This must-read book is your guide to sensual self-awareness and deep-rooted sexual confidence. Young adult or senior citizen, male or female, it will leave you in awe of the power of human sexuality in our lives.
The twists and turns of human sexuality in this enjoyable read are a unique mix of cutting-edge science and memoir-like tales of personal and professional development.
“This is a must read for EVERYONE who loves SEX. As an ancient sexologist who has taught so many women about orgasms, this book is very special written by an ‘expert’ who includes her own sexual history which makes it far more real for me.”
– Betty Dodson, PhD, Celebrated Sexologist and author
Many of us are hesitant to talk about what is really going on in our sex lives, especially when we feel unsure of ourselves or out of sync with our lover. To overcome this, author and reproductive physiologist Dr. Joanna Ellington uses brutal honesty, humor, and intelligence to share her own intimate story of sex from puberty to menopause in a way that ties research to real life experiences.
This valuable book takes on many of the controversial sex topics of today, often through the unique lens of andrology (the study of men). It candidly discusses teens and sex, solo masturbation within marriage, and how to find out why we just don’t feel like “doing it” anymore.
Part kitchen table talk with a trusted aunt, part fascinating lecture into the newest research on creating great sex. This book is easy to understand and will open your eyes to the latest medicine that even many physicians haven’t caught up on yet.
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
I wrote with the hope that my personal story, matched with scientific knowledge, will help you to better understand who you are sexually. Learning about the places in life where sex, science and nature come together can empower you to find fulfillment in the unique sexual person you are, as well as acceptance of yourself. My aim is to help you discover science that makes sense of our human sexuality and understand yourself as a natural, sexual person.
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
This is a non-fiction book, with memoir-like stories to bring the research to life. Although I am a scientist, I am also just like “every woman” who makes her way through life, sex, and intimacy. Each of us feels empowered at times and ridiculous at others — as we move into and out of confident sexual selves. In my case, I can talk about reproduction on national TV but am deeply embarrassed to buy “personal items” at the store (I always try to bury them under other things in my cart, even picking up items I don’t need to cover them up).
Just like most of you, I have had to work to maintain a fulfilling intimate life. While doing my scientific work in the science of sex and reproduction, I have also been a mother, wife, and sexual partner navigating prolonged and significant health issues and the emotional stress of attempted hostile company takeovers, as well as divorce, remarriage and blended families. My science is, thus, my life.
Just Like Animals
I grew up “down on the farm,” in a life filled with animals of all shapes and sizes, complete with both the joys and the messes this resulted in. As the eldest daughter of a full-time preacher and a “preacher’s wife” (which likewise is a full-time job), I was also privy to the messiness of human life. The local pastor is there to celebrate human relationships that succeed and to pick up the pieces for those that fail. They stand side by side with people from all classes and walks of life during the hardest of times: addictions, sudden illness, infidelity, unplanned pregnancies, murder and suicide. Pastors are the support of last resort. Growing up at our house meant understanding the complexity and consequences of human intimacy in a way few people experience.
In contrast, the animals on our farm often provided blessedly straightforward interactions. They wanted clean water and food (on time!) and to have sex, reproduce and care for their young. Seeing mating and birthing animals was a routine, natural part of life. I also saw death—both acceptable, for meat to feed our family, and tragic, when someone forgot to feed or water their animals or when gates were left open. I learned early on to finish what I started and to care for the vulnerable among us.
By the time I reached fifth grade, the one animal we didn’t have on our farm was a horse, but I knew my parents didn’t have the money to buy one. So I decided to earn the funds myself. To this end, I handwrote index cards offering my services as a housekeeper, and at ten years of age dropped off the cards in mailboxes of homes around us. Several women took me up on the offer, and I started working six hours a week cleaning homes at one dollar an hour. Each week, I put my earnings into an old cigar box covered in purple pen tally marks to keep track of my financial progress. Finally, on Christmas day I received a large boost in the form of a twenty-dollar bill from my parents and five dollars from my Granny. In the local paper I saw an ad for a Saddlebred mare for $125, the exact amount I had in my box! Dad drove us out to a neighboring farm where we found a Chestnut mare, Sandy, with a flaxen mane and tail, and a mean temperament. She had just broken her owner’s nose by tossing her head in anger during a ride.
