Make friends with pleasure again

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It’s time to shift our perspective: we have to see ourselves as worthy of receiving, rather than always giving.

We have to refute the norm and crave something for ourselves

Walker Thornton, sex educator, public speaker and author of “Inviting Desire, A Guide for Women Who Want to Enhance Their Sex Life”

Even across the continents, I can perceive Walker’s energy. It’s a mix of awareness and confidence with a splash of humor. Walker Thornton is a sex educator, public speaker and author who transitioned from being “a silent good girl from the South” (she’s from Virginia) to talk about two of the most hushed topics in our society: aging and sex. 

Stemming from her personal life, education and work experience, her book Inviting Desire, A Guide for Women Who Want to Enhance Their Sex Life, is written primarily for older women. Walker acknowledges the challenges women face in aging and accompanies them from reclaiming to regaining their sex life.

Sex is not a must-have, and the last thing I intend to do is to promote another reason to feel less-than. But I think Walker has a point in emphasizing that our capacity to feel pleasure plays a fundamental role in our life. It’s a source of joy, of comfort and of creative energy that belongs to our being and we shouldn’t let ourselves be deprived thereof.

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself? 

I’ve had a variety of jobs, the most unique being my stint as a transit bus driver at the University of Virginia while I was a college student. Now, I’m a sex educator, an author and a public speaker.

What was the a-ha moment when you decided to become a sexual educator? 

I was working as the director of a sexual assault crisis center while dating in my 50s and writing an anonymous blog. As all of these things collided I saw the need to talk more openly about sex and sexuality. Interactions with blog readers, primarily women in their 50s, revealed struggles around sex and dating that mirrored my entry into that world of post-divorce life.

I had been conducting workshops and school presentations on relationships and date rape for many years and I realized the lack of similar information for post-college adults. There was a gap between the dating advice and the often more explicit sex information available. Where was the basic, matter-of-fact talk about what women needed? And in that moment, as I transitioned to self-employment as a freelance writer, I began to shift into talking about sex, dating, and sexuality. 

How has this decision impacted on your life? 

It’s led to much more fun and entertaining conversation about a topic many people consider taboo. My own sexual journey has benefited as I’ve learned more and felt free to experiment.

Working with other women, looking at my own attitudes about aging and how we navigate that space and all the attendant dreads and prejudices helped me gain confidence in the person I am becoming now. I love the idea of inspiring women to transform their attitudes about aging. 

I'm quite fascinated by the fact that you're tackling two prejudices at the same time: aging and sexually active women! What have you learned so far?

I’ve discovered how closely the two are related. If women aren’t happy in this phase of life there is a far reaching impact on all aspects of their lives. We can’t really be present sexually to a partner if we are fearful of aging, embarrassed by our bodies, and concerned with growing ‘old’.

I think much of my emphasis on embracing this time of life and letting ourselves go a little is a perfect way to find more joy in our sexuality. Whether we’re using that energy to have sex with a partner/s, or simply channeling that energy for ourselves—to acknowledge and embrace our bodies and our life is to embrace the sensuous aspect as well. The myth that older women can’t be sexual needs shattering and I’m helping to create a new narrative.

Your definition "Sex is not as important as it used to be" is very clever. We have a problem we didn't know we had. Can you elaborate on this? 

Our relationship to our body and our sexuality changes as we age, in part driven by a society that treats menopause as both a medical problem and an end to our sexual desirability. So, we have to push past those stereotypes in order to figure out what we want and find positive information and resources when we have questions or concerns. 

The relationship to sex as an older woman does change, but not always in a negative way. If we tease out the areas of concern, like body image and possible hormonal changes that affect our bodies, we can comfortably explore sexual desire and find the freedom to seek out pleasure.

I’m finding great joy in my sexuality and the energy, often creative as you noted, that comes with tapping into my sexuality. And, let’s not forget the health benefits associated with sexual activity—less vaginal discomfort or atrophy, overall feelings of satisfaction and possible cognitive boosts, all backed up by research. 

I am always searching for stories of older women who are sexually active, or at the very least, still see themselves as vibrant, active people—two things that I believe go together in some ways. The same goes for my own experience. I’m almost 65 and dating a 66-year-old man. What I find most amazing about our relationship is the pleasure aspect—the delight we take in each other’s presence, in flirting and sexual play. Sex is something we both welcome and is a natural part of our relationship. I think in some ways, the sexual component of our relationship is better than that I had 25 years ago. It, he, the whole relationship makes me feel fully alive in every sense. 

What are the first changes we could make to become acquainted with pleasure again? 

Rediscover yourself and your body, think about what brings you pleasure. It could be as simple as devoting yourself to massages. When a person shuts down to sexual pleasure, whatever the reason, a gradual start might include reawakening the senses. And moving from there to self-pleasuring.

I recommend writing down what you want, what your body wants. And then giving yourself permission to want and to pursue pleasure. It can be as simple as walking barefoot in the grass, or the taste of dark chocolate mousse. A caress. We each have different ideas of what brings us pleasure and discovering those is the fun part. 

