Sex Matters for Women A Complete Guide to Taking Care of Your Sexual Self
By Sallie Foley Sally A. Kope Dennis P. Sugrue
The Guilford Press Copyright © 2002 The Guilford Press
All right reserved. ISBN: 1-57230-641-6
Chapter One Adult Sexuality: A Lifelong Story
From the first days of life to the threshold of adulthood, your developing sense of who you are included what the world expected of you as a female. As you grew into your body and began to have sexual experiences, your values and your sexual interests emerged and your sexual story took shape. But your sexual story didn't end when you reached adulthood, and it doesn't close with marriage, divorce, menopause, or even old age. It is a lifelong story, made up of your ongoing discoveries about what it means to be a sexual person. No matter what your age, the ending has yet to be written.
You can spend your entire life capable of sexual response, pleasure, and enjoyment. To what extent, and in what ways, you fulfill the promise of your adult sexuality is up to you. You are the author of your sexual story, and if you are dissatisfied with any aspect of this personal narrative, you have the opportunity to revise the chapter you re living right now and supply your story with a new, more fulfilling ending. To do so, you have to review and reflect on the chapters you have already written from your childhood and the years ofadulthood you have lived so far.
You may believe you know these chapters by heart after all, you lived them. Just as reciting the words of a poem is not the same as understanding its many layers meaning, being able to list the sexual experiences of your life isn't the same as fully understanding how they brought you to where you are today. Many women tend to take only a glancing look at their sexual past, moving on to other thoughts when their memories evoke a chiding response of Girl, what were you thinking of?, or a wistful nostalgia for passion lost, or an echo of pain at trust betrayed. Looking more closely at how your experiences, sexual and otherwise, have shaped your current sexuality is an important key to guiding your sexual growth in the direction that is best for you. Looking forward, anticipating how various life events might affect your sexuality, can also help you meet challenges and opportunities with an insight that will contribute to lifelong healthy sexuality.
The discoveries that women have shared with us about the events that influence their sexual growth are as individual and unique as their faces and personalities.
The first time I ever had sexual intercourse, I was ready and the timing was just right for me. I felt this curious mix of being in charge and being utterly at sea. I thought everything would come naturally and that I d be awash with wanting, but it wasn't like that. I felt self-conscious because I wasn't acting like the women I d seen in the movies making love. Now I think that the newness and the unfamiliarity of intercourse made me self-conscious. Being lovers takes practice. I didn't know that then, but I wish I had.
I learned about one sexual myth the hard way. It had been fed to me with my cereal and trotted out with my Barbie dolls. It was that there would be a perfect Ken for me. He would read my mind and know exactly what I needed sexually. I married Ken all right, and then spent years withdrawing sexually and feeling resentful because he didn't make sex work for me. We went to counseling, and I was smug at first, certain the counselor would join me in putting the responsibility onto Ken. She didn't. It was hard, but I learned how to be responsible for myself. Now I grieve about the years that were lost to both of us because of my ridiculous dependency, entitlement, and resentment.
As you read this chapter, we hope you'll be moved to explore your sexuality in your present life as well as in your past. If you discover you have led your life as if sexuality were something you could shrug off like an unneeded sweater, we hope you will reconsider and find a prominent place for sexuality in your life. The women we know whose sexuality is an integral part of who they are and what they experience lead the full, vibrant lives that we wish for you.
Over the years I've read many books about menopause. As a result, I grew to respect my body just as it is. I walk with a confidence that I never had in my youth. I am as sexual as anyone I meet. My body is far from perfect, but I have lived and loved in it for decades, and I carry that with me wherever I am.
I'm a nurse. I know the healing benefits of touch. I sometimes marvel at how wonderful hands are: they comfort, connect, reassure, and sexually arouse, too. To me all of these things are connected to my sexuality as a woman.
It took some doing, but I got all three kids off to a sleep-over. Carlos and I had a whole night together and it was terrific! Yes, it took planning, but so does everything else in a life as busy as ours. If we're going to have a sex life together, we have to be intentional about planning it. Wild abandon is not for a working mother with three kids unless she schedules it!
Unfortunately, even in our enlightened age, many women think of sexuality as a series of disconnected, discrete behaviors. Women have sex, they act sexy, and they think about sex at various times during any one day. But sexuality is not something that we turn on and off, like a tap. We are sexual beings all the time, and the more we understand about how this facet intertwines with all the others, the richer our lives become.
Just as sexuality is connected to all that we are at any one time, it is also an important part of us throughout life's stages. Each stage of life is comprised of interlocking experiences and biological changes that influence sexuality. The burst of hormones you felt during puberty and adolescence transformed your childhood sexual curiosity to a strong fascination and a desire to explore all that is sensual. The emancipation that you felt when you graduated from high school and moved out on your own led you to look for new relationships, including sexual ones. Your biological clock may have influenced your timing for having children. The physical and time demands of parenting may alter your sexual relationship with your partner. As the children grow up and move out, your relationship with your partner undergoes further changes. It may flourish, or it may break apart either way, sexual activity and satisfaction will be affected. Divorce may impact your sexuality by depriving you of a partner or by opening you to opportunities for better relationships and better sex.
During middle age, your body undergoes changes that can affect your feelings of desirability and desire. The sense of mastery that comes from raising children successfully or succeeding in a career may infuse your sex life with new confidence and enthusiasm. Retirement may set you even freer to pursue pleasure in your body, including sexual pleasure. Failing health and widowhood each has a unique impact on your opportunities, desire for, and capacity to be sexual, but neither need derail your sexuality or sexual identity.
