4/3/16: I’m bringing this 2014 post to the top because I’m giving a talk to doctors and other medical professionals tomorrow in Milwaukee. I want these comments from my readers to be easy to find if they read my blog after that — which I hope they will!
About half of all sexually active men and women aged 57-85 in the United States report at least one bothersome sexual problem; one third report at least two. Yet only 38 percent of men and 22 percent of women reported having discussed sex with a physician since the age of 50 years.
Why does this information barrier exist? And what can you, as professionals, do to overcome it with your patients and clients?
These are the questions I posed to the attendees at the beginning of “Talking about Senior Sex:
A Presentation for Medical Professionals, Therapists, and Others Working Professionally with the Older-Age Population,” which I presented at The Smitten Kitten in Minneapolis on June 19, 2014.
I was so jazzed by the responses during that workshop that I wanted to continue the discussion, so I took it to my Naked at Our Age Facebook page (which I invite you to read and “like”).
Our community jumped in eagerly with their comments and experiences. Here are some of those:
- It would suffice if they just asked. I think they are 1) embarrassed, and 2) afraid that a nestful of psychological tangles would emerge, which would take a lot of their time. As a doctor, you would have to believe that relationships, beliefs, and habits contributed to illness, and I think most of them are just looking for a set of symptoms. The mind-body connection is far from their thoughts.
- It may be difficult for physicians to broach topics on sex because of their lack of education on sexual matters – not just with senior sexuality. Often such topics are delegated to nurse specialists or physician assistants. There are also shades of sexuality beyond the range of physiology, endocrinology, anatomy, and other hard sciences that are beyond the scope of topics covered in med school and continuing medical education. We need to take charge and help drag medical providers along with us on this topic.
- Sex over 55 is often challenging if your parts are in perfect working order, but if they are not, then it’s an entirely different ball game. As someone who has lived with a sexual challenge for 20 years (and who is now 67), I found, in the beginning that it was helpful to write a letter to the doctor prior to the appointment – an ice-breaker. Now, however, after such a long-term medical problem, I am really very open with all the doctors I see and they either handle it or they don’t – they can choose!
- We live in a culture that allows only a few sexual subjects to be discussed and those in limited ways. Having lived a lifetime hiding or being ashamed of our sexual natures, it can be a huge challenge to just start talking about “it” when we reach those years. The mechanics of sex may be easier to discuss than unmet needs and innate desires. It is a gift to be sexually sovereign in our culture.
- In my case, no doctor ever broached the subject. I was always the initiator. After 12 years of fertility work, four ectopic pregnancies, numerous spontaneous abortions and nerve damage resulting from a rape, surgeries and malpractice (they refused to remove the infamous Dalkon Shield IUD after the rape and subsequent STD infection), it’s not a stretch to understand why I had a damaged libido. Only with recent help from two amazing physicians, with whom I can discuss anything, have I begun to find help! Finding this and other groups online has also been salvation of yet another kind. Thanks for opening so many doors to those of us who have foundered for so long!
- Actually, it was through conversations with my nurse practitioner that my road to sexual freedom opened up. Also through my wonderful husband’s patience, and Joan’s book, Naked at Our Age. There is a taboo about sex at a certain age, but for us it has just been renewed!
- Particularly as sex and disability is also a taboo subject and many people will have genital dermatoses and that will make it even harder for them to open up to anyone. I am 67 and despite lichen sclerosis, I remain sexually active.
- The doctor needs to be calm, confident and comfortable with the subject. If the doctor is squirmy and clearly uncomfortable, it won’t help the patient to open up. Speaking for myself, if I’m a little squirmy and hesitant, I’d appreciate it if the doctor would give me the time and space to squirm a little and build up my courage. I had that experience with a doctor; he asked what was clearly a scripted question, I hemmed and hawed a little struggling to express an answer. Since the answer wasn’t immediately forthcoming he just jumped right to the next question. I got the distinct feeling he really didn’t want to hear it, so the subject was dropped. On the other hand, a doctor might ask a question and get a very forthright answer they weren’t expecting. They better be ready for that too; no eyes bugging out, no jaw dropping, no flinching. They might need to develop the ‘warm positive regard’ thing that therapists are taught.
- I’m 73, have an older woman doctor trained in Europe who brought the subject up in the course of an annual physical, and was quite matter of fact about it, made me quite comfortable discussing the subject, and referred me to an endo.
