“It’s not fair that women don’t get to orgasm.”
—Betty Dodson, sex innovator and activist
So, for all of us who’ve ever faked an orgasm. For all of us who came late to the dependable power of the clitoris. For all of us still trying to maintain capacity, potency, and sexual vitality.
For all of us, there is Betty Dodson.
She was ribald and norm-busting. She was an art student who was raised on a farm in Kansas with three brothers. She was one of a vanguard of feminist women (read about the others in our series here and here) who found their stride and their calling in the sexual revolution in the 1970s. She celebrated sex of all kinds, but focused on the special role of the clitoris in female orgasm. She died this year at 91 on Halloween morning, just as outspoken and bawdy as she had lived. “We need to embrace death like it’s our final orgasm,” she said in 2014.
Of course Betty migrated to New York City from the farm to work as an artist. Kansas could not contain a personality the size of Betty. After participating in several sexual swap meets, she noticed that even the most uninhibited, free-loving women struggled to orgasm. Thus began Betty’s focus on the clitoris and its ability to allow women to dependably orgasm and to release them from dependence on men for sex. She developed a workshop to teach women about their own body parts as well as how to masturbate effectively—the Bodysex workshops. And thus began her life’s “work” of modeling unapologetic, unbounded sexuality.
The workshops were a place for women to overcome embarrassment and body-shame and to experiment with pleasuring themselves. Clinical studies suggest that they continue to have a 93 percent success rate in helping anorgasmic women achieve orgasm, not just by experimenting with clitoral stimulation but by confronting “repressed shame, guilt, and other negative feelings associated with body, genitals, and sexuality, and the repressed sexual pleasure and desire,” according to an article in Jezebel.
She also gave sex a wide-open, shame-free space to roam. She described herself as a “heterosexual, bisexual lesbian.” She enjoyed a 10-year affair with a man 50 years younger (which she broke off because she didn’t want to be another Hugh Hefner) and ended her life with Carlin Ross, 47, her business partner with whom she demonstrated the Bodysex masturbation method live on camera while filming series 3 of Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop Lab Netflix series.
During the segment, she corrected Paltrow’s emphasis on the vagina as the source of sexual pleasure for women. When Paltrow enthuses that the vagina is her favorite subject (her company sells a candle that is supposed to smell like her vagina), Dodson interrupts: “The vagina’s the birth canal only. You wanna talk about the vulva, which is the clitoris and the inner lips and all that good s*** around it.”
While most of us, who still live on a metaphoric farm somewhere, can’t quite follow Dodson in her naked masturbation workshops and few-holds-barred sexual experimentation, we can all be grateful for her promotion of the clitoris to celebrity status.
As you may have noticed, this is the approach we espouse at MiddlesexMD as well. Whether you use it for self-pleasure or to enhance variety during couple sex, it helps keep all your sexual organs responsive, hydrated, and healthy, and it puts women on an equal footing in the sexual sphere—we can take care of ourselves just like a man.
There is also something to be said for a healthy, shame-free enjoyment of sex and our own bodies. For an example, look no further than Betty.
You say your husband is in counseling for his addiction to pornography. You haven’t had sex in years, and are now getting different advice about how to resume intimacy.
If you’re not in counseling yourself, as well as your husband, I strongly suggest it. A therapist can help you decide when you are in a position to have regained trust and feel respected to re-initiate sexual activity. I don’t see a “calendar” assignment to this; it might be next week or it might be never: I’ve seen both.
I think of this important definition of sexual health (from the World Health Organization), which I hope you’ll read and reread:
A state of physical, emotional, mental and social well-being in relation to sexuality; it is not merely the absence of disease, dysfunction or infirmity. Sexual health requires a positive and respectful approach to sexuality and sexual relationships, as well as the possibility of having pleasurable and safe sexual experiences, free of coercion, discrimination and violence. For sexual health to be attained and maintained, the sexual rights of all persons must be respected, protected and fulfilled.
It’s only when you feel emotionally and mentally healthy in the relationship, can determine it is pleasurable and safe for you, and, above all, are respected sexually, only then can you return to a satisfying sexual relationship. This will take time. I wish you patience and courage.
The loss of hormones (estrogen and testosterone) with a hysterectomy and bilateral salpigoophorectomy (removal of ovaries) is definitely a “hit” to sexual function for women (I assume based on your message that your ovaries were removed). The genitals are, as we say in medicine, abundant with hormone receptors. In other words, hormones play a big role in the health and function—both urinary and sexual—of the genitals. So now, moving on without those hormones, what to do?
