Big open windows bring the sunset into the room as women of all ages trickle into their seats, avocado toast and rosé in their hands, excited whispers filling the space. The vibes are a cross between the first few moments of a book club and a high school slumber party — which makes sense since I’m at Dame’s offices for an event about sex and age.
According to a survey the company conducted, about 40% of people who said they use a toy while masturbating are over forty (fun fact: 6% of this demographic has owned over 21 vibrators in their lifetime).
And while most of us really don’t like thinking about our parents as sexual beings (Mom uses a vibrator? Ewww), the reason we exist in the first place is because our parents got it on — with some science-related exceptions, of course.
So if this is the case, why aren’t we seeing women with glorious eye wrinkles and graying hair gracing the cover of Playboy or on ads for sex toys or in more porn?
The answer to most of these questions is simple: the patriarchy!
Breaking that down can be a bit trickier, and while I’ll save my thoughts on youth and rigid beauty standards as sexual currency (and sexual currency as the only currency women have been afforded in this society) for another think-piece, it is an important point to mention because this is the world we’ve all grown up in.
Under the patriarchy, we’ve also all been taught a very binary and one-track view of sex. The state of our sex education in this country is Penis in Vagina equals Sex. Sex equals Pregnancy and Risk For Infection, so don’t have it.
But what if your flavor of sex looks different? What if you’re postmenopausal? What if your penis-having partner has ED? What if you’re not a straight heterosexual couple in their twenties?
Well Dame’s research stats don’t lie and we all get old (if we’re lucky) — so where is anyone talking about aging and sex?
Not many places.
Nina Lorez Collins, one of the evening’s panelists, didn’t know either, so she wrote a book, What Would Virginia Woolf Do?, and started a Facebook group for women over forty — which now has close to 20,000 community members — to talk about it.
Fast forward to the end of the evening’s conversation, where the panelists ask the audience why they showed up and one woman raises her hand.
“I’m divorced and sexless.”
Everyone cheers. This woman would now leave and be able to put everything she had just learned into practice. “I’m part of the Woolfers community!” she exclaims. Two women behind her excitedly share that they are too, big smiles breaching their faces.
The importance of connecting to people with shared experience is a big topic of discussion throughout the evening. Most conversation around sex is centered around twenty and thirty-year olds, not leaving much room for the exploration of navigating sex with a changing body.
And change it does.
“Menopause impacts everything,” says Dr. Laura Corio, OB/GYN, another panelist. “It impacts every part of your body. You talk about vaginal dryness, the vagina changing, the uterus changing, your libido changing, your responsiveness, pain during intercourse. Everything.”
“But it’s not all bad!” Collins chimes in.
So what are some of the best things about aging and sexuality?
“When you’re young, like your age,” Nina points to some women in the crowd, “your vagina is nice and pink and fluffy. And when you’re in your forties and fifties, it basically starts to turn gray.”
The audience boos.
“The good news is, there’s a lot that you can do about it,” she continues. “You can use topical estrogen, and the number one thing you have to do is use a lot of lube. Lube becomes your friend like you’ve never imagined when you’re twenty-five. I slather coconut oil on my vagina every single day. So I’m fine!”
Coconut oil and lube. Noted.
And yet the good news isn’t just about learning to manage the physical changes that are to come, but embracing the confidence and emotional maturity during intimate encounters that tends to increase as one gets older.
Most of the women in Collins’ group are “are having great sex, they know what they want, they know how to ask for it.”
Shadeen Francis, a sex therapist and the third panelist of the night, agrees.
“When people come to see me, they’re very clear on what it is that isn’t working, which we don’t always know when we’re younger,” she says. “Am I having an orgasm? How much hair is too much hair? We eventually stop asking those questions. We sort of decide at one point in time how much effort we’re willing to put in, the degree to which we’re willing to be vulnerable or not, here are the things that feel good, here are the things that don’t.”
She adds, “I have no time for sex that sucks.”
It’s a good reminder for anyone at any age, and if you don’t know what you do or don’t like yet, there’s no better way to learn than with yourself.
“Masturbation is a health-maintaining practice,” Francis says. “So if you ever needed permission to do it, there you go. Now you have it.”
“Everyone says ‘if you don’t use it, you lose it,’ but the truth of it is, if you are not currently having sexual activity while you’re going into perimenopause and menopause, it really affects your vagina,” says Dr. Corio. “So masturbating with Fin is great, because it gets your juices going.” Who knew we needed another excuse?
By the end of the evening, it felt like the room had gone through some sort of subtle, yet sexy, initiation. The energy is buzzing and the change in the crowd is easily recognizable as new confidence. The younger women feel confident with the knowledge about their bodies’ future, while the older women keep turning to each other, confident in sharing with their newfound community. A daughter and her mother sit in the front row and hug.
As the sun sets beyond the industrial windows, avocado toast eaten and rosé sipped, the room feels lighter, the heavy fog of societal shame and confusion lifted. A room filled with women sharing the secrets that they should never have been burdened with in the first place. A room filled with all the space to finally talk about them.