Taoist physicians have long recognized that sexual activity contributes to maintaining physical health, yet our culture has been slow to recognize physical intimacy as an important part of well-being.
Most of us are embarrassed to admit lack of sexual knowledge, and many have been so shamed about exploring their own bodies that they are unable to give partners instruction even if asked.
Behind closed doors, many couples from all age groups and life situations are struggling with issues around sexuality: young adults just entering into their sexual lives and wanting to learn how to do so in a healthy way; couples losing their intimate connection to child-rearing or careers; couples dissatisfied with repetitive sexual routines; partners having difficulty communicating about sexual preferences; individuals sidetracked into porn yet wanting to bring increased pleasure to sex with their partner; men ejaculating more rapidly than they wish; heart-attack or cancer survivors with tenuous, new relationships to their bodies and sexual selves; baby boomers and older generations who are completely unprepared for the natural, age-related changes in sexual function.
Physical intimacy is a legitimate and important component of well-being at all ages and deserves as much focus as other components of staying healthy and happy. We need only to be courageous enough to talk about this to realize how many others share similar concerns.
The largest segment of our population, 121 million baby boomers and those even older, may now have empty nests and ample time, but many also have bodies that no longer function as they used to. Men may have lower desire or erectile difficulties while women may have inadequate lubrication and lower desire.
Many boomers have chronic illnesses that interfere with familiar patterns of physical intimacy and don't know about other possibilities for pleasure still available to them. When erectile difficulties catch a couple by surprise, too often they retreat into shame and even avoid physical affection, fearing it will lead to another embarrassing, unsuccessful sexual attempt. Partners end up emotionally distanced, not knowing how to find their way back to intimacy. They associate "sex" only with sexual intercourse, not realizing that the arena of sensual-sexual pleasure is much broader — and that great intimacy and pleasure is still available irrespective of functional capabilities.
Each year brings 1.9 million more heart attacks and breast or prostate cancers. Many survivors feel differently about their bodies and don't know how to re-enter sexuality addressing who they are now. Their partners are equally concerned about how to resume sexual activity respectfully, such as after a mastectomy, or safely, such as after a heart attack. These couples can have difficulty finding their way back to a sensual-sexual connection that honors illness-related changes.
Consulting a sex-positive physician can be critical in determining whether one is taking medication that interferes with sexual desire or performance, such as some anti-hypertensives and antidepressants, and whether it can be switched to a different medication without sexual side effects. No matter what the patient's functional capabilities are, an experienced therapist specializing in sexuality or a local program like RESET: Rediscovering Sexuality Together (www.reset-program.com) can help couples of all ages rediscover intimacy and pleasure, often beyond what was experienced previously.
Endless intimacy and pleasure is truly available at all ages. It is a joyous, natural part of healthy living.
Shavana Fineberg, is a psychologist specializing in intimacy and sexuality. She has offices in Grants Pass and Ashland.