Fulfilling Sexual Potential in the Second Half of Life
Sexual desire and pleasure is our birthright. After all, we were created naked and with different genitals. There must have been a plan in mind. We are sexual beings from the day we're born until the day we die. Sex is fundamental to our lives and seems to be the area of life that most deeply touches our most personal issues. Our sexuality is a core expression of who we are. We can hide with sex, we can hide from sex, but we cannot be fully ourselves sexually and hide.
Why have sex? Well, it is well known that sex enhances our lives in multiple ways, both psychologically and physically.
Health benefits include lower blood pressure, overall stress reduction, higher levels of antibodies so fewer colds and flews, burns calories, good exercise, improves cardiovascular health, boosts self-esteem, releases endorphins which makes physical pain decline and helps lift depression; reduces risk of prostate cancer; promotes sleep.
Interpersonally, good sex may be only 20% of a good relationship (80% when it's bad), but it's a crucial 20%. Orgasm increases the level of oxytocin, a hormone that allows us to nurture and to bond. Hence, sex increases love and connection even on a purely biological basis. Sex is an arena that is particular and special to a couple. We let ourselves be known to our sexual partner in a way that we don't share with anyone else.
A couple who has a satisfying sex life is more able to create and sustain a long-term loving relationship. It is well known that people in stable relationships are thought to be more productive in their jobs, have better health and live longer.
The most rewarding sexual experiences are much more rich, diverse, and creative than the "get it up, get it in" approach. And sexual responsiveness has absolutely nothing to do with being able to meet the culture's prototype of sexual attractiveness. Rather, it grows from connections of hearts, minds, and bodies. Truly good sex begins with a willingness to be open and vulnerable and to give and receive pleasure and nurturing freely. The psychological ability to share intimacy, both physical and emotional, is essential for good sex, but being intimate (as we'll discuss later) is an art that confuses and even terrifies many individuals.
Good sex, then, is a complex concoction of openness and secrecy, risk and control, personal satisfaction and mutual fulfillment. Good sex requires an ability to be totally immersed in the moment (which is difficult for most people), ever-present to the sensuality of ourselves, our partner and our lives.
Sustaining a healthy, balanced sex life requires mindful attention to our senses, to the physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual dimensions of ourselves, as well as our relationship with our partners. We must KNOW OURSELVES ("KNOW THYSELF") to know what we want and need sexually. Then we need to have the courage and self-assurance to communicate these desires to our partner, even in the face of possible rejection. Also, we need to have relinquished some of the layers of narcissistic self-consciousness that, when young, may have prevented us from being truly attuned to another person's reality and needs.
What I'm saying is: good sex requires PSYCHOLOGICAL MATURITY (which we all have because we've lived for a while now and have learned some things along the way.).
Mature lovers are more likely to experience not just satisfying sex, but are more likely to experience sexual ecstasy. Certain states may occur in sex where the boundaries of self are suspended in merger with the "other". This kind of, well, self-transcendence, can open the channels to experiencing a sense of a broader, more universal connection.
Let's see what the dictionary says about "ecstasy": rapturous delight; intense joy; mental transport or rapture from the contemplation of divine things; displacement; trance; a shared sense of being taken or moved out of one's self or one's normal state, and entering a state of intensified feelings so powerful as to produce a trance-like dissociation from all but the single powerful emotion; this trance or rapture is associated with mystical exaltation.
Eastern societies routinely equate sexual ecstasy with spiritual enlightenment. Only in Western civilizations is there a chasm between sex and God.
So, it's all good, right? Everything from lowering your blood pressure to experiencing mystical exaltation points to the fact that sex is a good thing.
But if it's such a good thing, why are so many people not having sex?..or are subject to various sexual dysfunctions, compulsions or perversions?
The fact is that few of us will ever seize the opportunity to explore the full range of our sexual possibilities. One writer I read referred to those who achieve the heights of sexual fulfillment as "the blessed few".
Why so few? According to a recent survey, one in five Americans is not interested in sex. According to recent estimates, more than one-third of the women in the United States have problems with low sexual desire. Even this statistic may be low, as people may be embarrassed to respond to the interviewer honestly. "Diminished sexual desire" in women, considered by some to be an epidemic, is the diagnosis "du jour" for many sex researchers and therapists.
