The day I met the first senior referred to me by a local doctor, she timidly opened the door to my boutique and stage-whispered, “Is anybody in here, dear?” And thus began my work as a clinical sexologist with the most underserved yet largest buying demographic in the United States — baby boomers.
According to AARP, 10,000 baby boomers turn 65 every day in the United States. In my work as a clinical sexologist, I had an excruciating lack of understanding of the sexual needs and often complex issues facing post-menopausal women in our society. I, like so many other pre-menopausal women I work with, incorrectly assumed that most doctors speak candidly to their senior patients regarding what to expect when menopause hits. Imagine my tremendous shock when I heard that fewer than 10 percent of doctors invite a conversation about sexual function either during or after physical exams. What I have learned is that senior women are suffering in ways that younger women need not worry about. Common issues including painful intercourse, atrophy and the lack of moisture that normally plague women once estrogen is scarce are now compounded by experiences with radiation, chemotherapy and medications for overall health, leaving women bewildered and seeking answers.
So why are so many women unable to advocate for themselves? To better understand that question, let’s take a peek at our view of sexuality across the senior sphere. As a country, we are extremely uncomfortable discussing our bodies and sex in a “practical application” sort of way. Greatly influenced by Hollywood, we see all the humor regarding senior sex, but precious little of the reality. Baby boomer parents rarely discussed sexuality with their teenaged children, and thus it was left up to chance learning from friends and, as many seniors tell me, by trial and error with their husbands and wives. The female experience was that sex equaled a mystery and was one part procreation and one part discomfort as they navigated religious shame and a lack of education on how it should or could be. The conclusion they incorrectly drew was that sexual fun was reserved for men. An inability to speak candidly to even their closest friends about their hopes and fears during their childbearing years left them feeling sexually isolated and frustrated. In a generation that was taught to keep your public face on tightly and share none of your personal struggles, particularly those involving the bedroom, it’s no wonder our baby boomers now feel bewildered.
Enter the cutting-edge professional known as the clinical sexologist. The professional sexologist is picking up where the doctor falls short, sometimes due to time constraint, but more often due to lack of interest in their patient’s sex life. Sexologists counsel, listen, validate, recommend solutions and, in my case, have a safe, comfortable space in which to seek products and assistance. On the surface, it looks like a simple bra shop in Middlebury, and it is — but it is also so much more. It is a place where you can get your hair cut and styled, wax your eyebrows and shop for a nice bra — but most of all its a place where you will feel positive to seek answers to your questions with a person whose sole focus is sexuality.
What I see every day with baby boomers who take charge of their sexuality is change. Positive, happy, smiling, I-can’t-believe-I-waited-this-long change. I can tell you that as an older woman navigating sexuality, you usually feel you are alone in whatever your issue might be, right up until the time when you realize you are in good company. And I have seen that realization change lives and save marriages. You aren’t alone. You are cancer survivors, abuse survivors, difficult birth survivors, divorce survivors, death survivors, and most of all you are survivors of life. Life and whatever it has deemed fit to throw at you. You are often the strongest people I meet in my career and the most rewarding age group I work with. I can also promise you that we can tackle whatever it is you are grappling with to either fix an issue or to keep the spark alive in your relationship. Anything lost can be re-found.
And how about that timid little French-Canadian gal who felt so frightened to walk into my store all those many months ago? Well, she went forth and shared her newly acquired information with her grief group, her book club and her church friends. She pushed her comfort zone and changed not only her life, but the lives of the women around her. And she still visits me to this day and we reminisce about her initial trepidation with something that is as natural as life gets.
Kris Lawson is a clinical sexologist and owner of Curve Appeal in Middlebury.