Their elation dims when they attempt penetration and discover that their vaginas feel too dry and fragile for comfort if they try to accept a penis (or sometimes even fingers).
There are several reasons that vaginal fragility, tightness, discomfort, or pain can happen (which I discuss in my books, Naked at Our Age and The Ultimate Guide to Sex after 50). With age, especially if you’re sexually inactive, the vaginal tissues thin and there’s less blood flow to the genitals, causing dryness and fragility, known as vaginal atrophy. A separate but related problem is that the pelvic floor can lose its ability to relax, and in its contracted state, the vaginal opening feels too tight to admit a penis or a larger-than-slim sex toy.
Here’s how Ellen Barnard, co-owner of A Woman’s Touch sexuality resource center, helps women distinguish between menopause-related vaginal dryness and atrophy and “high tone pelvic floor dysfunction” that can be caused by the lack of blood flow to the genitals after menopause:
If you feel like your skin is very dry, fragile and tears easily then you have vaginal dryness and atrophy. You may experience tearing during penetrative sex and find a little bit of pink discharge after sex. If you feel like the skin is stretching or tearing at the opening of the vagina that is another sign of vaginal atrophy. A good quality, long lasting lubricant relieves your symptoms, and the Vaginal Renewal program will provide further relief and comfort both during daily activities and during sex.
If you engage in penetrative sex and your partner feels like they “hit a wall” either at the opening of the vagina or about 1-1/2 inches inside, or you feel pain deep inside the vagina with deeper penetration you may have an over-tight pelvic floor. The pelvic floor is made up of 3 layers of muscles. After menopause, those muscles can tighten up and not relax because there is not enough blood going to them once estrogen is no longer present.
If this happens to you then your first step is to see a pelvic floor therapist and get an evaluation of your pelvic floor muscles. If you have over-tight muscles the therapist can work with you to get them relaxed and learn appropriate exercises so you can consciously relax them once the therapy is over.
The Vaginal Renewal program may or may not help your pelvic floor muscles, so it is important to get additional help if the description above sounds like what happens to you.
Part of this program is at least one orgasm a week (you don’t need a partner for that!) and internal massage using vibration. Yes, really. Internal massage with vibration brings blood flow to the vagina and helps strengthen the tissues. If you’re so tight that insertion hurts, slim wands (a.k.a. dilators) will help. These start very slim and progress in graduated sizes as your body adapts and is able to accept more. Barnard adds,
A set of dilators may be used to treat the involuntary tightening of the outermost layer of the pelvic floor that happens with a condition called vaginismus, or when you have high tone pelvic floor dysfunction (over tightening of the pelvic floor muscles that surround the vagina) in the outermost, middle and/or deep layers of the pelvic floor. You would work with a pelvic floor therapist to use the dilators to help you learn how to relax with progressively larger dilators inside the vagina. This work may be accompanied by other work such as psychotherapy when the tightening is caused by pain or trauma; meditation; and relaxation breathing in the case of high tone pelvic floor dysfunction.
It used to be a hassle to even find vaginal dilators, but A Woman’s Touch has done the research and development and created FDA-registered, therapeutic vibrating wands that are ideal for the Vaginal Renewal program:
|Sizes 2 and 1|
The FeMani Vibrating Massage Wand is made of smooth, durable, medical-grade ABS plastic and comes in three graduated widths: Size 1 (3/4″ diameter), Size 2 (1″ diameter), and Size 3 (1-3/8″ diameter).
Order two sizes in a kit with one silicone controller (detachable handle that controls the vibrations). These vibrating wands use AAA or AA batteries (included), depending on the size.
To figure out the size that’s right for you, A Woman’s Touch recommends this:
Determine how many lubricated fingers you can insert into your vagina when you are not aroused. For one finger, choose the 1 & 2 set, for two fingers choose the 2 & 3 set. If you are unsure or between sizes, we recommend choosing the smaller choice, which will still provide the beneficial massage without the potential strain or discomfort of being too big.
Using vibrating wands is a process for your own sexual health and the health of a relationship you might have now or in the future–and it can be extremely pleasurable, besides!
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.
Older women stop having and enjoying sex sooner in their lives than men do, a study in the British Medical Journal found. That’s because the medical community has no idea how to help women maintain their sexual health and pleasure after menopause without the use of potentially dangerous hormones. Women don’t have any “little blue pill” to make things work better when their bodies have given up.