“Be careful. And always tie her head down,” the owner warned us.
Dad wanted me to think twice about buying her, but she was the only horse I could afford. When you are an eleven-year-old girl, there is no such thing as a bad horse. And I never once tied Sandy’s head down after we brought her home. In fact, Sandy turned out not only to be my first horse, but also to be a kind of mirror for me—independent, a bit of a troublemaker and always ready to go.
Sadly, several years after I bought her, she died from tetanus. At that time, my family knew nothing about vaccines or basic horse care other than to worm them and make sure they had plenty to eat and drink, so Sandy was not protected by the necessary annual horse vaccines. Tetanus causes a slow, agonizing death. My close friend, Anna, and I stayed up for forty-eight hours singing every song we knew to Sandy. When it was finally hopeless, and the vet came to put her down, I knew then and there that being a veterinarian was part of what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to be able to keep animals from having to go through what Sandy and I had experienced. I didn’t realize at the time that the natural flow of farm life would eventually lead me even more specifically into the specialized study of sex and reproduction.
Growing up as a preacher’s kid (a “PK”) and a farm hand, I felt the visceral duality people have around sex. On the one hand, sex and the relationship between the male and female members of a species were day-to-day business in the barnyard. The rooster chased the hen for a quick roll in the dirt, but as Granny (who lived to be 107 years old) would say, “Did the little red hen run as fast as she can?”, implying that the hen really wanted to get caught. On the farm, sex was sex, with a hint of both surrender and whimsical adventure to it. But on the other hand, being the daughter of a prominent pastor and very much in the public eye, my behavior as I matured was often fodder for judgment, constant comment and shaming, in a way that didn’t mesh with the practicality of what I saw on the farm. It seemed odd to me that something as natural as sex and reproduction in animals changed for humans, where it became chaotic and complicated. I like, most young people, felt unsure of what being sexual would mean for me as an adult.
What is Normal Sex?
Each of us, in early adolescence and on into our adulthood, asks ourself this question many times. Scientists answer this by looking for baselines for the sexual activities they are studying in a population. These are the everyday occurrences of intimacy, the “what we do, when and how often” of lovemaking and sex. To begin our exploration into the science of sexuality, think about your own “sexual baseline.” It may be one that is very expansive (i.e., including a lot of sexual partners, experiences, positions and experiments) or it could be limited to just you knowing your own body and its responses. Whatever your baseline, it is yours, and for all of us these sexual baselines bring both beauty and limitation. As you ponder your own history, check out the sexual baseline data from recent national surveys. Let’s see what we can learn about sexual “normalcy” in our culture. (Figures adapted from Herbenick and colleagues, 2010 and Reece and colleagues, 2010).
Figure 1. Percentage of Americans engaging in solo masturbation in the last 90 days by gender and relationship status (single or married.)
Figure 2. Percentage of Americans engaging in different sexual practices in the past 90 days for: a) Married Women; b) Married Men; c) Single Women; and d) Single Men.
Solo Masturbation Is Commonplace, Even Among Married People
Many of us masturbate, even if we are married. While we may each know this personally because we have masturbated recently, we might not realize that so has just about everyone else! In fact masturbation is part of many people’s sexual baseline, and it can be our first sex act. Here are a few facts about masturbation in America.
• Close to half of women and three quarters of men have masturbated by themselves in the past 90 days.
• Being married doesn’t decrease masturbation rates all that much, especially for women.
• Masturbation is the most common sexual activity for men, with over 30% through age 40 doing it more than twice a week. In contrast, most women masturbate several times a month rather than weekly.
• Although a decline in masturbation activities occurs with age, even at age 70, around 20% of women and 40% of men remain active.