- I’m not your target age group but my nurse practitioner at Kaiser simply asked if I was happy with my sex life and, after I affirmed that I was, proceeded to tell me that orgasm was good for my vaginal health (not to mention my psyche) and encouraged me to take charge of my pleasure because it would help make perimenopause easier to take, keep my bladder where it belongs and generally support my wellbeing. Hell yeah -this I knew – but what was even better was that she made it clear that she was there to help. My sexual health was not some secondary aspect. It was a full-fledged piece of my gynecological workup. To which I say – well done!
- I’d like to see it simply become a matter of routine during all regular check ups, or anytime the visit is for more than a sniffle really, as well as anytime mental health/ relationships are discussed. We need to be in the habit of treating the whole person, not just fixing bits and pieces and mending boo-boos.
I hope you’ll continue this important conversation by commenting here. (And if you’d like me to bring this presentation to your organization, please contact me.)
Frustrated in Florida, age 61, had not had sex for nearly 12 years, until recently. She wrote in an email to me:
Apparently one’s vagina does change after not using it for a long period of time. I always thought sex was like riding a bicycle, but it is not. One can’t just get back on and ride! I experienced such pain during the attempted penetration that we had to stop. What a disappointing and embarrassing moment. My partner was very understanding, however I was just frustrated and disappointed.
I went to my GYN for an examination soon after and explained my circumstances. She gave me a thorough exam and said although I had many tiny lacerations and redness, my vagina seemed normal. She explained how one’s vaginal lining becomes thin after menopause and her advise was to abstain from sex for two weeks, using lubrication to aid in healing.
When we engaged in sex again, very gently, I was once again disappointed with the level of pain even though using lots of lubrication. We once again had to stop.
So now I am wondering if there is some way I can stretch my vagina for it seems like it has shrunk. (Perhaps it is just my imagination running wild!)
Have you had anyone else write you with a similar problem and if so is there a solution? For your information I have never been on hormones and my partner’s penis is of normal size.
No, it’s not your imagination, and yes, it’s true that the vagina will seem to shrink after a long period of abstinence, especially after menopause, and penetration will be painful or sometimes impossible. You’ll find a helpful chapter in my book, Naked at Our Age: Talking Out Loud About Senior Sex and several other posts about vaginal pain on this blog.
I’m disappointed that your gynecologist is not this helpful. Telling you you’re “normal” while you have lacerations and pain is not helpful, is it? Most doctors do not know how to diagnose or treat vaginal pain, and it ‘s wise ask for a referral to a sexual pain specialist.
Please read Vaginal Renewal Program by Myrtle Wilhite, M.D., at A Woman’s Touch, a wonderful sexuality resource center in Madison, WI. It tells you step by step how to massage and stretch your vagina. Here’s an abridged version:
* External Moisturizing and Massage: Increase the suppleness and blood circulation of the skin of your vulva and vagina with a five- to ten-minute massage with a moisturizing sexual lubricant like Liquid Silk®, a water-based lotion that will soak in and moisturize your skin, won’t get sticky, and will help you massage with very little friction.
Push in to the skin with circular strokes, and massage what’s underneath the skin, rather than brushing across the skin. Include the inner lips, the hood of the clitoris, the head of the clitoris and the perineum.
To complete your external massage, massage into the opening of the vaginal canal, using the same circular strokes. The massage itself does not need to be self-sexual in any way, but if that is comfortable for you, by all means explore these sensations.
* Internal Vaginal Massage: To massage inside your vaginal canal, we suggest using a lucite dildo which is very smooth and will not cause friction or tearing. Choose your size based upon how many fingers you can comfortably insert into the opening of your vagina.
After a session of external vulva massage, apply the same massage to the inner surfaces of your vagina with your dildo with lubricant applied on both skin and dildo. Rather than pushing the dildo in and out, use a circular massage movement. You are increasing skin flexibility so that your body can adjust to comfortable sexual penetration if you choose it.
You might also choose to use a slim vibrator for massaging the vaginal walls. Coat it in Liquid Silk and then insert it gently. Turn it on and let it run for about five minutes. You don’t need to move it around, just lie there and let it do its work.
* Orgasm: For women who stop having orgasms, the blood vessels literally can get out of shape, preventing future orgasms. If you are able to bring yourself to orgasm, do so at least once a week (for the rest of your life — seriously). This is preventive maintenance of your body.
