It’s Masturbation May! Once again, we’re publishing a sticky handful of articles on the delights and the woes of solo pleasure-seeking. Here’s one about menopause and masturbation. Stay tuned for more!
Forgive me for stating the painfully obvious: There’s so much shame and bullshit that surrounds our relationships with our bodies. Thankfully, as a woman north of 40 who’s done a lot of inner work, I’m so (mostly) over it.
The sad irony, though, is that just when I’ve finally started feeling confident in this perpetually full-figured body, just as I’m finally (hallelujah!) deprogrammed from my Bible-Belt-toxic-purity-culture-upbringing nonsense, just as I’m fully accepting my identity as a bisexual woman, and just as I’m eager to give and receive pleasure on my terms — it feels like my body is betraying me.
The same old, tried-and-true rub-one-out-before-bed to lull myself into a languorous sleep no longer works. Most of the time, a late-night solo sesh triggers the non-sexy kind of sweat, and I’d rather be sexually frustrated than change the sheets after a disastrous hot flash. (Y’all, wet spots have absolutely nothing on the utter wreck of a post-hot-flash sheet soaking.) To add insult to injury, every lube I’ve ever loved is now causing some kind of weird reaction. And WTF is up with this uptick in UTIs? I’m really struggling to find new ways to chase pleasure when my head is totally in the game but my body isn’t, and, conversely, I’m struggling with the times when it feels like all I want is orgasm after orgasm and I’ll die if I can’t lie in bed with my hands between my legs for hours a day.
This is what we don’t talk about when we (don’t) talk about menopause.
I’m no stranger to self-pleasure. I was probably five when I discovered the fantastic fluttery sensations that sometimes happened in my body. The fleeting, unpredictable moments of feeling something — something really good between my legs. Like when we were hanging onto the side of the pool, giggling in striped suits before swimming lessons, and I just happened to be in front of the jet. Like when watching TV, sitting on the arm of the recliner (a forbidden activity), and scooting off quickly so I wouldn’t get caught on the armrest meant, oh, something happened. There was no shame in these discoveries, just curiosity. But I also didn’t share it with anyone else. I somehow knew that whatever that something was, it wasn’t something we talked about.
At some point, I started connecting the dots, understood that I could be in control of the sensations, and started seeking out the unbearable pleasure of water rushing between my legs during bath time. I got really good at it. Chasing wave after wave of something big and wild inside of me while lying on my back, legs in the air or my feet on the side of the bath, hips dancing. Feeling something glorious wash over me until I fell with a dramatic splash back into cool water in the tub. (I’d later say I’d been playing mermaid and apologize for the water on the floor and promise to be more careful next time.)
I remember literally burning up the squiggle pens that were so popular in fifth and sixth grade. My mom would mutter about the pens being pieces of crap when I begged for another one because mine wouldn’t squiggle anymore. “Just use it without the batteries. There’s still ink in it and it writes fine.”
Uh, that’s totally not why I needed it, but I couldn’t say that. By then, I knew enough of the world — through movies and soap operas, not through actual sex education, mind you — that what I was doing was related to sex. Though exactly how, I wasn’t sure. I certainly never inquired, because I knew that if finding pleasure in my own body was connected to sex, then what I was doing was wrong. And then I’d have to stop.
That’s what we don’t talk about when we (don’t) talk about menopause. The ways we’ve known our bodies, the ways we’ve learned their multitudinous pathways to pleasure, and how those pathways sometimes — for reasons out of our control — are suddenly blocked. Or seemingly not on the map anymore.
Dr. Jen Gunter, who has become America’s menopause doctor with her earthshaking The Menopause Manifesto, notes that what is happening to me now is basically “puberty in reverse.” When I first read that, I felt all the gears in my brain grind to a halt. Then they frantically began moving forward at warp speed. Everything confusing that’s happening, that seems to not be happening to other people — if we even begin to talk about it in the first place — it all makes sense. Dr. Gunter’s book showed me that I’m not broken, so there’s still hope that the longest sexual relationship I’ve ever been in (the one I have with myself) can still thrive.
I’ve learned to chase pleasure before, and now, during menopause, I have the opportunity to do it again, to find new ways to connect with my body — so that’s exactly what I’m going to do.
It’s worth noting I’m not technically in menopause, since the medical definition is when a menstruating person ceases having a period for at least one year. Everything after that is, technically, post-menopausal, and I’m sure some new fresh hell will be revealed to me then.
What we think of as menopause is really the “menopause transition” or perimenopause — that horrible (okay, fine, it’s not so bad — wait, no this is the worst!) time that can last anywhere between two and ten years. Whatever you call it, it’s 100% the pits. (Probably more like 1000%, but I’m a writer, not a mathematician.)
And through it all, some people with uteruses will experience changes in the vulva and vagina. Dryness and itching are apparently par for the course, and, as estrogen levels drop, even thinning skin. All a recipe for sexiness, right?
Well, yes. Because desire is a mindset not a biological imperative. So this time of chasing pleasure is what we make of it. And I intend to make a whole lot out of it. Maybe not in public swimming pools or under my desk with a vibrating pen, but with an open mind. Because whatever else is going on between my legs and inside my veins, my brain is still the sexiest part of me.