Judith says the exercise made her realize that one huge thing she can't control about her sexuality is her fading looks. "Like, I'm still looking at 40-year-old men," Judith says, "but they're not looking back." A few of the other women agree.
Elizabeth stares at them as if they're insane. "I love being middle-aged," she says.
The women return her you're-out-of-your-mind look, so she explains: "When I was young, I'd see these older women and they just seemed as if they had confidence and were wise—and more comfortable in their skin. I'm much more comfortable in my skin today than I was at 30, 25, 20, and definitely 15."
"How?" asks Judith.
Elizabeth thinks for a minute. "I didn't get any mileage out of being cute when I was young. Maybe that's the positive side of not being cute or flirty at 20—when you don't get that attention at 45, you haven't lost anything."
A little later, Judith admits that she can think of a few good things that result from getting older. "My husband of 13 years always accused me of being frigid because I never had an orgasm with him," she says. "After we split up, I definitely learned I wasn't frigid. Which was a relief. Which was fun."
The women marvel that virtually all of them have had distressful sexual experiences. One says her sex life was "messy," explaining that she means nonlinear. "I was always a little ashamed because I didn't do the perfect progression of first kiss, go steady, first love, first sex," she says. "It's nice to see that all the women were a little out of order."
She turns to the men and asks if they ever felt that way. One says men don't think about sex in those terms. "Especially for young men, sex is very goal oriented," he says. "Get a kiss, get a girlfriend, get laid."
Larry agrees. In fact, he later explains, that's why he signed up for the course with his wife of 15 years. "We're past the Kama Sutra part of life," Larry says. "You want to—you need to—broaden the definition of sex. Like the other night, my wife was singing to me, and I said, 'Oh, you're making love to me.'"
One of the first pilot classes for the OWL program took place in Boston three years ago. Several of the participants say that the course lessons were not only useful but surprising. Sylvie*, a 35-year-old medical counselor, signed up for the class after seeing it advertised in the church bulletin. Speaking from her home near Boston, she explains that she'd always felt fortunate to have what she considered healthy feelings about her sexuality. "My dad was a general practitioner and my mom was a counselor, and they were very open with my brother and me growing up," she says. Her parents didn't shy away from explaining things, and kept books like Our Bodies, Ourselves and The Joy of Sex in the house. But in 2005, Sylvie and her husband began struggling with infertility. "It took all the joy out of sex," Sylvie says now. "We were always trying to get pregnant." So she signed up, with the hope of refiling sex under "pleasure" instead of "work" in her brain.
The first few workshops turned out to be exactly what Sylvie was looking for. Jane Detwiler, a certified sexuality educator, and her cofacilitator led the group through "anatomy of pleasure" and "understanding sexual response" exercises. Contacted recently at her office, Detwiler says many people learn about the reproductive capacity of sexual organs in traditional sex ed, but not the "pleasure capacity." She says that despite the sexualization of our culture, many of her students don't know what normal genitals look like, and she has discovered that loads of women worry that theirs are abnormal or ugly. In Sylvie's class, Detwiler used diagrams and photographs to explain that the truth is, of course, that there's a variety of "normal," as wide ranging as human faces. Her students also discussed the parts of the body besides the genitals that are wired for sexual response—skin, lips, breasts, nipples, tongue, hands, brain. Then Detwiler pulled out a model of a penis and the "Wondrous Vulva Puppet." She had labels ready (clitoris, perineum, vagina, glans, PC muscle) and asked volunteers to place them correctly. As students moved through the lesson, they talked about how the different parts contribute to pleasure.
Next, the instructors asked the students to compare the Masters and Johnson linear model of sexual response—excitement, plateau, orgasm, and resolution—to a circular model of mutual pleasure. To explain the idea, Detwiler drew a large circle on newsprint and asked students to think of all sorts of sexy, fun activities and list them around the circle. The students came up with "caress, oral sex, kiss, massage, lubrication, talking, fondling, phone sex, kiss again, snuggle." In a circular model, Detwiler pointed out, partners can start or stop sensual activity anytime they want, and the activities don't necessarily lead to orgasm.