* Kegel Relaxation: Kegels increase both the strength and flexibility of your pelvic floor muscles. Pay attention to the relaxation and deep breath part of the exercise. Learning to relax your pelvic floor will help you to avoid tensing up before penetration. (Read A Woman’s Touch’s Step-by-Step Kegels in this article about pelvic floor health.)
In my earlier book, Better Than I Ever Expected: Straight Talk about Sex After Sixty, I had interviewed a 75-year-old woman who had been celibate for 38 years and was in a new relationship. She was unable to have intercourse because her vagina had dried and narrowed to the point that penetration was impossible. She sought help from her gynecologist (a wonderful woman who bought dozens of copies of Better Than I Ever Expected to give to her patients!), who helped her.
A reader wrote:
I am 62, single, and once was a very sexually active woman. I’ve undergone treatment for breast cancer twice. My recovery required my full attention for years, but now I feel ready for new adventures — hopefully including sex. After rounds of chemotherapy, surgeries, radiation, and continued estrogen blocking medications, sex with another became a thing of the past.
Currently, sexual intercourse may no longer be possible for me — but I still enjoy having orgasms and I desire the wonder of touch.
However, I am so concerned about my limitations as a sexual partner that I am afraid to attempt to date again.
I have no idea what men in my age group expect or desire in terms of performance from their partners. What are woman experiencing in the 60-year-old dating world in terms of performance expectations? Would my current physical circumstance deter most men from being interested in exploring an intimate relationship with me?
I am grateful for this message and all it conveys about hope and healing and moving forward. I understand why you’re apprehensive. I would encourage you to get out there and go after what you want.
I know that many single men in our age group also fear “performance expectations” when erections are no longer possible or predictable. There are many who would welcome a sexual partner who did not expect intercourse, who would be happy exchanging touch, oral and manual stimulation, and fabulous orgasms — without intercourse.
These men may be cancer survivors themselves, wanting to return fully to life, including sex and intimacy, but they don’t know how to navigate the dating world either — when to divulge the cancer, when to divulge the sexual issues.
You might find out if there’s a local cancer survivors’ singles group. Or try online dating: I did a search on “cancer survivors singles” and came up with several sites that promote themselves as dating sites for cancer survivors.
There’s even one — “2date4love” — that “enables people who cannot engage in sexual intercourse to meet and experience love, companionship and intimacy.” I haven’t vetted any of these sites — if any of you have tried them, I hope you’ll share your experiences.
You don’t need to limit yourself to dating companions who share a similar medical history, though. Just be up front about your cancer on a first date if it looks like there’s potential for a second date. (If not, you don’t need to mention it.)
Then if you progress to a few dates and there’s chemistry, it’s important to explain that yes, you are interested in sex, but no, this might not include intercourse. Be prepared: Men who desire intercourse may want to discontinue getting to know you, and that’s okay.
When all the cards are on the table, if the relationship progresses, you have the delightful journey of exploring all the ways you can be sexual without intercourse!
Even when a date doesn’t progress to more, it’s still worth getting to know new people, “practicing” dating, trying out how to tell a potential partner about your needs, desires, and challenges.
If you take it all as part of the brave new world of dating experience, you don’t need to feel regretful or shamed when a new relationship (or potential relationship) doesn’t work out. Most of them will not work out — that’s the nature of the game.
Everything I’ve said so far presumed that you’re right that intercourse will not be possible for you. But please explore whether there are ways that you can heal yourself vaginally, if this is something you want to pursue. An excellent resource is “Vaginal Recuperation after Cancer or Surgery” from A Woman’s Touch, one of my favorite sexuality resource centers.
I hope you’ll check in again and share what you tried, how it worked for you, what you learned and gained.
I hope that you’ll share your thoughts, too, readers.
June has been declared Adult Sex Ed Month (#AdultSexEdMonth) by Ms. Quote
(@GoodDirtyWoman on Twitter) who blogs at A Good Woman’s Dirty Mind. This idea caught on, and this month, hundreds of posts designated #AdultSexEdMonth from sex educators and bloggers appeared all over the Internet. View the list with links here.
In my world — advocating for senior sex and educating about older-age sexuality — every month is Adult Sex Ed Month. This month has been particularly fruitful.