For most women, it’s direct stimulation of the clitoris that leads to experiencing orgasm. In the absence of estrogen, there is less blood supply, and, in turn, loss of sensation and ability to arouse or orgasm.
This can also be a time to consider treating the genitals with prescription treatments such as localized estrogen or the non-estrogen options, Osphena or Intrarosa. Using testosterone off-label can help women with arousal and orgasm as well.
I’d encourage a conversation with your healthcare provider to see if there are options that may be helpful for you.
Good luck! I’m glad to hear that your husband is supportive in addressing this frustration for both of you!
I’m so sorry that you’re experiencing this loss in your relationship. Both depression and the medications used to treat it can be culprits in a loss of desire, and given the relatively short time frame in which you noted the change (one or two weeks), the antidepressant is the likely explanation for your husband.
The situation that you describe is probably best addressed with the help of a therapist; someone who does sex therapy would be most helpful (you can find one certified by the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists through their website).
As you’ve begun to experience, the longer this dynamic goes on, the more anger and resentment builds. Having a therapist to help you navigate the conversations is extremely helpful. And your suggestion of a therapist sends your partner the clear message that intimacy is really, really important for you and your relationship.
There’s some evidence that Stronvivo, a nutritional supplement for cardiovascular health, can improve both libido and function in both men and women; that could be a consideration as well.
As we’ve said (many times) before, our sexual responses are complicated and unpredictable. And this becomes especially true once we’ve embarked upon this menopausal transition. That doesn’t mean we can’t respond sexually anymore, just that we respond differently from men and differently even from the way we did before.
Way back in the 1960s, Masters and Johnson, the groundbreaking sexologists, developed a graph of the sexual response cycle. It was a simple, linear depiction that purported to track both men and women from arousal to afterglow in four stages—arousal, plateau, orgasm, and resolution. Sort of like a visual depiction of the wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am version of sex that women used to think was normal.
It did not contain a lot of room for nuance.
Fortunately, concepts about how we respond sexually have evolved over the years. Lately, Rosemary Basson, professor of psychiatry at the University of British Columbia, proposed another model of how women, specifically, experience sex. Guess what? It’s different from men. Her graph is circular. It includes elements that previously weren’t linked to sex, like relationship satisfaction and self-image, and our previous sexual experiences. It leaves room for skipped steps and a non-linear response to sex. This woman gets us.
Take feeling desire, for example. Basson’s model doesn’t get all hung up on desire. You may not feel spontaneous desire—the old “horny” thing—the way you used to. Or maybe you’ve never felt horny. According to a 1999 study from the University of Chicago, fully one-third of women never feel desire. “[Women] may move from sexual arousal to orgasm and satisfaction without experiencing sexual desire, or they can experience desire, arousal, and satisfaction but not orgasm.”
You may not feel desire until you’ve begun to have sex; you might not feel desire even then. You might not feel desire even if you orgasm.
Likewise, for a lot of us, sexual satisfaction doesn’t even depend on having an orgasm, necessarily. We may have lovely, satisfying sex because it satisfies our partner and affirms the relationship and enhances our feeling of intimacy. Or, we may engage in sex for negative reasons, such as not wanting to lose a partner or avoiding the unpleasantness of turning him down.
Basically, Basson’s work tells us that however we experience sex that works for us and our partner is good sex. We may not “feel like” sex (experience desire), but once we get into it, desire might come tripping along like a puppy on a leash. Or, it might not, but the sex might be good anyway.
According to the literature, the sex that seems to work best for most couples is light-hearted, flirty, playful sex. It isn’t rushed. It has nothing to prove. It’s a mature, evolved celebration of the fact we’re still here, still loving each other. It’s the kind of sex worth working for.
So, let’s give ourselves a break. If we’ve been honest with ourselves, our sexual response very often depends on stimuli that has little to do with sex—how safe and happy we are in our relationship; how long we’ve been in the relationship; how we feel about ourselves (confident, sexy, desirable; or fatigued, stressed, distracted); whether sex has been painful (it’s hard to look forward to an experience that’s associated with pain).
The most important thing that’s necessary for sexual satisfaction in your relationship is the willingness to pursue it in whatever way works for you.
Oh, and the more sex you have, the more you want it. There are lots of ways to make sex comfortable after menopause: That’s what this website is all about; lube up and laissez le bons temps rouler.
The Intensity Pelvic Tone Vibrator works in two ways: It has electrodes that stimulate the muscles of the pelvic floor, causing them to contract and therefore strengthen. The vibration feature of the Intensity, which you can control separately, improves pelvic floor muscle tone the same way any vibrator does: They all help the user to experience orgasm, which is intense contractions of the pelvic floor. Those contractions, whether from the electric pulses or orgasm, improve muscle tone, just like flexing your bicep does. The contractions also increase blood supply to the pelvis, which improves function and sensation, too.