The loss of sexual desire can undermine a person's perception of herself, her relationship to her body and may cause an irreparable strain in her relationship. Chances are if her excitement for sex is diminished, her excitement for life in general is somehow compromised.
So why are there only the "blessed few"? One in five is "not interested"???? A third to a half of American women has no desire for sex???? What's wrong with this picture? Why are so few people actually interested in having sex, exploring it, heightening it?
There are many, many reasons that people eschew sexual pleasure.
First, there are societal/cultural/religious influences. We live in a sex-negative culture. For instance, most Western societies do not support sexual education and development. Parents are still battling to eliminate whatever beleaguered sex education courses are offered in the schools (which, by the way, focus on procreation exclusively), stating that educating children about sex is the purview of the home. Yet, in the homes, silence is the order of the day and kids are still left to figure it out for themselves.
When children are left to their own devices, they are subjected to misinformation from peers and their own fantasies about what sex is. If they become fixated at these levels, there's more of a chance that they'll grow up with certain sexual problems. (perversions, dysfunctions and compulsions)
Western culture has historically done much to harm sexuality. Vestiges of the Victorian and Puritan eras, with their emphasis on exclusively procreative sex and discomfort with the idea of sexual pleasure, still resonate with many people, at least on an unconscious level. Sex is evil; sex is sin and eternal damnation.
Today, we have the "free love" of the 70's behind us, a growing understanding of sexuality in the mental health field, the significance of the women's movement and the impact of the communications industry which have combined to break down some barriers to sexual understanding. But we STILL live in a sex-negative culture. The sexual terrain of our times, especially after AIDS, is filled with fear, uncertainty and reactivity - for "normal" people, never mind neurotics, homosexuals, alternative sexualities (BDSM), cross-dressers, people who embrace polyamory rather than monogamy,-- AND for the baby-boomers who are trying to forge a new paradigm for sexy aging. We still get mixed messages from the culture about sex. We're still confused. "Sex is dirty, save it for someone you love." Does sex have to be illicit for it to be good? Sex belongs as part of a committed relationship, which connotes high values but low passion. Honor and virtue do not seem to combine well with hot, trembling, lusty sex. Men in this culture still suffer from the "Madonna/Whore Complex". Some men choose both but will have to be dishonest about it, thus making a tear in the fabric of the integrity of their primary relationship.
Then there's the societal influence of new technology. The permeating influence of cybersex/pornography on men's ability to attach and bond to a real, vital woman is a significant barrier to sexual intimacy. Divorce attorneys from the American Bar Association report that a whopping 50% of all divorces are the result of the husband's addiction to cybersex - that is -- pornography, chat rooms, webcam sex, ads for prostitutes, dominatrixes, female bondage and humiliation, the fetish of your choice.
Women, for their part, are encouraged to adorn themselves to be sexually desirable, but not to be sexual. In their historical roles as the guardians of morality, they fail as women if they "succumb" to their (base) sexual natures and allow for the experience of sexual pleasure. Religious traditions have, in fact, been part of this split way of understanding sexuality. The idea of sex as sin outside of marriage and sex as duty inside of marriage is still alive in the collective unconscious and has gone far to undermine the acceptance of sexual pleasure as normal and healthy. These antiquated ideas that there is something morally perverse about a woman who enjoys sex are cultural imprints that unconsciously paralyze many women when they try to experience their sexual selves.
It seems to me that the media, as the messenger of cultural values, promotes the image of an anorexic teenager as representing the height of sexual desirability. Can't be too thin or too young (within legal limits) to have sex appeal. People are then obsessed with living up to this unrealistic standard for physical beauty being piped through the media. Women compare themselves to the unattainable, develop poor body images, and lose interest in sex.
(Ironically, physical beauty and sexual responsiveness are not interrelated. The fact is that superficial variables such as weight, age, height, facial structure OR the size of a penis make very little difference when it comes to a person's ability to be sexually responsive and experience sexual passion.)
