A September Kindra-Harris poll asked menopausal women age 50 and over about their sex lives, and the findings are telling: Although 70% of participants reported enjoying penetrative vaginal sex, 41% said they experience pain during sex (medically known as dyspareunia), and nearly one-third of the latter group continue to have sex despite experiencing discomfort.
Why? “Because they are resigned to the inevitability of it,” Juliana Hauser, family and marriage therapist, sexuality expert and member of Kindra’s advisory board, tells Yahoo Life. In other words, they assume that pain during sex is normal for people with vulvas, and, moreover, they see sex as a “duty” that prioritizes their partner’s needs, Hauser says. Also, some may not be aware of the (often treatable) medical conditions that can exacerbate pain during sex, she adds.
Discussions of vaginal health and vulvar pleasure have been hushed for decades, says Dr. Jill Krapf, an ob-gyn and medical adviser to Evvy, and this can discourage women from communicating their needs both in and outside of the bedroom. “A majority of women wait until they are experiencing serious issues before going to see an ob-gyn,” Krapf tells Yahoo Life.
Thankfully, albeit slowly, things seem to be changing. According to the poll, more than half of women 50 and over keep a “sexual toolbox” filled with products, including lubricants, that prioritize pleasure and help them have the most comfortable sexual experiences possible.
First, what causes pain during sex?
As the study makes clear, pain during sex is more common than most people realize, and one of the most prevalent causes is vaginal dryness, which affects up to 60% of menopausal women and is typically caused by a loss of estrogen, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.
Pain can also be triggered by uncomfortable sex positions, feeling emotionally disconnected or insecure and lack of communication, Hauser adds. Medically, dyspareunia is linked to vaginismus (involuntary muscle tightness), endometriosis, pelvic inflammatory disease, and urinary tract or sexually transmitted infections, says Krapf.
What should be in a woman's sexual toolbox?
Both Krapf and Hauser stress that a sexual toolbox should be specifically catered to its owner’s needs — so no two will be exactly the same. That said, there are a few items many will contain, including:
Lubricant helps replace any lack of natural vaginal lubrication during sex and can “help increase feelings of pleasure,” says Hauser. There are water-based, oil-based and silicone-based lubes, and it’s important to choose one that meshes well with your anatomy and the materials of your other tools. (For example, oil-based lube can break down latex condoms.) Water-based lubes are popular and generally safe. Krapf recommends Good Clean Love BioNude Ultra Sensitive Personal Water-Based Lubricant because it’s hypo-allergenic and “suitable for almost everyone.”
Unlike lube, which is used on-demand during sex, vaginal-vulvar moisturizers are regularly applied on and around the vulva to “help rebuild moisture over time, so you’re always ready for intimacy,” says Hauser. Think of it as an added step to a post-shower moisturizing routine.
You don’t necessarily need any special products for this. Krapf recommends CeraVe Healing Ointment, for example. “I prefer it because it is lanolin- and fragrance-free, which offers soothing relief for dry skin,” she says. There’s also Foria’s Vibrance Everyday Moisturizer, made of organic botanicals, and Stripes’ Vag of Honor Hydrating Gel, which contains moisturizing squalene and hyaluronic acid.
Sex toys are key for enhancing pleasure, and the options are endless. Hauser says vibrators and dildos are common toolbox staples — it’s all about experimenting to learn what works best for you. “My biggest advice is to give yourself the freedom to explore what gives you pleasure with an attitude of curiosity and fun,” Hauser says. A 2017 study found that nearly 37% of American women require clitoral stimulation to achieve orgasm — in fact, most women don’t climax from penetrative sex alone — so a clitoral vibrator is a good place to start.
Involving all of the senses during sex means being as present as possible, so things like candles, comfy pillows and textured toys like a feather teaser can help, Hauser says.
Condoms don’t just protect against pregnancy — they also prevent the spread of STIs, can help provide extra lubrication and can enhance sensory pleasure with textured ribbing. Krapf likes SKYN Original Condoms “for being non-latex and suitable for even the most sensitive patients,” she says.
If you like to freshen up before or after doing the deed, Krapf recommends keeping Water Wipes on hand. “Unlike many other options on the market, these wipes contain only one ingredient, water, with no added chemicals, fragrances or skin-drying agents,” she says. “They are gentle on your intimate areas.”
Although this isn’t a tangible item you can stow away, it may be a sexual toolbox’s most important asset. Communication “is an expected, desired and welcomed” part of sex that is key to ensuring that everyone involved not only has a good time, but is also free from pain or discomfort, says Hauser. “Feel empowered to make changes for pain-free intimacy,” she says.
Krapf also points out that a fulfilling sex life is more than just vaginal penetration. “Communication, emotional connection and exploring various forms of intimacy are all vital components of a healthy sexual relationship,” she says.
Why is it important for women to have a sexual toolbox?
Sexual toolboxes aren’t just functional, they’re also empowering. “It gives you control,” Krapf explains. “And can also enhance intimacy and emotional connection in relationships.”
They’re also just plain practical. “As our lives get more and more stressful — as they often do during midlife between kids, parents, career and other responsibilities — it can be harder to fully relax and find ourselves in a state of mind ready to receive pleasure,” says Hauser. “Having some tools to help your mind and body become physically and emotionally ready for intimacy is a game changer for many.”
She adds: “A sexual toolbox is a private proclamation that your pleasure matters and is your birthright and responsibility.”