Yes, orgasm is good for muscle tone! And improved muscle tone can strengthen future orgasms, as well as holding organs in place and preventing or minimizing incontinence. I guess I’d call that a virtuous cycle.
You also mention weight gain. I hope you know you’re not alone! We had a series on this topic this summer that may be of interest to you: an overview of the reality, how you can respond with diet alterations, and how exercise can play a part.
If you need a provider who focuses on menopausal treatments you can find one on the NAMS website (North American Menopause Society) at this link. Enter your zip code and a list of nearby providers will be listed.
Among other things, sex is a nice aerobic workout. You breathe hard; your heart rate goes up, as does your metabolic rate. You burn calories. (Yay!)
Therein lies the rub for us older folks.
Isn’t the stress on the cardiovascular system dangerous for anyone with a heart condition? Especially if he or she doesn’t know about it? Or, even when the doctor gives you the green light to have sex, the specter of a sudden attack always looms in the background.
"I think it's important to healthy relationships to have this anxiety lifted," said Dr. Michael Ackerman, professor of medicine at Mayo Clinic. “[People] always ask about exercise and how active they can become,” he said in this article. “They almost never ask directly about sex,” but, once it’s mentioned, he said, ”the floodgates open.”
Now, a large and robust study provides the most detailed picture we’ve even had of the actual numbers of people who suffered a fatal heart attack during sex. Researchers examined lifetime medical records from 4,557 people in Portland, Oregon, who died of a sudden cardiac arrest from 2002 to 2015.
Of the 4557, the number of people who died of a heart attack during sex or within an hour after?
That’s it. Thirty-four people ranging in age from 37 to 83. Of that number, 32 were men. Thus, the risk of having a heart attack during sex in men is 1 percent, while for women, it’s .1 percent. While doctors always knew the risk of heart attack was slim, now that the risk is quantified, even researchers were taken aback. “I’m a little surprised at the really tiny number,” said Dr. Sumeet Chugh, senior author of the study and a professor of medicine at Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute in Los Angeles.
It goes without saying to follow your own doctor’s instructions for activity if you have a heart condition. But if you’re given the “all clear” for sexual activity, I hope these numbers put your mind at ease. No need to abstain from one of life’s sweetest pleasures.
“[This is] a wonderful answer for those who love sex,” said Dr. Ackerman. And, I might add, for those who recognize the link between sexual health and overall good health.
As I mentioned in the last post on this topic, even after you’ve decided to have a hysterectomy, a few critical questions remain. Time for a sit-down with your surgeon to hash them out.
First: How will he or she perform the procedure. There are three basic surgical options. The type of procedure your doctor chooses will affect the speed of your recovery, how long you’ll be in the hospital, and how much pain you’ll experience.
You should discuss what procedure your surgeon recommends and why. The quality and speed of your recovery rests in his or her hands.
The second topic to thoroughly discuss with your doctor is what, exactly, he or she is taking out. Here are the three umbrella categories of hysterectomy.
Hysterectomy is the removal of your uterus and the cervix, which is the organ at the top of the vagina. A lot of discussion and very few facts surrounds the pros and cons of leaving the cervix intact. Unless there’s a problem with the cervix itself, there’s no biological need to take it out—or to leave it in. The preponderance of evidence suggests that the cervix has little to do with sex, and removing it doesn’t seem to change sensation or to affect orgasm.
Removing the cervix, however, can change the vagina: It can become shorter, although rarely enough to compromise sex; some nerves might also be affected, which could make the top of your vagina more sensitive, and not in a good way. But the vagina, as we know, is a very stretchy and forgiving organ, so with the use of dilators (and gentle, consistent sex) the situation can be remedied.
Often, the cervix is removed prophylactically, to avoid a small but real cancer risk. Without a cervix, there’s no longer a risk, ergo, no more pap tests. That’s one point in its favor.
In the supracervical hysterectomy procedure, only the uterus is removed, leaving the cervix, fallopian tubes, and ovaries intact. In this case, you probably won’t experience much difference in your sexual activity unless you were accustomed to deep-muscle uterine contractions with orgasm. No uterus; no more muscular contractions. You might notice other changes, however, that we’ll discuss in the next post in this series.
Hysterectomy with bi- (or uni-) lateral salpingo-oopherectomy. Yes, it’s unpronounceable. This is the removal of one or both ovaries and the fallopian tubes along with the uterus. Unless you’re well into menopause, this procedure can put a woman in a hormonal tailspin.