Our society also buys into the notion that good sex always involves intercourse and orgasm by both partners, preferably at the same time. This approach to sexuality is restrictive and unrealistic, especially as we get older. As I've mentioned, sexuality is a much broader arena than getting it up, keeping it up and getting it in. An emphasis on intercourse and orgasm strengthens the misconception men have that women need to be desirable and men need to perform. Performance anxiety and sexual dysfunction are the usual results of an exclusively intercourse/orgasm approach to sex. Furthermore, the focus on genital sex exclusively limits the full range of sexual/sensual dimensions that can be experienced in addition to, or instead of, intercourse.
Some people have "intrapsychic" conflicts about sexuality from having grown up with dysfunctional family dynamics. I don't even want to think about the rampant sexual abuse of young females where the perpetrator is the father or other close family member. It doesn't get reported, the rest of the family denies it, and the girl suffers in agonizing isolation, thinking it was her fault, until adulthood when she may get some treatment. Certain young boys are covertly incested by their mothers: there may not have been actual sex, but the mother may have been needy, narcissistic, enmeshed, over-involved, controlling and unable to let her son "differentiate" to become the individual that he should become. These boys may grow to be men with sexual problems.
However, the vast majority of sexual "shut-downs" comes from interpersonal conflicts between the partners. Anger, resentment guilt, hurt feelings, being shut-down and non-communicative are not the stuff upon which sexual fulfillment is built.
I think relationships go bad (and sex shuts down) (cite divorce rates) because the vast majority of people have misconceptions about love and intimacy. Yet, understanding intimacy is crucial to our understanding of hot and sweaty, yet warm and tender lovemaking. Sex is, by definition, an intimate act that is enhanced by the lovers knowing themselves and the other. If lovers are not able to know and disclose their deepest needs and wants to each other, sex becomes mechanical. This kind of knowing and communicating about wants, needs and fantasies requires a foundation of trust and safety that can be found in a loving relationship.
(A caveat - I have no problem with casual sex, booty calls, friends with benefits, or even "kinky" sex that's not part of a primary relationship. This kind of sex can be fun and satisfying (depending on whether you respect each other), but it's something altogether different than sex in a loving, monogamous relationship.) Many people think of intimacy in terms of sentimentality or romanticism. To do so is to falsify it. "Being in love" is also a falsification of intimacy.
"Being in love" is a really a temporary state of insanity. Each person projects his/her own personal relationship agenda (established in childhood) on the other without having any real, knowledge of the other. Inevitably, the honeymoon is over, or people fall "out of love", and disillusionment sets in. We do not want to give up our fantasy and grow into the reality of actually loving the person "as is". At this point, either the relationship breaks off or the couple starts to work on building a relationship based in knowing the reality of each other.
People have all sorts of misconceptions about what "love" means. Love can mean sundry, ambiguous, neurotic and even evil things to some: Caring for, rescuing, infatuation with, dependence on, feeling close to, sacrificing for, being a martyr to, being sexually excited by, having a "trophy partner", having control over another, being controlled by another, marrying someone who's somewhat like you're abusive mother in order to finally get her to change, the need for validation and admiration from the other, or the vilely self-destructive idea that love means pain - either from physical or emotional abuse.
These kinds of ill-conceived notions about love create plastic, destructive relationships in which intimacy cannot exist. These relationships can be used to manipulate others, to get our own narcissistic needs met at the expense of the other, and are in the service of other nefarious, unconscious, neurotic conflicts. Celebratory sex can't exist in a plastic, alienated relationship because sex at it's fullest requires us to authentic and connected with our lover.
So what is love? "I love you" means something very concrete. It means that I surround you with a feeling that allows you, even requires you, to be everything you really are as a human being at that moment. When my love is full, you are your fullest self. I experience you not as what I expect, not what I want, not as a mannequin upon which I cloche my unconscious, infantile, needs to have a parent and remain a child. You don't need to reflect well on me. You are not my status symbol. You are, to me.your authentic self.
We love when we not only allow, but enable, enhance and enjoy the "otherness" of our partner.
