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.
Best wishes for a joyful resolution to this problem — please keep me posted.
Many women in our age group write
me that they’re experiencing pain with sex or avoiding sex because of pain. I
consulted several experts for their advice in chapter 11 of Naked at Our Age: “When Sex Hurts:
Vulvar/Vaginal Pain,” but reading that chapter is just the beginning of solving
that problem. You need a diagnosis – vaginal/vulvar pain can be caused by a
number of medical issues, and you need to understand why you’re having pain
before you can get it treated effectively.
receive a review copy of Healing Painful Sex: A Woman’s Guide to Confronting, Diagnosing, and Treating Sexual Pain
by Deborah Coady, MD and Nancy Fish, MSW, MPH. This book is entirely
devoted to sexual pain in women: the myriad possible causes, how to figure out
which one or combination is yours, and what to do about it.
power team: Deborah Coady is a gynecologist and a pelvic/vulvar pain
specialist. Nancy Fish is a therapist with degrees in social work and public
health, and she personally experienced chronic pelvic pain until Dr. Coady
helped her resolve it.
answer some questions that women our age often ask me:
Q. Many older women are reluctant to ask
their gynecologists about sexual pain because a) they’re embarrassed, b) they
think this is part of aging, and c) they fear their doctors will be dismissive.
What would you say to these women?
A: These feelings and fears are completely understandable. Unfortunately, the
medical profession has until now given too little attention to the sexual
concerns of women as we get older. Women often are dismissed or rushed when
they bring up their problems. And this is not the fault of the patients: A
recent survey of gynecologists by Stacey Lindau, MD of the University of
Chicago hints to their discomfort, as well as their lack of experience and
formal training in this area of medicine. While 60% responded that they
did ask about sexual problems at the first visit, only 14% asked about pleasure
with sexual activity. It is often up to women themselves to be pro-active, ask
the hard questions, and remember that they are entitled to medical therapy for
this medical problem, or referral to an MD who can help.
Q. My readers sometimes report that after
a long time without sex (due to lack of a partner or disinterest from a
partner), they try to have sex again — and they can’t: It’s too painful. What
should a woman do about this?
A: On average, about 5-6 years after their last menses, most women develop
thinning of their vulvar and vaginal tissues, often causing pain with sexual
touching or intercourse, or with urination after sexual activity, or itching,
burning and even surface bleeding after sex. This can occur even in women
taking systemic estrogen therapy. As estrogen levels decline both the surface
skin and underlying connective tissues thin, shrink, and lose elasticity. Most
pain is actually located at the vaginal opening itself, rather than deep inside
the vagina as previously thought. The good news is that since these tissues are
exquisitely hormonally sensitive, even small doses of estrogen, with or without
testosterone or DHEA, applied to the vaginal opening (the vestibule), can
reverse these changes within 2-4 weeks, and then even lower doses can be used
to maintain the improvement. Some women with severe loss of elasticity will
also be helped by a course of pelvic floor manual physical therapy, to help
normalize the connective tissue, and relieve the reflexive muscle spasms that
some women develop due to their pain.
Q. I like your questionnaire (107-111)
because women often don’t know how to pin down just where and what the pain is
that they’re experiencing. I recommend that women scan or photocopy that
questionnaire to show their medical professionals. Would it be a good idea to
carry a copy of Healing Painful Sex to
the appointment, too, in case the doc hasn’t heard of your book?
A: One of our missions in writing the book is that women would have it as a
resource to get their gynecologists informed and up to speed on treating sexual
pain. Many patients have done just this, and their MDs have actually been
grateful for the introduction to the book.
