Lifestyle

Kirkland author brings sex ed to Bainbridge women over 50

When Leah Kliger began informally polling her 50-something peers about the topic of their sexuality, they became deer in the headlights.

“They’d scurry away,” she said, “and then kind of come back and tug on my sleeve and say, ‘You know, I don’t really know what’s going on with me. When you find out, will you tell me?’”

Kliger had built her life’s work on research and education in the fields of women’s health care and sexuality.

In the 1970s, she coordinated a family planning clinic, talking with and educating women during a time of societal flux, when readily available birth control was not yet a given and when women were only just beginning to open up about their sexuality.

Early in her career, Kliger worked with contemporaries and with teens. But over time, her interest, along with her target demographic, shifted.

“As I turned 50 myself, I began to have some real notions that my own sexuality was changing in some ways,” she said.

So, like the natural researcher she was, Kliger hit the books to find out more about the impact of aging on sex, sexuality and intimacy.

Only problem was, there were no books to hit. No articles, no journals – even Christiane Northrup’s ground-breaking “The Wisdom of Menopause” contained only 8 pages about older women’s sexuality.

Did the paucity of published work point to a societal disinterest, perhaps even a taboo, that, as Kliger’s informal, peer-based inquiries indicated, women themselves had internalized? Certainly it appeared that while everybody was wondering, no one was talking.

“So rather naively, I thought, well I’ll just write a book,” Kliger said. “Since there isn’t anything, I’ll just do it.”

The research and publishing process became less daunting when Kliger teamed with psychologist and sex therapist Deborah Nedelman, with whom she spent the early part of the 2000s surveying and interviewing older women across the country about their sexuality.

They spoke to women of various races, economic means and education levels, sometimes individually and sometimes at gatherings at which groups of friends convened in the comfort of one of their homes to talk openly about what it means to be a vibrant sexual being in later life.

In 2006 they compiled their findings into “Still Sexy After All These Years? The 9 Unspoken Truths About Women’s Desire Beyond 50.”

Since publishing the book, the Kirkland-based Kliger has taken on the speaker and workshop circuit, including a stop this Wednesday afternoon at the Bainbridge Commons titled, “The Real Truth About Intimacy and Sexuality for Women Beyond 50.”

Through the women-only workshop, with its emphasis on give-and-take discussion rather than lecturing, Kliger hopes to help women dispel both mysteries and myths, and reveal sexuality in a light that many may not have considered.

“So often, what happens is that people tend to equate sexuality with the sex act. And whether they’re young or old, that’s not what sexuality is all about,” she said. “What I’m really trying to do is let the world know… how broad this whole notion of what women’s sexuality really is.”

The most frequent question Kliger gets at her workshops is, “What can I expect to have happen to my sexuality as I age?”

This leads to other, more specific queries along the spectrum, from “I have no interest in sex. Am I weird?” to “After menopause, my sexual desire increased. Am I really strange?”

What Kliger found in researching the book, and what she emphasizes in the workshops, is that sexually speaking there’s a broad range of “normal” that weaves through the psychological, physiological and even spiritual aspects of what makes us human.

One woman Kliger spoke with said that when she got older, the sex act made her feel like she was meeting with God.

“I thought, wow, I want to go there,” Kliger said.

Another discovery that Kliger shares with groups – and in the book, which will be available for purchase on Wednesday – is that desire tends to ebb and flow through the later years. While women may feel little desire in their 50s and 60s, it sometimes comes flooding back in their 70s and 80s.

Additionally, nearly 50 percent of survey respondents indicated to Kliger and Nedelman that poor body image had a devastating impact on desire. Many women hated and even refused to regard their own aging bodies, even when their partners told them they looked wonderful.

“I think a lot of that has to do with the media, and the way all women are portrayed,” she said.

Kliger hopes women leave the workshop with a clearer, broader, and internalized sense that sexuality is more than just sex; it’s “a sense of who we are as human beings.” It’s the twinkle in our eyes, the sparkle in our smiles, and the lift in our steps.

“Even a walk in the woods – or the rain, these days – can bring out a sense of one’s sensuality,” she said.

One of Kliger’s priorities going forward is to think about how to establish role models for sexuality and aging, so that the younger generation doesn’t grow up under the same shroud of uncertainty that her generation and earlier ones did.

All women need to see themselves as sexually vivid beings, no matter what their ages. And if a grandmother, for instance, can help educate her pre-adolescent granddaughter about sex...well, how cool is that?

“One of the things I see as my legacy,” Kliger said, “is (to) get the conversation started, and see some of the seeds of our message passed down to the younger generation.”

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