I was tortured by sex when I was a young woman.
I went from being an awkward, skinny bookworm to a curvy 16-year-old almost overnight. I wasn't used to attracting male attention and I felt simultaneously powerful and powerless.
Powerful because, after years of feeling invisible, I was suddenly a siren. It was intoxicating to be able to turn the heads of boys and men simply by walking down the street. My budding sexual charisma masked my sense of not belonging anywhere. Whenever the "you're not good enough" harpies whispered in my ear, I could dull their voices by amping up my charm.
But really, I felt powerless. I felt ashamed of my sexual urges, ashamed of attracting attention, and ashamed of the fact that my impulses propelled me into sexual encounters for which I wasn't emotionally prepared, and which gave me the false impression that my sex appeal was the only thing about me of any value. I grew up in a home where no one talked about sex, so I had nowhere to go for guidance.
The sex I had as a young woman was exciting, but not fulfilling.
I was too focused on what I looked like, or trying to send a guy into orbit, to be present and enjoy the sex I was having. I wasn't in charge of my sexuality; my dependence on external validation was in charge of me.
But that all changed at 50 when my marriage ended, and the world that I'd known blew apart. Hard knocks will either destroy you, or develop your character. In my case, they did the latter. I stopped caring that I didn't have a house and a ring on my finger. I made a decision that I'd rather be alone for the rest of my life than be in a relationship where I couldn't be myself.
My libido, long dormant during my marriage, returned with a vengeance.
I found it surprisingly easy to date. Stepping into my sexuality a second time, this late in life, was a truly powerful experience. I led with my confidence instead of my appearance. My desire to please a man sexually came from generosity and maturity, not from a selfish attempt to make myself feel worthy.
Once I stopped needing a man's stamp of approval, I was finally able to be present in bed. I could say what I wanted. My shame melted away and I began to embrace my sexual urges and sexual persona. Finally, I was in charge of my sexuality.
I couldn't have known at 20 what I know at 50 -- an age when the culture would have women believe that their best sex is behind them. The only person who can give or take away your sexual power is you.
It took 50 years for my self-image and beliefs about sex to crystallize; these 11 things are what I know to be true.
1. Don't listen to anyone who tries to shame you for your sexual expression. Being a sexually assertive woman doesn't mean you're a "slut." Your sexuality is a gift to be cherished.
2. Buy sexy lingerie for yourself. You don't need to wait to be in a relationship. And don't leave home without it.
3. Do a boudoir shoot. You don't need to wait for a significant other. Do it for yourself. And hang your pictures on the wall.
4. Stop worrying about the shape of your breasts, gravity's effects on your body, and your menopausal vagina. Time, experience, and the wisdom acquired after five decades have made you a better lover in your 50s than you were in your 20s.
5. Listen to your fantasies. You don't necessarily have to act on them. Sharing them with a trusted partner will deepen intimacy. And sometimes they're good for a laugh.
6. Embrace your sexual preferences. A hankering for beyond-vanilla sex, or a desire to be claimed, doesn't make you damaged goods or a scourge to womankind. But always give your consent. As a grown woman who commandeers her own ship, you have the power to say yes or no.
7. Lead with your maturity, not your appearance. Good looks only get you so far. Confidence makes you desirable over the long haul. Men and/or women will still find you sexy when you're upwards of fifty. Maybe even more so because you're 50. Yes, really.
8. Cross off items on your sexual bucket list. Younger men? A threesome? Tying up or tying down? Going to a sex club? As long as no one gets hurt, seize the day!
9. Be transparent about your desires and intentions. You can have great sex with people you don't love and shouldn't try to love. Don't attempt to manufacture a significant relationship out of one that isn't. It really is okay to like casual sex, as long as you're honest about what you want.
10. Ignore menopause horror stories and stale cultural narratives. Your years of hot sex are not behind you! You will most likely still want sex, and in fact may even want it more, or enjoy it more, than when you were younger.
11. Believe that you can find love after 50. Even if it's for the first time. It makes sense when you think about it: you're better now than you've ever been.