Q. If a gynecologist says, “You just need
lubricant” or – worse! – “Well, at your age, you can expect that,” what should
an older woman say to get diagnosis and treatment? I tell women to say, “If you
don’t know how to help me, please refer me to someone who does,” but that might
seem more confrontational than you would recommend! What would you advise her
A: I would advise her to say exactly that. We have to advocate for
ourselves and we deserve up-to-date treatment for sexual pain. A healthy
sexual life is a basic human right, even defined as so by the World Health
Q. How can a post-menopausal woman weigh
the benefits of HRT vs. the health risks if she’s experiencing vaginal thinning
A: There is absolutely no evidence that the small amount of estradiol or
estriol available for use at the vaginal opening is absorbed to any degree that
would induce breast cancer. The doses are tiny compared to HRT doses that are
meant to be systemic, that is, to go to all parts of the body. To help hot
flashes the doses need to reach the brain in quantities much much higher than
the topical estrogen will ever give. And with the evidence now showing that
estrogen alone does not increase the risk of breast cancer anyway, women can be
assured that topical therapy, especially if mostly applied to the vaginal
opening, is safe. It is also now known that the thicker and more estrogenized
the vulvar and vaginal tissues are, the less absorption into the body. So
a stable constant regimen is better than going on and off the topicals, with
the tissues thinning again in between.
Q. How do we educate our medical
professionals to stop being dismissive and take our sexuality seriously,
whether we’re 60, 70, or 80?
A: This is a work in progress, but educational outreach through professional
societies like NAMS, the International Pelvic Pain Society (IPPS), and the
International Society for the Study Of Vulvovaginal Disorders (ISSVD), as well
as patient advocacy organizations, especially the National Vulvodynia
Association (NVA) is helping. The websites of these societies all list health
professionals by area to help patients find a knowledgeable MD. We also need to
devote more time to formal education on sexuality and pain in medical schools
and residency programs.
|1944: Joan, age 1, with mother|
Today is the 100th International Women’s Day. One hundred years!
I’m a seasoned woman — age 67 as I write this — and I remember accepting blindly the women’s roles and attitudes I was taught growing up. I watched my mother — a brilliant woman who wanted to be a doctor her whole life — working as a lab assistant in my father’s ob/gyn medical office. No wonder she was bitter as she slapped down dinner after a long day running pregnancy tests with mice and rabbits.
Thanks to remarkable feminists who dedicated their lives to changing what we could expect from our lives, I was able to unlearn my upbringing, shake off society’s roles, and go for what I wanted. My mother died unhappy, but I live pursuing my interests and dreams.
My self-discovery journey took me on many different paths and through several metamorphoses over the decades — high school English teacher, aerobics instructor, health/fitness writer — to who I am now: senior sex activist/ educator/ speaker/ author who teaches line dancing for fun, exercise, and balance!
It’s fitting that on the 100th International Women’s Day, I discover this video: “Satisfaction the Granny Remake for EqualPayday.” Thanks to Sarah Forbes, Curator of Sex at New York’s Museum of Sex, for posting it on her blog in honor of International Women’s Day and titling her post “Using Senior Sex to Sell an Equal Pay Day” so it would get my attention.
Update note: I first posted this interview in June 2007. I have so many new readers now that I wanted to bring it to the forefront, because it’s such an important issue for both men and women. Often men feel they can’t talk about ED with their partners. Women tell me their men seem to emotionally disappear and avoid sexual activity and discussion. Michael Castleman helps all of us understand what’s going on. — Joan
In a previous post, I interviewed Michael Castleman, a sex educator, counselor and journalist specializing in men’s sexuality to answer some questions for men about erectile dysfunction. In this part of the interview, Castleman talks directly to women:
Q: What don’t women understand about erectile dysfunction (ED)?
MC: Like men, few women understand the difference between true ED and erection dissatisfaction. [See Erectile Dysfunction: Michael Castleman Talks to Men for explanation of the difference.] Women also don’t really appreciate how men FEEL when EDis or ED develop. It’s sort of like how women feel when they lose a breast to cancer. You’re still alive, but you feel diminished. A part of your body you took for granted isn’t there anymore, or in the case of men, doesn’t work like it used to. And this isn’t just any part of the body. It’s a body part that in a profound way DEFINES you as a man or woman. For women, loss of a breast raises issues like: Am I still attractive? Am I still sexual? Can I still please a man sexually? Men with ED and EDis wrestle with similar issues.