Having breast cancer has affected my body on the outside, but it has made me stronger on the inside. I have even learned to love my scars. When I look at them, I see what I have come through and conquered. In a strange way, I've opened up more to sex than at any other time in my life. I like to savor all of my senses: I've never appreciated them as I do now. Now when I'm stroking my husbands penis, I'm not just focusing on his arousal, I'm aware of the wonderful feel of the soft skin over his firm erection.
My husband and I had a sex life that was more methodical than sensual. One night I talked him into renting a racy movie. It showed oral sex and was very arousing to me. Later in bed I really let my hair down. I got my courage up, pulled the sheets off, and started stroking and then kissing his penis. It seemed very natural to get into the rhythm of sucking him. I noticed that his diaphragm was shaking a little. I was feeling pretty shy, so I stopped and noticed he was giggling. What? I asked. He said, Your boobs are bouncing up and down you look like you stuck your finger in a light socket. At that moment I knew that I'd never, ever again throw the bed sheets off with Theo. My eyes were wide open and I realized that sex was just the tip of the iceberg of our constrained relationship. I found my courage again and got out altogether. It was the most freeing thing I ever did. It took awhile, but I am in a new relationship, and the sex is a lot of fun.
Knowing your sexual story means understanding how life experiences have influenced how you accept your body, experience pleasure, and relate sexually to your partner(s). It also means knowing yourself well enough to anticipate how these experiences might affect your sexuality as they occur in your future. This is, sadly, no easy task for women today. Although, as a whole, we discuss sexual matters much more openly than did our mothers and grandmothers, we still don't share our stories and experiences with one another as freely as we could. We commiserate about menstrual difficulties, and pregnancy and childbirth seem to bring us together to share the most intimate physical details of this female experience. But when it comes to expressing worries about what are normal sexual feelings and activities or to sharing the joys and trials of our sexual self-discoveries, we often hold back. Women tell us, with deep sadness, how much they regret having been afraid to talk to others about themselves, including their sexuality. They cringe about their dumb choices when we ask them to explore their past. They seem visibly lighter when we help them to see, for example, that women learn to orgasm with a partner, and it often takes time; or that for most women arousal doesn't come automatically, like flipping on a light switch. Overall, our knowledge has become more sophisticated, but many of our worries remain the same. By resisting thinking and talking about these concerns, we deny ourselves the full opportunity to learn from other women about the common experiences that impact many of us as we move across our life span.
We hope this chapter will help fill this gap. We describe what women have told us about their experiences with major life events, and we pose questions that will challenge you to think about your own sexuality in similar situations, whether these events have already occurred in your life or still lie ahead. We also make suggestions for finding additional information about each topic, either in a later chapter or from resources listed at the end of the book.
In the Appendix, we provide exercises to help you take an even closer look at how your life events have shaped your sexuality. In addition, we include exercises to help you see how your ethnicity, sexual orientation, and the values you've learned from others have influenced your sexuality. The self-knowledge you gain from reading this chapter and doing the exercises in the Appendix will give you the springboard you need to better benefit from the rest of the book.
What we call your sexual story is what psychologists talk about as your sexual development: the maturation of your sexual feelings, behavior, attitudes, and knowledge. As such, it is about far more than just your sex life at any one age or stage of life. Your sexual story is the product of all the events that occur at each life stage and how you respond to them. These responses, in turn, are shaped by your cognitive, emotional, moral, and social development. This perspective encourages you to explore and accept sexual feelings that might only confuse or worry you if you viewed sex and sexuality as one-dimensional and governed by one-size-fits-all rules and standards. The ever-broadening definition of what is sexually normal is liberating. Still, given how uniquely complex each woman's sexuality is, it's obvious that your sexuality not only should be defined by you but, really, can be defined only by you.
A large part of a woman's expression of her sexuality is, of course, the choices she makes about when to have sex and with whom. Years ago a woman's sexual choices were made for her. With certain cultural variations, she saved herself for marriage, giving her sexuality to her husband as part of her dowry, after which he could do with it her what he liked. A woman who was brought up to follow these rules might feel desperately bad just for wanting something different much less for doing something differently. And a woman who didn't feel bad about having her own ideas and taking charge of her own sexual destiny was usually labeled bad.
For many of us, all that has changed. Now we have choices about when to have sex and with whom. Unfortunately, those choices aren't always easy to make. Would you give in to desire and have sex with your boyfriend, even though your family and religious values tell you to wait until marriage? Could you explore the possibility that you are bisexual without feeling as if you were violating a taboo? How would you feel about choosing to make love to your husband when you don't feel all that loving, just because it's easier than talking through your marital problems? Would having an affair sound the death knell for your marriage, or would you consider it just a brief fling? What if it were your husband who had the affair? Is it okay for you to have casual sex with a man you just met, but not okay for your 19-year-old daughter to do the same? If you finally ended your marriage because you could no longer live the lie that you are heterosexual, would you be able to have an active and open sex life as a lesbian, or would you remain celibate out of fear of shocking your friends and family?
As with all choices we make in life, sexual choices often present us with dilemmas conflicts between two firmly held values, fine lines between wants and needs, mores versus manners, our needs versus someone else's, the benefits of planning weighed against those of spontaneity. How we resolve these dilemmas contributes to our sexual development. Not every sexual experience you have had or will have is transformative or momentous, but each sexual experience affects your ongoing experience of your body, your sense of yourself as a woman, your self-esteem, your sense of your place in the universe, and much more. When your sexual decisions are based on the personal values and external influences most important to you, then your sexual experiences will generally feel emotionally comfortable and satisfying as well as physically pleasurable.
Excerpted from Sex Matters for Women by Sallie Foley Sally A. Kope Dennis P. Sugrue Copyright © 2002 by The Guilford Press. Excerpted by permission.
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