How do we transition from pleasure to sexual pleasure? 

I think the act of giving ourselves permission to feel pleasure begins to open us up. To awaken that desire in us that leads us to want more. The transition from there to sexual pleasure can start with self-pleasuring, with touching ourselves and identifying erogenous zones.

Our bodies have changed and we need to learn what turns us on at various stages in life. I think taking time on a regular basis to engage in self-pleasure is an ideal way to ease back into sexual pleasure. Washing with hands instead of a washcloth. Touching ourselves, not necessarily to orgasm, but rather to see what excites and arouses us. 

If the (re)discovery of sexuality is a journey, what are its stages? 

That’s a great question. You need to become aware of what you desire. You can begin to ask what do I like about sex, what do I want in my life right now? Who do I want to have on my journey? What do I need?

For some older women that might include a visit to their healthcare provider to make sure things are working smoothly. The next step is to self-discover. Explore your personal relationship to sexuality. Not how you are with a partner, but what your body desires. It could be compared, crassly, like taking a car for a test drive. And then, depending on how long it has been since you had sex or whether you’re currently in a sexless relationship—setting up the conditions. How do I want this to unfold? What do I need to communicate to a partner? What will make me feel safe?  And all through this process is the parallel one of creating desire. Wanting to be touched, wanting to feel pleasure.

What can sexual pleasure add to the aging process? And vice versa? 

I think sex and sexual pleasure provide us with a sense of vibrancy, of connection that is important at any age. But maybe as we become older it adds an extra bit of zest to life. If a woman is struggling with the changes aging brings, then pleasure reminds her that her body still responds to touch, the ability to have an orgasm isn’t lost. Often we think of growing older as an accumulation of losses—rather than focusing on what we’ve learned or gained and what we can continue to enjoy

Older women bring their experiences to the bed when they connect with a partner. We are likely to be more aware of what we like and what we want from an intimate partner. We’re not in a rush, or uncertain about how to ‘behave’ during sex. And, I think we find that older partners have more to offer than younger ones. Rather than that rush to climax we appreciate the sensuousness of the moment. By necessity for some adults, we can focus on more than just the mechanics of traditional intercourse.  

I think we're dealing with a paradox here: women are the caretakers in chief and then do not take care of themselves. What would you tell to women who feel that sexual pleasure is not for them anymore?  

Why not? Are there fears? Physiological issues that could be addressed? And, in a way, I think we have to see ourselves as worthy of receiving, rather than always giving. Sometimes it’s about permission. Permission to be sexual, to not follow the norm. Permission to crave something for ourselves. To be naughty, if that’s part of the equation. To feel desired and desirable.

I’d ask women to take an honest look at their life and relationships. Is she totally content without sex? Can she imagine what it might be like to have intimate kisses, touches, to feel that connection with a partner? And I would also say that it’s not an absolute necessity, but it does make life a bit more fun—alone or with a partner. There are proven benefits to having sex. Orgasms make us feel good and some research on the hormone, oxytocin, has shown a reduction in pain. Studies of married older couples have found a correlation between cognitive health and sexually active adults: cognitive scores were consistently higher in those who are sexually active compared to those who are not.

We are used to the media pressure on a certain standard of looking. How can women deal with their concerns for their look when it comes to sexual pleasure?  

For so many women the idea of what is sexy, or appealing is internalized and as we add on ageist beliefs we can get very uncomfortable with our bodies. There are two parts to this—one is an ongoing effort to love ourselves as we are now. The skin that is no longer as taut, the sagging that occurs, these are inevitable. So, we work at accepting and learning to appreciate the body we live in right this moment.

Secondly, we can minimize possible discomfort by creating an environment that allows us to feel more at ease during sex. If we’re self-conscious about our tummy or breasts, then try having sex in a camisole top that enhances our features while possibly camouflaging others.

I think that most older men are not looking at a woman’s body with the critical eye we turn on ourselves. And, let’s also remember that our partner is likely to bring his/her own body image concerns to intimate moments as well. 

When we talk about sexual pleasure there are some related issues: self-pleasure, relationships, sex orientation. What suggestions would you give to navigate these challenges? 

I think self-pleasure is a wonderful tool for women, partnered or not. Pleasure isn’t only for those in marriages or relationships—why not treat ourselves to sexual pleasure? As I said before, it is helpful for our vaginal health to keep blood flowing to vaginal tissues, in much the same way that we want to focus on circulation in other parts to the body. And, by self-pleasuring you learn about your body’s capacity for pleasure and gain information that can help a partner learn how you like to be pleasured. 

Relationships have their ups and downs and working to maintain sexual desire can take work. Planning for sex, taking time to cuddle, and show affection or even, for some couples, exploring other relationships simultaneously. There are plenty of options for how we seek companionship and pleasure—that may include being open to same-sex relationships if that’s appealing. I see no reason for us to limit what we do when it comes to living our life, enjoying intimacy or expressing ourselves. It’s long past time for us to worry about fitting in, playing it safe or being concerned about the opinions of others. So why not—to all of this.