Being loved, being moved by another's acceptance into knowing ourselves as we really are may bring trouble, actually. The result of knowing what issues you have that impair productivity and intimacy may be painful, but it can be worked through. We grow with it. It is in human-to-human relationships that we learn, make mistakes and relearn. And the primary intimate/sexual relationship is where we can relearn most profoundly.
Love shatters roles and facades and is illuminative. The confirmation that you are loved lies in your increasing experience of being who you are. Love is unilateral.self as the one who loves actively, not so much the self who is in need of love passively. Real love requires no particular response from the other, so there is freedom of self expression without fear of disapproval or rejection. It is the fear of being alone (or being abandoned) that makes us dependent on the response of others, keeping us from experiencing authentic, real loving. Let's look at the word "intimacy". Again, from the dictionary: the word is derived from the Latin intima, meaning "inner" or "inner-most." Here again, it suggests that to be intimate, you need to know your real self. (KNOW THYSELF!!!) This ability to be in touch with our inner core is a requisite to being intimate.
Our intima holds the innermost part of ourselves, our most profound feelings, our enduring motivations, our values, our sense of right and wrong and our most embedded convictions about life. Importantly, our intima also includes that which enables us to express these innermost aspects of our person to "the other".
So, to be in relationship, and to know yourself/your partner sexually, you need to know and respect your intima. The intima is also the way in which we value and esteem ourselves and determines how we are with being with others. To put it simply, if don't value yourself, you can't value another. If you're not aware of needs and wants, or are shamed by them, then sex becomes no more than a fuck.
I think every person I've ever seen in my consulting room for sexual compulsions suffers from estrangement from his intimus. We can survive the disapproval of others. The feeling can be painful, but it's nothing compared to the disapproval of ourselves. Your personal well being and your ability to love another cannot survive your dislike or disrespect of yourself. If you dislike yourself, you'll never be comfortable with your sexuality. It bears repeating. the outstanding quality of intimacy is the sense of being in touch with our real selves. When "the other" also knows and is able to express his real self, intimacy happens. Sexuality is both an expression of that intimacy and a bond that enhances intimacy. With this kind of personal/sexual intimacy, our growth experience as humans is energized, enhanced, and fueled. Intimacy is the most meaningful and courageous of human experiences. It's why people long for it so.
However, despite this universal longing, the fear and avoidance of intimacy is a reality for many people. People fear and even dread that which they most long for. No wonder there's such a demand for psychotherapists! So why would people fear, avoid or sabotage this wonderful thing called intimacy and, in the process, avoid sex. Our capacity for intimacy is formed in the crucible of the first two years of life. Mothers that are needy, narcissistic, depressed, enmeshed (over-involved), distant, too protective, controlling, chronically angry, addicted to substances, frustrated with their husbands and displace their needs onto their children. raise children who have the psychic imprint of closeness as being dangerous. They also raise children who will carry self-hatred into their adult lives unless they get good treatment.
As children, they developed a rigid defense system (boundaries, walls, turning inward to not need others) in order to psychologically survive. But what worked for them as children doesn't work for them as adults. For these people, the vulnerability of intimacy harkens back to a time when they were vulnerable as children and they fear re-traumatization in their current relationship.
When a person like this is loved - seen in an affirmative light and encouraged to grow and change - this rigid defensive structure is threatened, so their psychological equilibrium is disrupted. Being loved is not congruent with the negative tapes they run about themselves. They can't allow the reality of being loved to affect their basic defensive structure. Being vulnerable and open to change feels so threatening that they eschew close relationships and mature sexuality.
Entering into a relationship without having some resolution of childhood wounds results in various kinds of fear of intimacy: fear of being found inadequate, fear of engulfment, fear of the loss of control, fear of losing autonomy, fear of attack, fear of disappointment and betrayal, fear of guilt and fear of rejection and abandonment. This panoply of fears and anxieties about being close and vulnerable definitely is not sexy. We are most open and vulnerable when we express ourselves sexually and we need to have a secure base in ourselves and our relationship to expose ourselves in this way.
Alright. Now let's get to the nitty-gritty. Sex and aging.
