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My patients come to me, a menopause care specialist, looking for answers and solutions. They may have painful sex, or they may find it more difficult to experience orgasm. Sometimes the solutions come in the form of prescription drugs, which is what we’ve come to expect from doctors.
Other times, I recommend a vibrator.
Times Have Changed
Vibrators have been around for a very long time, but their history is checkered. Originally developed in the late 1800s as a medical device (to address female hysteria — but that’s another story), the vibrator was adopted by makers of early porn films. Whatever respectability the vibrator had was lost by the early 20th century, and it was very nearly absent from “polite society” for decades. According to the Hite Report, only 1 percent of women had used one in the 1970s.
That’s changed again, thank goodness, with just over half of women reporting vibrator use in a 2009 study. There are plenty of vibrator joke products, and some of them look like caricatures of what men think women want. But there are also a number that are well-designed, tasteful, even elegant — and highly functional.
Satisfying sex triggers hormones and neurotransmitters that help us to feel relaxed, less stressed and more contented.
These are the realities that lead me to recommend vibrators and their use to a number of my patients:
Orgasm is good for our health. You experience it, but you’re likely unaware of the chemical reason for it: Satisfying sex triggers hormones and neurotransmitters that help us to feel relaxed, less stressed and more contented. Since orgasm is essentially a series of muscle contractions, it helps to keep our pelvic floors in shape, which keeps our organs in place and combats incontinence. Intercourse is mild to moderate exercise, which most of us work to include in our schedules for its cardiac and other health benefits. And intimacy is good for our relationships, which are, in turn, good for our health.
And since about two-thirds of us don’t orgasm by intercourse alone, it helps to have help, which is where vibrators come in. Because…
Sensation fades as we grow older. The loss of estrogen leads to what we doctors call genitourinary syndrome or vulvovaginal atrophy. We have less circulation in our genital tissues, which become more fragile. What that often means is that it takes more time for us to become aroused, many of us require additional lubrication, and we need more stimulation for us to experience orgasm.
Vibrators can provide that stimulation. I encourage midlife women to pay attention to the motor strength of the vibrators they consider; many “novelty” vibrators just don’t have a strong enough pulse to make a difference.
As it happens, our partners sometimes are losing agility or dexterity just when we need more stimulation. In those cases, a vibrator is an aid for both the woman who wants to experience pleasure and the partner who wants to provide it.
We can use encouragement for foreplay. Bringing a vibrator into a relationship can be awkward if you let it. But it can also be a part of discussion about how your need for foreplay has increased as your hormones have decreased. Too many couples don’t have this conversation; as a result, too many women either suffer through painful sex or let the sexual part of their natures fade away.
A vibrator can be a prop, if you like, to remind you and your partner to spend time intimately. I’ve heard from couples who are having the best sex of their lives, with empty nests, time to experiment, and the desire to learn about each other’s bodies now.
If you don’t use it, you lose it. Every few months, I have a patient who’s found a new relationship. After a number of years — as many as 20 — she’s found someone new. She’s discovered, though, that her body has changed in the meantime. What was once pleasurable is painful, or she may not be able to have intercourse at all.
I know the physical changes of menopause can take us by surprise. The loss of estrogen eventually means dryness and loss of elasticity, both of which make for discomfort. And those changes can happen more rapidly if you are not sexually active, because without stimulation, there’s less blood circulation to your genital tissues.
So if you think there’s any chance that you’ll want to be intimate in a future relationship, a vibrator can be part of your maintenance plan. It’s easier to maintain your sexual health than to regain it, and you’ll get the health benefits in the meantime.
A vibrator? If you’re comfortable buying one as a “pleasure object,” go for it. If you need more encouragement, remind yourself that this doctor recommends them. For your health.