The ovaries are the seat of much of testosterone production (it’s also produced by adrenals) and estrogen production—all the good stuff that keeps the sexual apparatus and our moods humming nicely along. Removing them while they’re still functioning puts a woman into immediate and sometimes intense menopause. It’s called “surgically induced menopause.” For that reason, ovaries are left intact, if possible, especially in younger women.
The decision can be complicated, however. The ovaries themselves can be diseased. Also, some women carry a genetic trait called the BRCA mutation. They are at a much higher risk for breast and ovarian cancer. While breast cancers are often identified at early stages, no screening or early-stage detection exists for ovarian cancer. It’s usually discovered later, when it’s very hard to treat. For women without that genetic trait, the risk of ovarian cancer is low, but not zero.
When menopause is surgically induced, your sex life (among other things) is likely to be seriously impacted just as it is in menopause. You should prepare for low libido, a possible decrease in arousal, dry vagina—all the issues we cover so repeatedly here.
I’d strongly advise you to line up resources ahead of time. Make an appointment with a gynecologist who specializes in menopausal issues. You might be a good candidate for estrogen and/or testosterone therapy. Stock up on lubes and moisturizers. Fire up the vibrator. The hormonal transition could be rocky, but with support and medical oversight, you’ll get through it. Sex (and life) will be good again. Promise.
A lot of issues and options are involved with the decision to have a hysterectomy (beginning with the question of having one at all). Believe me, you want to understand the process, your options, and the possible outcomes. When it comes to this part of your body and your being, you want to know what’s going to happen and to minimize the surprise factor.
I’m just gonna say it: the best time to get information about sex after a hysterectomy is before the hysterectomy ever happens.
When a patient come to me with sexual issues after having had a hysterectomy, and she is unclear about what kind of hysterectomy she actually received—what organs were removed or whether she had a laparoscopic or a vaginal procedure, for example—this indicates to me that she may not have sought or received the information she needed in order to make an informed decision.
Whether to have a hysterectomy is a loaded topic these days, so let’s just dive in and get the facts out of the way, shall we?
Hysterectomy is the second most common surgical procedure performed on women after caesarian section. Almost 12 percent of women between 40 and 44 have had one. That number rises to 30 percent by the time you’re 60. About 600,000 procedures are performed every year in the US—the highest rate in the world, although other developed countries also do a lot of hysterectomies.
Most hysterectomies are performed for such benign but bothersome conditions as fibroid growths, endometriosis, heavy bleeding, and vaginal prolapse. Only about 10 percent are done for truly life-threatening conditions such as cancer or a uterine rupture during childbirth.
It’s almost like having a hysterectomy has become a normalized part of growing older as a woman. You get your hair colored, and you have a hysterectomy. That’s just how it goes.
Recently, however, women’s health organizations and other health professionals—as well as women themselves—have been questioning that inevitability and pushing for less radical treatments for benign conditions. These include less invasive treatments, such as having a progestin IUD placed or endometrial ablation for heavy bleeding or uterine artery embolectomy treatments for fibroids. Still, hysterectomy remains the most common go-to for a host of “female troubles.”
Like any surgical procedure, a hysterectomy involves weighing risks and benefits. These are dependent on factors such as age, childbirth history, the size and shape of the uterus, among other considerations.
For example, it might be better for a younger woman with a benign and treatable condition to first try the alternatives to the permanent removal of her uterus because her reproductive organs are still fertile and hormone-producing. Even a woman in perimenopause is still producing hormones with all their good protective benefits to vaginal tissue, heart, and bone.
A post-menopausal woman with an unpleasant uterine prolapse, on the other hand, might be a very good candidate for hysterectomy. This patient’s hormone production has virtually ended and other treatment options aren’t permanent or also involve a surgical procedure.
Sometimes, however, when a woman’s quality of life is so compromised, when she’s in enough pain or bleeding so erratically or profusely, she may be willing to do anything to make it stop. A hysterectomy will make it stop and will often improve both sex and quality of life. But a frank patient/doctor discussion is still critical—so she understands her options and, insofar as possible, what the outcome will be.
So—there are options for treatments of benign conditions such as fibroids or endometriosis. Hysterectomy is invasive and permanent, so it makes sense to explore other options first. But if a hysterectomy seems to be the best approach, you then need to know about the different types of hysterectomy and their outcomes.
This is important, ladies, because how quickly you recover and the effect on your sex life has everything to do with the type of surgery you have and what organs are removed.
We’ll discuss this in a post next week.