Our bodies change. So should the way we explore them.
They say if you’ve spent 10,000 hours practicing a particular skill, you’re considered a master, if not an expert. As for sex, you’d have to engage in it for two hours a day for 13.7 years or one hour a day for 27.4 years, meaning most of us who don’t have sex for a living are likely still amateurs. Add to that the constant adaptations to physical changes and different partners and we may never feel we’ve mastered sex. Welcome to the club.
I did, however, feel I’d achieved a moderate level of proficiency, if not confidence, around sex until a new man arrived at the gates of my pleasure paddock. Perhaps because I’d established a pattern of quickly jumping into bed to “test the chemistry,” or perhaps because he had cooked me a phenomenal eggplant parmesan, I had sex with him on our second date. Was it our age, unfamiliarity or a complete lack of chemistry, that had me feeling I was a novice at a rodeo, failing to get this bronco to respond to my routine? When he left, I gathered he was equally disappointed and I’d never hear from him again. But he wanted a third date. I spent a week wondering how to avoid sleeping with him without losing access to his otherwise delightful company. Because if there’s no chemistry, there’s no chemistry, right?
What I’d failed to do was listen to my gut, which had been telling me to slow down, not get naked so quickly and tune into a gradual discovery of a potential partner on a platonic level rather than a sexual one. I called him up to say I felt I’d slept with him too early and wanted to take sex off the table, at least for awhile. I hoped we could get to know each other slowly before he invested more time in cooking for me. Instead, I suggested, we engage in a clothed version of an exercise called Pleasure Mapping, which I’d just stumbled upon while scrolling through god-knows-what on my phone.
Photo by Richard James on Unsplash
Pleasure Mapping is the happier cousin of the therapeutic tool called Body Mapping, used by some therapists to help a person connect an emotional experience with their physical body, usually within the context of trauma. Rather than address suffering, Pleasure Mapping suggests a stepwise exploration of the body to tap into areas of pleasure we may not have thought of as erogenous because we weren’t routinely engaging them in our sexual routine. This exercise can be done alone or with a partner, the idea being to deviate from experiencing sex and orgasm as an end goal and for body exploration to be a means of connecting with each other and discovering new sensations.
But I wanted to combine body and pleasure mapping. Dating me is like being on the witness stand under affable cross examination as I tease out the ways a man has been wounded by early life and past relationships, expecting those wounds will eventually emerge and bite me on the ass, and not in a way that feels good. I wanted a detailed picture of this man’s cartography, to discover where he’d been damaged, as well as the secret places he desired attention. Turned out he felt ashamed of his crooked big toe, which I considered rather hot after he’d told me he’d broken it practicing for a black belt in karate. I told him about the time I got my lackluster hair permed at fourteen then refused to go to school for days because I suddenly looked like Gilda Radner’s alter ego Rosanne Roseannadanna. But he loved my hair. The places he and I felt were unappealing about our bodies were actually things the other person admired.
Then we moved to the ears. Neither of us had given much thought to our ears. I reached out to trace the ridges and valleys of his outer ear, his lobe, then impulsively ran my tongue lightly across this same path. He squeezed my arm and looked at me as though I’d just drizzled ice water down his neck on a blazing hot day. When he replicated the gestures on my ear, we quite quickly abandoned the mapping project, abandoned our clothing, and this cowgirl was back in the saddle.
We have since discovered that pleasure mapping is best done in small sections, or rather might only be completed in small sections due to its propensity to make you want to ramp up to the bonking. Who knew having the backs of my knees licked could make me lightheaded. Or that the depression between one’s clavicles, the place Ralph Fiennes calls the Almásy’s Bosphorus on Kristen Scott Thomas in The English Patient, could elicit such a delightful tingle.
But pleasure mapping doesn’t have to be about revving up to sex. It can be how we show our partners kindness. It’s an opportunity to be tender towards the areas where our lovers feel discomfort, helping them heal their unease through our acceptance. This man massaged and kissed the fingers I’ve always disparaged as “sausage like” and forever reminiscent of my chunky childhood. I washed his feet and showed him that his misshapen toe was good for much more than upright stability and Downward Dog.
Pleasure Mapping with a partner could be especially beneficial after years together, when sex may have become routine, or our feelings about our formerly firm gluteal folds and midsections has shifted. Let’s seek to reassure our partners that their discomfort can actually be our bliss, that a soft belly is a beautiful thing to lay one’s cheek upon. Let’s seek to discover pleasure in the places that don’t look terribly attractive but still belong to the beating heart we adore.
Mapping could also be an opportunity for us to let go of the tyranny of performance and dial into our sensations and emotions. As I accept that my sex life is now, and perhaps ever shall be, with a man well past fifty, I want to soften my attitude towards what sex should be, what it used to be, and discover it anew as something altogether different. Writer and activist Ashton Applewhite points out in exceedingly uplifting This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism, plenty of “olders” are having the best sex of their lives without hard dicks and wet pussies. Sex can be no less rapturous, orgasms no less intense, when we’re unconcerned with performance and dialed into acceptance.
The geography of pleasure changes over the timeline of our lives. Sex is like crossing various landscapes; mountains and valleys, verdant meadows and arid deserts. The seasons of our sexuality need not be linear, just as Spring comes around to greet us each new year. We will become more proficient in navigating our bodies, and those of others, as long as we devote the time to doing so. Which is why I’ll keep having sex as I age, like an artist who understands that devoting quality time to their craft is the key to becoming good at it and deriving deep satisfaction from the activity. Even when I’ve passed the 10,000th hour of practicing sex, I’m certain there will be more unexplored territory to map.