Beyond this, men have lived their whole lives pretty much taking their penises for granted: See a sexy woman, get hard. See porn, get hard. Think a sexual thought, get hard. Then all of a sudden–and in many men this happens pretty suddenly–they’re in a situation where they expect to have to rearrange their underwear to accommodate some swelling down there, and then….nothing. Nothing happens.
Many don’t understand what’s happening to them or why. But even those who do, me for example, feel surprised, upset, disappointed, depressed. Change is stressful. But when the changes concern the penis, well, men get seriously freaked out.
Now women often (and rightly) believe that men are too focused on the penis. That’s often true. It takes most young men years (sometimes decades) to leave penis-centric sex behind and understand the erotic value and pleasure of whole-body sensuality, a lovestyle more based on whole-body massage than on just sticking it in somewhere. Men who never get there, men who continue to view sex as penis-centered, when their penis stops behaving as they expect, they often think it’s the end of sex, that they’re over the sexual hill, that it’s all over. In my experience as a sex counselor and writer, few women appreciate how diminished men feel as they get used to EDis… if they ever adjust.
Q: Why can’t men express these concerns?
MC: Many reasons. In general, men tend to be less emotionally articulate than women. Men are socialized to be the “strong silent type,” to keep a “stiff upper lip,” to “grin and bear it.” In other words, to deny what they’re feeling and just go on. As a result, men get less practice than women discussing their emotions, and when they do, they’re less skilled than women. Now some women believe that men don’t HAVE emotions because they don’t discuss them. Wrong. Men feel things just as deeply as women. They just are less likely to discuss them, and if they do, they’re less likely to be able to really articulate how they feel.
The two genders have different natural histories of sex problems. With the exception of vaginal dryness, which is easily mitigated with lubricants, most women have most of their sex problems/issues when they’re young. Young women wrestle with the mixed messages that they should be sexy but not trampy, that they should want love/sex, but not want sex “too” much, not be “too” easy. But how easy is too easy? Young women also have issues with orgasm. Many don’t have them and have to learn how to release orgasms.
Meanwhile, few young men have sex problems–other than coaxing women in to bed. The young penis works just fine, thank you very much. Maybe the guy comes too soon (this is the #1 sex problem of young men), but only rarely do young men have problems with erection. Then they hit 45 or 50 and suddenly, the erections they took for granted their entire lives start to fail them. They freak. It’s almost unthinkable. Many Americans found themselves speechless after Sept. 11. It was so horrible, unimaginable. Men don’t discuss their ED or EDis in part because it’s unimaginable–then it happens and they’re speechless.
To many men, having reliable erections is a significant part of what defines them as men. If they have problems in the erection department, some fear that the women in their lives will view them as less than real men. So why talk about it? Why invite her to rub his nose in the fact that he’s less of a man?
Q: When should a couple seek counseling?
There’s no hard-and-fast rule on this. But when a problem festers, when you find yourselves having the same conflict over and over again, when there seems to be no way out, no resolution, basically, when you feel stuck, that’s when to consider counseling.
Now every sex problem is also a relationship problem and visa versa. If the main issue is power/control/decision making or conflict resolution, then a couples counselor is probably the place to start. But if they main problem is sexual–a desire difference, orgasm issues for the woman, erection issues for the man–then I’d start with a sex therapist.
Personally, I’m a fan of sex therapy. This is not self-serving because I am not a sex therapist. But studies show that two-thirds of couples who consult sex therapists report significant benefit within 6 months. That’s pretty good. Men with ED or EDis need to reframe their thinking about sex. They need to get away from porn-inspired sex and explore whole-body sensuality. This is often unfamiliar to men. They often fight it. So going back to a therapist week after week can help keep them on the path to self-discovery.
To find a sex therapist, visit the American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors, and Therapists (AASECT). Click the map of the U.S. and Canada, and get a list of all the AASECT-certified sex therapists in your state or province.
Q: What if the man won’t go?
The woman should go by herself. This is not as good as the couple going. But going solo gives the woman a place to vent. It may equip her with new coping skills that can help deal with the couple’s issues. And she may be referred to some written material, e.g. my book and others like it, that she can litter around the house and hope he picks up and checks out.