Timeless Pleasure: Exploring female sensuality through the stages of life

Major life events such as pregnancy, motherhood, divorce and the menopause affect a woman’s physical and emotional life. Both play a key role in a woman's confidence, self-love and sexual identity.

Appreciating that at different ages and stages in our life, our body will respond differently is empowering, so being in tune with ourselves at every stage makes a huge difference to female arousal.

Women often feel embarrassed to address the changes they are experiencing and the adverse effects they feel it is having on their sexual identity. 

We wanted to open up the conversation and delve into female pleasure as a whole through the different ages, so we asked a few inspiring women to share their experiences with us through a panel discussion at Soho House, moderated by our CEO Lucy Litwack.

With words that were both brave and intriguing, our panel shared their  experiences throughout the different life and body stages, and we would love to share some of our highlights with you below.


Changing bodies and experiences of pleasure

LL: I think everyone here will be only too aware that female arousal is an all-encompassing event. For men, sexual arousal is often much more focused on the genitals and visual stimuli. For women, we are more sexually aroused by multiple stimulations - auditory, olfactory, touch and emotion.

Female arousal is not ‘one size fits all’. Each body is different and has different switches, physically and emotionally, so every erogenous zone will feel different to each woman. There are an array of factors that increase and encourage arousal that do work for most of us, but we all have our turn ons, turn offs and unique kinks. 

There is so much to be said about society’s impact and so many worries about what is deemed ‘sexy’. Then there are factors such as age, image and self-understanding. Zoning out other voices around what should be arousing, and focusing on knowing what your body enjoys, will have a huge impact. 

Let’s begin with the self…

LL: Stacey, how has your relationship with yourself, your body and your sensuality changed over the years?

SD:  In my 20’s I wasn't enjoying my sensuality because I didn't understand my body and I hadn't given myself permission to. When I started working in fashion I zoned out of myself and I didn't particularly like myself or my body so I just went through the motions. I did have a lot of sex but I didn’t enjoy it and when it was happening I felt like I was not in the room.

When I got to my 30’s, I became dead set on finding someone to be the father of my children and that took up all my headspace. It was a need and desire and I felt that if I didn’t have it my life would end.

But then something happens at 45. Whether it's existential or hormonal, you just know that you have been through it all and you start to like yourself, for me this was partly down to doing therapy. I then at age 45 had the best sex of my life.

LL: Charli, how have these body changes affected your life and your relationship with your body?

CH: In my 20’s I was insecure and often dated people to make myself feel better instead of considering if I actually like them. I can see now that it was the completely wrong way of viewing a relationship.

It also took me until I was about 24 to actually wear a bikini for the first time and put my body on show, because before that I was so terrified of anyone seeing me. 

In more recent years I have realised that being nude is an act of vulnerability, and it takes the kind of confidence that often comes with age and time. I am at the stage now where I have done therapy which has completely shifted the way I view my body and my confidence levels.

Ultimately the moment when I stopped viewing my body as something for men, and for the pleasure of men, I started to enjoy life more and enjoy myself more. 

When you start respecting yourself and taking pictures of yourself that aren't photoshopped you start accepting your body for how it truly is.

LL: Nimco, as a Muslim woman, and someone who has experienced FGM, are their different layers to your relationship with your body and the differing generational nuances?

NA: I was raised a Muslim and educated a Catholic which meant I was raised with the taboo of sexuality. Sex could only be considered in the context of marriage which meant the concept of a woman being a sexual being was seen as something to be feared rather than celebrated.

I grew up in the 90s and it was a very oversexualised culture. In my ethnic community, nobody talked about orgasms but at the same time, women were basically having orgasms seeing a man open a Diet Coke. So that was the dichotomy of the world I grew up in.

I had a very invasive form of FGM when I was seven, which was about my sexuality and more specifically my virginity. It meant my virginity was owned in a very collective way. I ended up being more interested in that part of my body and it has been a very confusing experience for me.


The impact of fertility and pregnancy

LL: From a technical perspective, the change in body shape can have incredible effects, both positive and negative! Then there are the hormones…

We hear so much about pregnancy being the best time ever, with many women connecting with their body in a new way, loving the hormones, having crazy sex drives, the romance of creating a new life together and the impending love affair with a child.