• Masturbation remains an important part of single people’s sex lives, with four times more single people having masturbated in the past 90 days than single people having had partnered intercourse in that same time frame.
Hopefully, knowing that most other people masturbate can help us sense the normalcy of it. If you are in a couple, you can measure your sexual maturity with one another by whether you can discuss masturbation freely, with humor and a sense of experimentation. And ladies, don’t take it personally if he masturbates alone sometimes (just like many of you girls). Masturbation is most likely a part of his sexual baseline and has been since long before you met him. An occasional whank in the shower or when no one else is home is perfectly fine. And at times masturbation is necessary for everyone’s sanity, such as after the birth of a child or if a partner is ill—when one of you isn’t getting much sex with the other. However, if things are not going well sexually for your partnership, you may need to say to your partner, “I am having to turn to masturbation more than I want to, and we need to talk about why this is happening.” Since some masturbation in marriage may be due to poor quality sex for the woman (she isn’t reaching orgasm with him, for instance) or not enough sex for the man, we often push these discussions aside—as we want to avoid the sexual conflict. Because all marriages go through phases of more and less sexual activity, it isn’t necessarily bad to just let things go for a while. However, if “the sex talk” is not happening after three or more months of a changed sexual baseline (meaning too much masturbation and not enough partnered sex), it is generally important to talk about what’s going on.
A good indication that it’s time for the talk is if either of you feel you are using masturbation as a replacement for sex with your partner because it is easier and less hassle than initiating or having sex. If you are feeling the loss of a healthy sexual baseline in your relationship, your partner will also likely be feeling something is wrong . In fact, in a recent study, both men and women accurately perceived their partner’s level of sexual satisfaction at a much higher rate than previously anticipated by sex scientists. If one of you feels a lack in your sex life and is filling that space with masturbation, you both realize this at some level. You need to talk about it.
Sex Varies in its Expression
From the graphs shown, you can see that many forms of sexual expression are normal for human beings. We are sexual creatures, and we are sexually exploratory. That said, the basic staple of married sex is still penile-vaginal intercourse (PVI), whether missionary position, doggie-style or another. The next most popular sex is giving and receiving oral sex, then partnered masturbation, and lastly anal intercourse. As we age, our rate of PVI steadily declines; however, 50% of married men and women into their 60s and 30% into their 70s still remain active in this way. And these rates will likely continue to increase as aging men and women grow in comfort with taking Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT). Interestingly, married women between the ages of 18 to 24 have less vaginal intercourse than many other groups, maybe because they are giving 30% more unreciprocated oral sex to their men! Or maybe it is just as a means of avoiding pregnancy.
Receiving and giving oral sex is a normal part of our marriages, with over half of couples into their 40s sharing this form of intimacy, and most giving as good as they get. Partnered masturbation becomes especially important to the sexual baselines of aging adults as a partner experiences poor health (it is used twice as much in these couples as compared to aged-matched couples with excellent health).
Anal sex happens relatively infrequently (with less than 15% of married men and women having had it recently), but it is still part of a normal sexual baseline for human beings. Anal finger play and rimming (licking) are much more common than anal intercourse, occurring at more than twice the rate of anal intercourse.
Interestingly, men who are dating receive the most oral sex of any group, with 81% recently enjoying this form of intimacy. In recent studies, over 60% of women, ages 25 to 39 who were single and dating used partnered masturbation in their sex lives, in some part because it is safest for avoiding sexually transmitted infections and unwanted pregnancies.