Some of those "not interested" in sex may very well be the middle-aged and the elderly. They've bought into the myth that we're supposed to stop being sexual after a certain age. The fact is, as we mature emotionally and psychologically throughout the lifespan, we mature sexually as well. We can look forward to the best years of our sexual lives because of that maturity. People under the age of 35 may look hot, but they rarely have the psychological maturity to achieve the kind of self-knowledge, intimacy skills, communication skills and willingness to be vulnerability that underlies intense sexuality.
In order to achieve sexual fulfillment as we grow older, we have to nullify - negate - disown and disbelieve - the sex-negative cultural myths about sexuality and aging. Let's look at some of those myths now.
~ The quality of sex declines for both men and women as they age.
~ If a woman does not lubricate sufficiently or a man does not become erect immediately, it's over for them.
~ Erection problems are inevitable and incurable without medical intervention
~ Female desire declines dramatically after menopause.
~ Men peek in their teens.then it's all downhill.
~ Women peak in their 30's and lose interest in sex by 45-50.
~ Men and women with heart disease or other medical problems should avoid sexual activity
~ Sex has to end in orgasm
~ Intercourse is the only kind of sex that counts; everything else isn't sex.
Those are the myths. But here's what I think: older loves are more sophisticated about their own/their partners needs, have an increased ability to communicate sexual and emotional needs; there is improved sexual responsiveness in women and a corresponding improved ability to control ejaculation in men; a greater willingness to experiment with sexual variations; far greater technical proficiency as lovers with fewer inhibitions and an increased ability to have fun during lovemaking.
Sex need never disappear and orgasm in both men and women has been observed in the 9th decade. Sex is different as we age and those who are able to retain a sense of sexual vitality are those who are able to integrate their altered and somewhat diminished, but by no means vanished, sexuality comfortably into their lives. Men, especially, tend to leave the sexual arena because these differences create frustration and anxiety. They compare themselves to their adolescent selves and feel defeated. The vast majority of sexual complaints of the elderly are a product of the person's aversive psychological reaction to the normal age-related biological changes in sexual response.
Men change with age in that the frequency and intensity of orgasm diminishes. It takes a much longer time to up for "round two". Older men no longer experience simultaneous erection, unlike much younger men who seem to be able to get it up just by.exposure to the air. By contrast, the older man needs to receive effective stimulation by his partner and then is perfectly able to attain erections. Women, after menopause, may be less able to lubricate as freely as they once did. That doesn't mean they're no longer sexually responsive. All that is required is a sexual lubricate (I recommend Astrogel), and they remain capable of multiple orgasmic response throughout life. Here's a list of Hot Sex Tips, according to Dorothy.
~ Don't wait to be moved by desire or interest - allow yourself to be aroused and the desire will follow.
~ Do consider some systematic way to relax and calm yourself before a sexual encounter. Anxiety is a killer of "in the moment" eroticism.
~ Speaking of "in the moment", do consider taking up some form of meditation that trains the mind to be focused on the present moment. The mind that is continually wandering to mundane life issues during sex will not be able to experience full sexual potential. (cite books) Being fully in the moment also reduces "spectering", which is watching and evaluating your performance, which reducing the intensity of sexual experience.
~ Do continue to cultivate your sexual skills and techniques. (Cite certain readings from the list).
~ People, as they age, do experience fewer sexual fantasies, thoughts and interest. So it's important to experiment with alternative (external) ways to become aroused. Different postures, sexual techniques, erotic films and videos, the use of sex toys, all result in a more imaginative and creative sex life.
~ Do eat nutritionally and exercise - feeling vigorous helps your sex life immeasurably.
~ Do not smoke or drink alcohol excessively. A minimum amount of booze (no more than two drinks a day) can be an aphrodisiac: too much makes you loose (or placid and soft) and can ruin your erectile functioning. Smoking also effects erectile functioning in later years.
In conclusion, I invite you to meet the challenge of mature sexual intimacy, and to be and remain.the erotic, celebratory, courageous and connected person that you're meant to be.
Dorothy Hayden, LCSW, is a Manhattan-based psycho-sexual therapist.
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