And then there’s the other extreme - excessive vomiting, weight gain, water retention, hip braces, no sleep even before the baby arrives... 

The anxiety and confidence shift really can be substantial - and there can also be the awkward truth that your partner may be unbelievably turned on, or totally turned off. 

Communication has to be the best remedy for all these obstacles - but how easy is that? 

LL: Stacey, how did pregnancy and having children affect your relationship with your body and sex?

SD: I gained so much weight and I couldn't stop eating. My body changed and I put on 35 kilos, eating from morning until night.

The relationship I was in at the time didn't last because although I really did love him we hadn't built the foundations. I think I actually did succumb to the total fear-mongering from the press that said ‘you’re 35 so you are never going to have a baby.

I think when the fertility bomb goes off it's all consuming and it's all you can think about - it certainly was in my case. Thankfully now I've hit menopause, I don’t have to think about that.

LL: Nimco, You’ve frozen your eggs - how, when, why? What took you to that decision and what are your next steps?

NA: I started freezing my eggs just before the lockdown happened and I think this topic opens up a broader conversation about our society's views on pregnancy and motherhood. It is a principle to the economic development of this country that the next generation of children are born. I think childcare, pregnancy and healthcare with pregnancy is a fundamental and political conversation that we need to have.

It wasn't until 2021 that the NHS had a women's health strategy so for 70 years an institution that we all pay our taxes into hadn’t considered our needs as women.

I think the focus should be on whether we can actually get pregnant and if we did get pregnant what would that mean for us and our health. I believe our fertility health should be built into our general health system.

I have also learnt that as a Black woman, I am 5 times more likely to die giving birth in this country. So although freezing my eggs was an exciting thing for me to do, it also created anxiety for me.

It has made me more anxious about becoming a mother and whether I want to be a mum. The idea of giving birth has never really appealed to me and finding out about how difficult and risky it is going to be as a Black women and as an FGM survivor, to be able to give birth in a first-world country like the UK makes it even less appealing.


Ageing and menopause

LL: There is so much negativity around the female body ageing - body ‘failures’, rather than shifts - sagging, greying…. But I often think that the older women are, the more confidence they have, the more joy, acceptance in general.

Stacey, you said that you have recently started to experience perimenopause and I wanted to ask how are you feeling about it? 

SD: Yes, I was a menopause denier. And by denial I mean that last year I hit a slump where I basically spent 3 months in bed and I didn’t figure out what was actually going on until a few months ago. It was Christmas when I got these spots on my chin and it all made sense… I was in my menopause.

When it hit me it was like a punch. I had no idea what was going on and I blamed myself.

But here we are, and of course, I think there needs to be a wider conversation around it and less scaremongering but I also think there needs to be more real conversation about menopause in the same way we talk about childhood, fertility and parenthood.

I believe menopause has gone from not being spoken about, to being an absolute horror show that everyone is now terrified of and there has to be some in between.

LL: Charli I know it's probably a long time away but do you ever think about menopause? Is it something that is on your mind?

CH: Yes absolutely and it is interesting because menopause isn't a sexy subject and in our society women have to be sexy. There is that fear that as soon as you hit the menopause you will be undesirable and you will never find a relationship. The fear that your partner will start looking elsewhere for someone younger or better and to be completely honest that is something that has worried me. 

But I think it's amazing that now that people are starting to talk about the menopause and hopefully by the time I reach menopause I won't be as scared of it because it is now more discussed.

NA: And just to add to that, when I was writing my book I did speak to a lot of women about their menopause and I think this is a very western conversation. 

I think the structure and power women have when they go through menopause depends on different places. 

For example in the UK, the NHS has a lot of information from the women's health strategy in 2021. It is very interesting because Hormonal Replacement Therapy was always chargeable yet Viagra wasn't but that has now changed.


Dating through the ages

LL: I wanted to talk about your experiences of dating and whether it is something you are enjoying or not enjoying at the moment.

Charli I am going to come to you first, because you wrote a really interesting article for Stylist Magazine last year where you talked about how over-sexualised dating had become. Can you share a bit about your experiences with online dating?

CH: Yes absolutely. If you date men, then you will realise how annoying they can be and how extreme the dating scene has become. Maybe it's just me, but ever since lockdown, it feels like dating has become an entirely different thing.