This month, I participated in a Huffington Post Live event titled “How Old Is Too Old To Have Sex?” with fellow panelists Ashton Applewhite, Walker Thornton, Sidney Schwab, and Ken Solin, hosted by Abby Huntsman. Of course the answer to the question in the title is obvious to us (though not obvious to Abby, until we raised her consciousness), but you’ll find the discussion interesting even though you know the answer! Watch it here:
The annual conference of the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors
and Therapists conference always makes my brain swell with new information and ideas from sex educators who are trailblazers in the field. Counselors, therapists, sex educators in community or medical settings, and other people who care about your sexual knowledge and enrichment gather to learn from the leaders. Then people like me come home and spread it around – to people like you.
As always, it was impossible to attend all the sessions of interest, and there’s no way I can share all of the 25 pages of single-spaced notes that I took on my laptop, no matter how many blog posts I write. But here are some highlights and tips that are especially relevant to our age group:
- Some sexual issues are psychological; some are medical or physiological. But even when it’s a medical issue, a sex therapist can be important to help you work with whatever is going on. Medical sexual issues affect your sense of self and your relationship. “Any pharmacotherapy for sexual dysfunction should occur within the context of sex and relationship therapy.” (Ricky Siegel)
- One more good reason to quit smoking: Nicotine has been shown to decrease blood flow to the penis and increase venous outflow from the penis — in other words, less ability to get and maintain an erection. (Ricky and Larry Siegel)
- Women with vulvar or vaginal pain have a difficult time getting the pain diagnosed and treated effectively. Possible causes of pelvic pain are varied, and with the wrong diagnosis (or no diagnosis!), the wrong treatment follows. Look for a three-pronged approach: a sexual medicine physician, a pelvic floor physical therapist, and a certified sex therapist, such as used by the Summa Center for Sexual Health in Akron, Ohio. (Kimberly Resnick Anderson)
- Pelvic floor physical therapists are trained to do internal evaluation of the pelvic floor muscles — evaluating muscle function, strength, tone, and any points of tenderness. Regular physical therapists are not trained to do this. (Amy Senn)
- Men with low libido: Anxiety, mood, relationship, and religious factors affects libido. “First know what’s going on in the relationship before throwing medication at it.” (Larry Siegel)
- “Nerve sparing” prostate surgery is “a bit of a misnomer.” Erectile nerves on the outside of the prostate are very difficult to see and avoid during surgery. “The prostate is deep in the pelvis, and they go pushing around with stainless steel instruments. If cauterizing instruments are anywhere near nerves, it damages them for life. Nerves recover from the pushing and pulling – it takes a long, long time. Nerves go into shock and stop sending message to blood vessels to relax and let blood in.” (Anne Katz)
- “Sexual arousal requires healthy blood flow for everything else to work. Otherwise, nothing happens. Take a 15 minute walk with your partner before sex. It will prime the pump.” (Ellen Barnard)
- After treatment for female genital cancer, using a vibrating wand internally will reduce scar tissue. “Vibration directly to the scar tissue starts breaking up that scar tissue, allowing it to expand, become more comfortable, and allow penetrative sex if we want it.” (Ellen Barnard)
- After cancer treatment, start getting to know “what is”: “What feels good? What doesn’t feel good? What’s numb? What’s painful? How does arousal happen? What does it take? How does orgasm happen and feel? When during the day do I have energy?” (Ellen Barnard) You need to learn this for yourself before you can teach your partner. (JP: This applies to aging in general, also.) A Woman’s Touch has excellent educational brochures for both men and women online at no cost, for example, Healthy Sexuality After Cancer. Visit www.sexualityresources.com, see the Educational Brochures link in the upper left hand corner of the menu bar for a complete selection.
The huge news this month for me as a senior sex educator was an invitation from Cleis Press to write a book for them: The Ultimate Guide to Sex after Fifty! I’m thrilled to have a new book to write on my favorite topic, and I’m proud to be part of the fabulous Ultimate Guide collection of sexuality guidebooks. You can be sure you’ll hear more about my new endeavor as it unfolds.
Meanwhile, if there’s a topic you want to be sure that I cover in this new book, please either post it as a comment here or email me. I love to hear from you. I’m too busy to promise to answer all your questions in detail, but I try to acknowledge your email and point you in the right direction. I admit sheepishly that I have about 400 unanswered emails waiting. If one of these is yours, I thank you for your patience! (I do give private, educational consultations answering your questions by phone or Skype for a modest fee — email me for more info about this.)