But the truth is, there are simple answers:
1. Live a “Good Sex Lifestyle” which includes daily exercise, a healthy diet full of fruits, veggies, nuts, whole grains and healthy fats and free of white sugars and flours, low-to-moderate alcohol intake, and daily doses of chocolate, Omega-3 oils and lots of Vitamin D. Healthy women enjoy good sex much longer than those in poor health.
2. At menopause and later, care for your vagina. Moisturize her daily or more with a good moisturizing lubricant (no glycerin), and massage her inner walls two to four times per week for five to ten minutes, with either a well-made vibrator or a partner’s fingers or penis. For more details, see our Vaginal Renewal™ program.
3. Have at least one orgasm per week, with yourself or a partner, it doesn’t matter. Keep those nerves functioning properly and remind them what pleasure feels like. If it’s hard to have orgasms, use a vibrator. Men use tools all the time, why shouldn’t you?
4. Get enough sleep, keep your stress under control, and keep a positive outlook. Your body will thank you for it, and your mind will be able to think sexy thoughts without distraction.
5. Think sexy thoughts, often. Fantasize, reminisce, create erotic stories in your head (or on paper), talk about sex, plan for sex, and make it a priority. Nurture your sex life, and it will love you back for many years to come.
– Ellen Barnard, MSSW is a sex educator and co-owner of A Woman’s Touch Sexuality Resource Center, which offers education and products to support healthy sexuality for everyone, with a focus on older adults and those living with cancer. She can be found at http://www.sexualityresources.com/.
I think Ellen’s information is vital, and I hope you’ll pass this link to your friends, colleagues, lovers, wives, and mothers. If more mid-life and older-age women knew these self-help strategies for enhancing their sexuality, there would be more satisfied smiles on their faces! — Joan Price
As I write Naked at Our Age, I’m awed by the level of candor from the real people who have agreed to share their stories and the generosity of the experts who are contributing solid, helpful tips that address the problems and concerns you’ve sent me.
The book will come out in Spring 2011, which I realize is a long wait for those of you who are experiencing challenges now that are preventing you from thoroughly enjoying your senior sexuality. Since my mission is to help you, I want to share something that I learned from Ellen Barnard, MSSW, because you might need this information –as I did — before the book comes out.
I wrote Ellen for personal advice — I was startled and dismayed to discover that I was unable to insert the Teneo Smartballs comfortably — something that would have been easy before my self-imposed, long period of celibacy following Robert’s death. “I’m aghast that I’ve let this happen to me,” I told her.
Here is an excerpt from her compassionate and helpful reply, which I hope will open your eyes, as it did mine:
Oh, please don’t be upset – there are many women of all ages who find them to be too wide to insert comfortably unless they are very aroused. Despite the information around them, they really are not intended to be used without arousal and a lot of lubrication first.
It’s not really about stretching the entrance to your vagina. The issue is how tight and how flexible the pelvic floor muscles are at the opening of your vagina. After menopause, it gets more difficult for the pelvic floor to relax unless you regularly practice doing so. Arousal helps with relaxation of the pelvic floor, thus allowing you to insert something inside your vagina comfortably, but after menopause it often takes a conscious relaxation effort in addition to significant massage for arousal.
So your task is to learn how to better relax those muscles and do so as you insert gradually wider toys. Don’t “push” against those muscles – that doesn’t work, and actually causes them to tighten further. Instead, either gently slip a finger alongside your favorite toy once you are fully aroused, taking a deep belly breath and once you feel the opening relax, slip the finger inside, or take a tapered toy and insert it deeper as you breath deeply and feel the vaginal opening relax.
It’s worth going to our site and downloading our revised Vaginal Renewal and Pelvic Floor Health booklets (see links under “Educational Brochures”) – we address the issue of a tight pelvic floor in both of them.
Ellen Barnard is a sex educator and counselor who believes we all deserve delightful, healthy sex lives for as long as we live. She consults on the topics of aging and sexuality, cancer and sexuality, and facilitating intimacy at the end of life. She is also the co-owner of A Woman’s Touch Sexuality Resource Center.
Visit A Woman’s Touch for “expertise in sexual health and pleasure.”