world that Helen Gurley Brown faced in the 1950s and 60s, women had only grudgingly been granted the right to vote. She did not come upon the scene with either pedigree or good looks. (She called herself a “former mouseburger… not beautiful or even pretty… not bosomy or brilliant,” although others said she was “obsessed with boobs,” as the Cosmo covers suggest.) Her achievements came because of hard work and skillful politicking and through the unabashed use of feminine subterfuge and seduction.
In this she differentiated herself from the bra-burning feminists who were to come shortly after. She was the anti-feminist. She challenged the traditional role of women in the workplace (as secretaries) and in the bedroom (as wives) just as vigorously as the ERA women, but from a different perspective. In HGB’s world, a woman had to be smart and confident. But it was also useful to be feminine and to know when to deploy those charms, either to get what you want or for the sheer fun of a sexual romp.
While she predated the feminist movement by almost a decade, her book Sex and the Single Girl was the first crack in the dike, the first shot across the bow, signaling the vast social upheaval that would follow. In her book, “Brown challenged [single women] to take the same liberties as young men: to enjoy a long and lusty sexual prelude to marriage and to use the rest of the time to build a successful career,” writes Gail Sheehy in Cosmo.
Although the feminists who followed disagreed, sometimes vociferously, this was HGB’s homegrown revolution, and she practiced what she preached.
Born into poverty and possessed of no great physical endowment, HGB worked like a draft horse at 17 jobs before reaching the seat of power she’d been striving for at the age of 42—editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan magazine.
For the next 32 years, until she was forced out of her job at 74, HGB created the icon and the culture of the Cosmo girl. And while on the one hand, the Cosmo girl perpetuates the imperative of feminine beauty and bosom, perhaps at the expense of brains; on the other, it celebrates the power and potential of a woman who knows how to use her femininity.
At the time, the Cosmo Girl was fresh and naughty; then, however, as one pundit commented, “she became familiar. And then she became a cliché.” Maybe, in today’s world of silicone cleavage and über-sexiness, she has become a caricature.
But in her work and in her personal life, HGB was a cheerleader for lots of fun, juicy sex. Clearly, sex continued to be important in her last marriage to David Brown as they both grew older. And it is in this capacity that Helen Gurley Brown has something to say to us—mature women who might be wondering what role sex has in our lives and relationships. While we may not want to emulate her, from that perspective we can learn a thing or two.
In memory of Helen Gurley Brown, who died August 13, 2012, at the age of 90, here are a few choice quotes for the older woman:
We’ve discussed the research: Older women “do it,” and like it, a lot! Beneath the sheets, we’re a lusty bunch, but get out on the streets, and we become invisible. No checking-you-out eye action; no swivel head. It’s hard even to get the attention of the guy in the hardware store if a young blonde is looking confused.
Older women are supposed to be genderless and unassuming. Certainly not sexy. Often, not even visible.
That’s a psychological sucker-punch to the self-image if there ever was one. So we wonder why, once we’ve begun (or completed) “the change,” we struggle with feeling all confident and attractive? When we are no longer fertile or full of hormones, are we still sexual? While we’re coping with a changing metabolism and whipsawing emotions are we still attractive?
In our time and culture, menopause is embarrassing and slightly distasteful. It’s synonymous with loss of fertility, loss of hormones, unmentionable changes “down there,” and growing old. Far from being regarded as wise and valuable, older women are often viewed as useless and sexless.
Maybe that cultural aversion is, in part, why we ignore things like incontinence, lack of libido, and painful sex—sometimes for years—because it’s embarrassing to admit that we may be having trouble with “the change.” Or experiencing menopause at all.
Wasn’t aging supposed to be graceful? Aren’t these supposed to be the golden years?
Without doubt they are. But to enjoy this time of life, we have to reject the negative voices all around us and in our heads. Maybe the way we look and, I hope, the way we look at life has matured. And maybe the way we do sex has changed. Maybe we need a little more time and a little more stimulation. Maybe we need more finesse and a few aids. But we still got it going on, girlfriend.
Here are some tips to get your sexy on:
I’ll leave the last word to a man who writes, “Now I check out the middle-aged women when I hit the grocery store, in the coffee shop, when I’m out running. I’m looking for that sexy confidence, that wisdom, that I’m vibrant and alive and I don’t care what you think about me sort of attitude.
So, ladies, what are you waiting for? Get your sexy on, for your special partner or for the potential one who might be checking you out in the produce aisle.
Last month MiddlesexMD advisor and psychotherapist Mary Jo Rapini shared some advice about how to restore your sense of sexual self after divorce. That conversation led to another, about some of the unexpected challenges we face when we re-enter the world of dating after an absence of… well, it could be decades!
My first advice for people getting back into dating after a divorce is to tread slowly. It’s a whole new world out there, and if you’ve been married for some time, the dating scene is sure to overwhelm and frighten you. You’ll know you’re ready to begin when you no longer feel like you need a partner, but would like to enjoy another’s company. When you’re lonely and riddled with pain, you don’t make a good partner; that’s not the time to look for someone. Sacrificing your own physical and emotional health to get a “fix” of feeling desired again is never a good idea. But be assured that time is only a temporary patch.
When you’re ready to start dating, tell friends and colleagues you respect that you’re looking or open to meeting new people. People you respect have respect-worthy friends; they’re usually your best option for getting a date with someone you’ll like. If you don’t have many friends, you might start by searching out groups you could join to meet other single people. Cooking classes or groups, poetry readings, church groups, plays, and sporting events all provide opportunities to connect with others who appreciate the same things you do. Being with others helps build your confidence and provides feedback about how you present and appeal to others. Being married may have enabled you to not focus on your looks, your mannerisms, and your lifestyle. Dating forces you to evaluate all of those qualities that you may have taken for granted or not explored.
Lots of people have been trying out online dating. It’s great for letting you “date” on your own time, ask a lot of questions, and get to know someone in the comfort of your own home. It’s scary because it can provide a “cover” for someone to lie, take advantage of you by saying what you want to hear, and to serial date without you knowing. You need to be cautious and smart. Online dating does give you a chance to experience dating, though, before you take a risk and actually dress up and meet up. I encourage women to focus on the experience rather than any specific outcome. I date online only vicariously—as a relationship psychotherapist—but here are the things I see helping my patients avoid problems: