Bloody Hell! And Other Stories
By Mona Eltahawy
Adventures in Menopause from Across the Personal and Political Spectrum
Moisturize Your Vagina*
*Menopause Chicks et al
When you are shameless, you cannot be shamed.
Few things are surrounded by more shame and silence than a cis woman who is no longer young, her vagina which is no longer wet, and her sex drive which is not supposed to exist.
If I thought I needed to be brave to write about my two abortions, it is next level courage to admit to being that cis woman who is no longer young, whose vagina is no longer wet, and whose sex drive is not supposed to exist.
And so here I am looking shame in the eye, daring it to test me.
The Black lesbian poet and intellectual Audre Lorde famously told us “your silence will not protect you.” Silence protects our oppressors. Silence fuels shame. Patriarchy deploys shame like a drone: it shadows you, ready to take you out any minute, exhausting you by keeping you forever aware of its presence to the detriment of all other things that you could be investing your attention in.
I am learning, much to my thrill and awe, that one of the greatest gifts of the transition known as menopause is shamelessness. I am not known as one easily shamed nor is modesty one of my virtues. Still, I gasp at the heights of audacity that I like to think come monthly in lieu of my increasingly AWOL menstrual cycle. It is as if instead of shedding the lining of my uterus, I am shedding the lining of patriarchal fuckery that I was socialized into.
October 18 is Menopause Awareness Day. I am not a fan of “days,” be they for love, women, or menopause. I am “aware” of my menopause every day. If we want the world to be more aware of menopause, we will need more than a day (a month? Maybe the entire year?) to make up for the silence and taboo that ensures we know next to nothing about what happens to our bodies during this time.
Before I continue: if you have ever menstruated, you can go through menopause, a point in life that marks 12 months without a menstrual cycle. The time leading up to menopause is known as perimenopause, and once you’ve reached the point of 12 months without a menstrual cycle, you are post-menopausal. It is not just cis women who experience menopause. Remember non-binary people, trans men, and other gender non-conforming groups who also experience menopause and do so under even greater levels of silence and taboo.
If you’re wondering where along my menopause journey I am, it is far enough that if I hear a voice in my head saying "Oh my god, you can't write about that!" I WILL IN FACT WRITE ABOUT THAT.
And that is an absolute advantage of being 54 years old and just weeks if not days away from post-menopause.
Fuck "you can't." Watch me.
And so: getting older, vaginas getting drier, and sex drives that don’t know if they’re coming or going.
Why am I focusing on that Trifecta of Shame rather than, say, hot flashes, and insomnia, and other effects of the menopause transition? The simple answer is that for many post-menopausal people, hot flashes and insomnia subside. But vaginal dryness does not. It does not improve. Vaginal atrophy, or atrophic vaginitis, as it's clinically defined, is a set of symptoms that includes vaginal dryness, persistent burning, irritation and painful sex. It has been replaced by the broader term GSM or genitourinary syndrome of menopause. This verbiage was meant to be inclusive of all genital changes caused by diminished estrogen levels. Left untreated, it can lead to other risks.
The complicated answer is because I feel robbed.
Not by the menopause transition, which is “natural” (I rarely use that word because it is often employed by cis heteronormative patriarchy in the name of fuckery), but by an upbringing and socialization that instilled in me something that should be considered unnatural and which took me years to shed.
I was socialized into a shame around sex and sexuality, and I was taught--and I obeyed--that I must wait until I get married to have sex.
At their core, such teachings are flags planted by patriarchy on our bodies to remind us we do not own them; to control our sexuality and fertility. Soon after puberty begins, especially after menstruation starts, we become walking liabilities that must be contained and controlled, as if our uteruses were grenades ready to explode if left to our own devices.
I am childfree by choice. And now that my fertility has finally vacated the building, who owns my body?
I do. And it is at exactly this point in my life when I am standing in my power, as a 54-year-old woman of colour that patriarchy wants to remind me that it renders me moot. Well, fuck that shit.
I am sad for my younger self that I obeyed for so long and thus deprived myself of the joy of sex with another person. It is a form of grieving that I am now beginning to honour as grief over the loss of joy and intimacy.
I was enjoying sex with myself from the age of about 11. I knew my way around my genitals and was giving myself orgasms for years before another person did. I finally had sex with another person when I was 29.
I often say that I have “made up for lost time,” and that I fucked the guilt from having extra marital sex out of my system. After the laughter clears though, you should know I am making a serious point: I worked hard to own my body, to have sex the way I want to, to figure out who I am attracted to and how I want to be intimate with them.
I wanted to write to every person raised with any version of “purity culture” and tell them to enjoy their bodies at every stage. Don’t wait, I wanted to yell at them. Don’t let the patriarchy rob you.
