Initial pain and embarrassing discomfort can lead to unexpected, mind-blowing pleasure if greeted with patience and loving, trusting affection.
It happened in on a long drive across the desert when I was four years old. I had to go to the bathroom, the next gas station was miles away and I refused to go on the side of the road. My mother told me to pull my panties up tight in my crotch to help hold in the pee. Wow wee! Thus began a nightly exploration of the electrically charged button between my legs. As the years passed, I added sexual scenarios to my mastery of those exciting and soothing sensations. My best friend’s discovery of her mother’s hidden stash of True Confessions and her father’s collection of Playboy stored under the bed added to the repertoire. My friend and I “fooled around,” excited by the forbidden secrets. Shame was the threat. But it sure felt good. Over sixty years later, it still feels good.
My mother, long divorced, wheelchair-bound and on oxygen would have me go to The Body Shop where I could buy her Mango Butter, the coconut-rich cream she found most suitable for masturbation and now preferred instead of her old stand-by, Vaseline. Accompanying her on many doctor’s visits, I would also be in charge of explaining her adamant decision to avoid taking an SSRI for her depression because it cut down on her ability to give herself an orgasm. She was considered an old woman. The doctors’ response to her stubborn stance ranged from mild amusement to incredulity and disgust. She refused to feel shame. Some things, both pleasure and comfort, like coffee and cookies, she refused to give up. I get it. Simple pleasures and comforts make the hard stuff worth doing.
Sexual aliveness does not have an automatic “sell by” date. Our concept of pleasure and comfort evolves and expands from childhood’s breast-sucking, ice cream-licking, hug seeking, pantie-pulling desires to satisfying and loving sexual connections with other pleasure and comfort-seeking adults. But life can lead in another direction. My husband I are both psychotherapists and see couples as a couple. We know that sexual aliveness can wither from shame and confusion or lack of opportunity, attention, skill and trust. Wounding experiences and distorting beliefs can lead to toxic behaviors that poison rather than nourish, disconnecting the person from others and their own vitality. Resigned acceptance of diminished aliveness evolves into entrenched habits of denial. Life can seem a determined march across a landscape of expectations and responsibilities. We lose touch with curiosity and delight. The desire for pleasure and physical connection gets shoved into a dark closet. But, like a plant seeking sun, we grow towards those surprising cracks where the light gets in.
My prim and proper, Southern lady, ninety-four-year old paternal grandmother got nabbed in the nursing home for “inappropriate behavior” when her hand got stuck down the pants of her “beau.” They were an item on the floor for mild dementia and she told me with adorable coyness when I brushed her hair and helped her dress that she liked to look nice for her “admirer.” Smitten, he would maneuver to sit next to her in the common room, tell her she was beautiful and help her with her walker. At mealtimes she’d give him her olives. They were found more than once in each other’s rooms awkwardly attempting to add skin contact to their passionate embraces. I was called in by the staff and told that they would be kept separate via vigilant chaperoning since their behavior was both unseemly and against the rules. I argued on their behalf to no avail. Isolated from that spark of aliveness, my grandmother and her beau sank further into a despondent fog of dementia. One day she cried, “Why am I still here?” There were no more reasons for her to be alive.
When I was approaching the dreaded “change,” I wrote a paper entitled, “Embracing the Crone Through the Fire of Menopause.” My friends were aghast and declared they were going to do everything possible to forestall the inevitable witchy identity. “But post-menopausal can be incredibly sexy!” I argued. “In Celtic tribes the women past child-bearing age were in charge of sexually initiating the young men. The seasoned women were considered experts and their tutelage cut down on young bucks impregnating young virgins not ready to be mothers.” My friends were not convinced.
There are many ways to dance the energetic whirl we call “life” that lead to joy and satisfaction. Our dance of aliveness manifests through what we do and how we connect to other forms of aliveness. Sexual aliveness is not dependent on attractiveness to another human, yet that quality is recognizable to others. It can be culturally confusing to feel attracted to the twinkle in the eye of the exuberant and emotionally warm older man or woman. Age is not a factor. Our spirit responds to those whose vitality shines through the outer cloak of body. The trick is to stay fully alive while you are alive. The years pass fast.
I’m lucky. I know that. Only a decade younger than when my mother died, I have an abundance of what makes my life worth living. I like, love, respect and desire my husband. He tells me (often) that he feels the same way towards me. We work together and have fun together. Even though our lives are busy and our bodies have been around for nearly seven decades, we enjoy the happy dance of a satisfying and passionate sex life. A harmonious and emotionally nourishing relationship requires two people committed to addressing old traumas, ingrained habits and misguided and overactive defenses that shut down vulnerability and awareness. What we say and what we do either reinforce the old useless and destructive behaviors or enliven our emotional and energetic ties. A relationship generously salted with affection, appreciation and regular acts of courtship creates an environment conducive for the delicious sharing of exciting and satisfying sexual pleasures. Kitchen hugs, garden kisses, hands held and dishes washed, all count.
“The raisin experience” is often part of an introduction to mindfulness and holds the key to great sex – no matter the age. Here’s the deal: the mindfulness teacher tells everyone to close their eyes and hold out their tongue where an unknown object will be placed (it is a raisin). They are instructed to at first do nothing but consider the object on his or her or their tongue. Then, with intense focus, slowly roll the object with the tongue, taking in all the qualities, letting go of all judgment. Next, gently squeeze the object between teeth and focus on the flavorful juice emitted. With the tongue, push the object to the roof of the palate and observe both texture and taste. Explore the object slowly and mindfully, letting go of judgment. When random thoughts drift in, return focus to the physical sensations of the raisin, each chew carefully noted, the interaction between object and mouth observed. Eventually only the taste is left. Hold that awareness until no flavor is discerned. This process can take quite a long time. There is no rush. The point is to experience each moment with curiosity and appreciation, not critical analysis. Even if you think you don’t like raisins. (I didn’t). Let go of previous associations. Be vulnerable, open to surprise.
When treating a body part like a raisin, you might want to be careful what you chomp. But the idea is the same. Let go of judgment and previous associations as much as possible. Focus intensely on the physical aspect of the touching body parts as you adventure. Rediscover that initial sensation of “Wow wee!” and don’t be afraid to say “Ouch!” A playful, inquisitive child-mind helps to dispel the cultural filters embedded with images of what we should look like and feel like as well as past sexual experiences that can crowd out and distort the present moment.
Be vulnerable, open to surprise. Dry vulvas and soft penises can be coaxed into having a lot of fun. Initial pain and embarrassing discomfort can lead to unexpected, mind-blowing pleasure if greeted with patience and loving, trusting affection. Happy, mindful sex works well when there is a pleasure-giver and pleasure-getter in the first act, roles are reversed in the second act and in the third act it’s “Let’s all come together! Right now!” Make dates to be spontaneous. Yes. Use it or lose it but “lost” doesn’t mean gone forever. Don't wait until after dinner. Be daring. Engage all the senses. Mix candles and music, showers and baths, scents and silks or whatever turns you on, with gusto and a sense of humor. Coconut oil works if you can’t find Mango Butter. Welcome the opportunity to explore inner and outer landscapes. A raisin is never too wrinkly. Neither are our bodies. Alone or with someone else - enjoy!
This piece was originally published as a chapter in Every Body: An Open and Honest Look at Sex from Every Angle by Julia Rothman.
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