Although over half of single women in their 30s and 40s continue to regularly masturbate, the percentage of these women engaging in partnered sexual activity dramatically declines. This can be a source of joy for some women and great sadness or loneliness for others. The scientists who do this valuable work to track our sexual baselines, such as Dr. Debby Herbenick, also have written excellent, entertaining and easy to read resource books to help improve solo and partnered sex for women such as Because It Feels Good: A Woman’s Guide to Sexual Pleasure and Satisfaction and Read My Lips: A Complete Guide to the Vagina and Vulva. If you are a single man or woman, know that you deserve great sex too. Don’t be shy about buying toys, candles and warming oils for special times for yourself. It doesn’t make you “weird”—it makes you sensual! Dr. Castellanos, “The Sex MD” recommends in How to Get Over 5 Internal Roadblocks to Good Sex, that all adults orgasm at lease once or twice a week (either through sex or masturbation), to best preserve the function of our sexual organs. Retaining your sensuality, for yourself or to share with someone else later, is an important part of staying happy and healthy.
Aging and Sexuality
Although some folks are happy to let their sexual identity fade into the sunset, others will fight with every prescription known to man to protect and preserve theirs (count me in here!). Therefore, no particular age group is without its sexual baseline. In a recent study of people in their 80s, around 20% of women and 40% of men reported engaging in sex or masturbation in the past year. The most common reasons cited for not being sexually active was lack of desire (for women), and erectile dysfunction (for men). When sexually inactive seniors were asked if they would like to resume having sex, 35% of women and 85% of men said, “Yes.” However, only 10% of senior women and 30% of senior men had ever discussed the topic with their physician. In fact, 70% of older women report that sexual health was never brought up during their routine annual physical exam, in spite of the fact that sexually transmitted disease infection rates are growing among senior citizens.
It is essential that everyone over fifty initiates discussions about their sexual concerns and goals with their doctors. Remember that your doctor isn’t bringing these up to you because he or she may not want to offend you. But these providers can help optimize your sex life. Having sex is one of the healthiest forms of exercise and intimacy that seniors can engage in—it can even increase your lifespan! So go for it as and when you can and get help to enhance your sex life if needed. It is also okay to discuss what you need to protect yourself and to optimize your sexuality even if you aren’t in a relationship and you are just hoping to “get lucky,” like my neighbor in her weekly bowling group. After a year of enjoying her bowling “occasional hookup guy,” these two wild ones married in their late 70s and are now in the happiest time of their lives!
Radical Center Rumination
How, where and when should seniors have sex? Maybe there should be special “hotel room” suites that seniors can schedule within their assisted living facility. Privacy for sexual expression shouldn’t be a class-based right (e.g., only for those who can afford a private room). When does dementia preclude someone from having the right to sexual consent? Institutionalized patients (for any number of reasons, including Alzheimers) with spouses at home may choose to have extramarital sex. Should the facility staff intervene and tell the other partner or not? Should facilities be able to restrict gay or bisexual senior sex based on religious beliefs? Sexually transmitted diseases are on the rise in Baby Boomers. Seniors themselves, as well as housing and socialization centers for this group, need to be honest about this natural and exciting part of senior life. Bring senior sex out of the “grey closet”!
The Tale of Two Sisters
Sexual baselines can vary dramatically for people. When I was young, I was exposed through two great aunts to two very different views of sexuality. At one extreme, Aunt Lily referred to sex as “that terrible thing” she had to do “once a month.” Both Aunt Lily and her husband were vibrant, physically active people well into their 80s, but sex was never mentioned and certainly not ever joked about in their home. In contrast, Aunt Jean and her horse trainer husband had sex nearly every day of their married lives until he was killed in a riding accident at 63. Even when Jean was in her 80s and suffering from dementia, she loved nothing more than to talk about her favorite positions for sex and how she and her husband would sneak away for quickies in the barn. When I was young, I wasn’t quite sure how people ended up with such divergent views on the role of sex in their lives. Now I know that even I, a sexually active woman, couldn’t keep up with Aunt Jean! And I feel sad for Aunt Lily and her husband. Something that could and should have provided them with joy wasn’t nurtured correctly and never fully blossomed between them. Perhaps they were never given the science to fully understand their sexual selves and how to develop healthy baselines, starting with their developing sexuality during adolescence.
Have you read this book or others by this author? Tell us in the comments how you liked it!