When I began to notice the impact of perimenopause on my vagina and sex drive, it bothered me more than hot flashes, no longer sleeping through the night, and changes to my digestive system.
It bothered me because I felt I was being robbed again.
At first, I was shell shocked. Because I am determined in my shamelessness, let me tell you: I did not have sex for a year. If you had told enthusiastically-and-determinedly-sex-positive me that I would go a year without having sex, she would have told you to fuck right off with your nonsense.
I was bereft. How was this happening?
And then, I was fucking enraged. Something I loved, that brought me so much pleasure, was gone, poof, just like that! How did that happen? Who was that person I did not recognize, who did not even masturbate? Who abducted Mona? And how do I bring her back?
And furthermore, I was ashamed. And that shocked me too. I am shameless!
So I took my rage and shame and pronounced them as loudly as I could. I was determined to talk my way out of the shame. Heather Corinna was my perfect confidant when they interviewed me for their book What Fresh Hell is This? Perimenopause, Menopause, Other Indignities, and You.
“My sex drive is broken,” I told them.
“Not broken,” they said. “On pause, evolving. Not broken.”
And soon after, they texted me a recommendation by one of the OB/GYN doctors they had interviewed for their book. It heralded what I now call Mona’s Moisturize Your Vagina Revolution.
I want to be clear on two things: what I’m talking about is very different than being asexual, which is a sexual orientation. Also: I have not been paid nor do I get a reduction for mentioning any of the supplements I use. I mention them because they work for me. I have also listed other menopause resources at the bottom of my essay.
Heather’s recommendation sent me on a deep dive on all things menopause that I now share with the zeal of a convert.
To grasp at how perimenopause and menopause can affect sex drive and libido, it is useful to remember and to repurpose something else that Audre Lorde said: There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.
“Low sex drive can certainly be a symptom of menopause and aging,” says Dr. Suzanne Hall, OBGYN. “But libido in women is based on so many different factors, so seeing hormones as the main cause is largely a misconception.”
Many of the impacts of perimenopause and menopause are due to declining levels of the hormone estrogen but that hormone is not directly responsible for libido. So what’s going on?
Many things at once, some due to hormonal changes, others not so much, for example the stress and anxiety due to changes as we get older. Cis men have Viagra and conversations about erectile dysfunction. What do the rest of us have? Where are our conversations about a “loss of sexual satisfaction, fewer and/or weaker orgasms, and decreased physical arousal” that are often associated with menopause?
And something that is more directly due to declining estrogen: that a vagina which is not wet and which is such a taboo to talk about because the stereotype of a no-longer fertile cis woman is that of a “dried up hag.”
“More than half of my patients say they’re experiencing it, so it’s a really big problem,” says Dr. Hall. “And when you have pain and dryness, that can potentially lead to a loss of interest.”
I was determined to steal back my sex drive. I started taking a supplement that includes French maritime pine bark, which is associated with increased blood flow to the genitals to enhance physical arousal and orgasm in cis women.
I learned that hyaluronic acid, a popular ingredient in facial moisturizers, is also an effective vaginal moisturizer. Research has shown it is as effective as hormonal solutions to vaginal dryness. I do not want to take hormones right now so that was a major plus.
And it has become my best friend: every night after I moisturize my face, I moisturize my vagina by inserting a hyaluronic suppository up my pussy. And for lubricant, I use coconut oil. Note: lubricant is not the same as a moisturizer. You still need to moisturize your vagina!
I am writing this in Canada, where cannabis is “legal” and can be ordered for home delivery from a state-run dispensary. After I moisturize my face and my vagina, I microdose: a little THC is great for enhancing TLC, alone or partnered.
If Menopause Awareness Month is to benefit more than the $$$$ menopause industry, it must find ways to ensure that menopausal people who cannot afford supplements or hyaluronic acid suppositories, for example, are not punished for their lack of discretionary income. All menopausal people must have access to whatever they need during this transition in life.
I am having sex again. And I intend to have sex for many more years to come. The more I read about how hormonal changes affect a menopausal body, the more I appreciate queerness: that sex is more than penetration/penis in vagina, that sex is not about a goal or an end/orgasm, that pleasure and intimacy between partners or alone are what make sex vital for those of us who want it.
I am grateful to the many social media accounts dedicated to menopause in all its aspects. I have learned a lot from them. I am not a dedicated menopause account. I am, rather, a dedicated shamelessness account. Find the places where you are ruled by should not/would not/could not and defy, disobey, and disrupt the patriarchy by knowing—and vowing—that you shall, will and can.
You cannot be shamed if you are shameless. And moisturize your vagina!
This essay first appeared in Mona Eltahawy’s newsletter, Feminist Giant
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