It is a strange world where the conversations go from 0 to 100. There is no foreplay, and when I say foreplay I mean I want to play the game a bit and actually go on some dates and get to know each other.

There are so many dates I have been on where a man has said something really inappropriate and I speak to so many women who are also experiencing this. 

LL: Stacey, how does dating post divorce and with children change things?

SD: I had a column in The Telegraph called Midlife Dating Diaries which gave me permission to go on lots of dates. And I realised I still wanted the heightened romance but when you realise that isn't happening and you have to give up a night with your children or your friends, you start to wonder if it's really worth it.

I started to have this urge that there were things I wanted to discover about myself and experiences I wanted to pursue. Looking for romance was getting tedious, and I had to question myself about what I am actually looking for in this fairytale. Someone to save me? Maybe. Someone to look after me? Someone to be masculine? And I had to really look at myself in that moment and think, what is it I really want?

Letting go of my inhibitions and just allowing myself to be in the moment and to enjoy the moment for myself was liberating.

I found dating in my midlife to be as unbelievably difficult to navigate as it is in your early thirties but I did experience the most amazing sex at 46, which at 32 would not have been possible for me.

LL: And what about you Nimco, do you have any thoughts to share on dating?

NA: Yes. We need to have a conversation about the mis-education of men. There is a problem with men because society has allowed us to normalise certain things. The fact that we had to pass a legislation called the rough sex defence because women were dying proves this further. 

As a heterosexual woman and as a sister with four brothers, I don't think men are bad but I think they have been allowed to get away with too much. I think men have become too comfortable with women being passive and putting up with their rubbish which makes dating near impossible.


One of our greatest obstacles - The Orgasm Gap

LL: ‘The orgasm gap’ refers to the disparity between men and women experiencing orgasms. It is also referred to as ‘the pleasure gap’ as great sex shouldn’t just be focused on reaching climax, but pleasure during sex doesn’t always factor in the straight female experience.  

A lot of women are brought up to be people pleasers and this can often feed into the orgasm gap.  During heterosexual sex, 95% of men and 65% of women (which reduces to 18% for women during casual sex) will orgasm during sex. But, during masturbation, 95% of women orgasm.

I have a hard rule now, don’t fake orgasms, because I did in my 20s as I had that people pleaser mentality and fear of fracturing a man's ego.

There were multiple reasons my friends and I would do it and sometimes it was because you wanted them to feel flattered and happy and other times it was because you just wanted it to be over. None of these reasons are bad reasons but it just perpetuates that gap.

At the end of the day people aren't mind readers and if they think you enjoyed it they are just going to do exactly the same thing next time.

LL:  Does anyone else have any thoughts on bridging the orgasm gap?

NK: For me, I have never ever faked an orgasm. 

I use the privilege I have as a woman who has grown up in the West, to tell people when it isn’t working for me because I think they need to know.

SD: I think it's also about a lot of other things for women too, like how the person makes you feel and how they enjoy you.

A Lot of women I know have had the best sex of their lives between the ages of 45 and 49 because it's taken them all that time to get to know what they like and be vocal about it.

LL: It is interesting because when men talk about sex they are most often talking about penetrative sex and it is getting to that point much more quickly in today's society. When we talk about pleasure at Coco de Mer we are talking about the all encompassing element of sex. Sadly with heterosexual sex there is so much focus on only the penetrative element.

We constantly reduce heterosexual sex down to the penis and that being the most important part of sex which again puts all the focus on the man. There are actually very few women who are going to orgasm from penetration alone, so when we make that the main focus there are going to be many women missing out on the pleasure they deserve. Hence this orgasm gap.


Continuing the conversation:

It has been a pleasure to share some of our highlights with you and we hope it inspires you to keep the conversation going in your own lives.

We are so thankful to Charli, Nimco and Stacey for sharing their experiences and perspectives with us with such grace and vulnerability. 

Ageing comes with all kinds of challenges and at Coco de Mer we believe in the importance of taking the time to understand yourself and your body. Discovering what works for you can lead to a true sense of enjoyment and pleasure, which really can be life changing, so thank you again to our panel for helping to illustrate that so wonderfully!