When I first started dating Kurt in my early 40s, I faked that I was enjoying sex. I was trying to impress him, launching into activities I knew he liked. But once we got married when I was age 46, I finally admitted (to myself) how bad sex was. All the activities that were supposed to produce orgasm—use of fingers, tongue, or penis—caused pain or felt like unbearable nerve frenzy. Though climaxes did rarely happen, the path leading there was a frustrating mystery. This was true even when I tried by myself.
Improvement seemed out of reach: I feared my body had zero capacity for pleasure. Faced with marital bed obligations, and sick of lying, I began thwarting my husband’s advances, leaving him blindsided, confused, and angry.
Asking for an Outsider’s Opinion
I always did what men wanted, especially between the sheets, even if it wasn’t what I wanted. I was a survivor of childhood molestation, and I hadn’t truly considered how sexual violation can destroy a woman’s relationship to her erotic self. An intervention was called for. What if someone could teach us, or teach me, the basics of lovemaking: from responsiveness to communication? Screwing 101. The person my spouse and I chose for this task was an Italian Tantric mistress (or Tantrika) named Francesca.
“Thank you for coming here, Kurt,” said our sensual coach as we entered her apartment. “You know, most men would never walk through that door.”
My husband smiled broadly, scanning her red wrap dress, gold high-heeled sandals, and shiny, brown bob. Even at 72, she looked like a recently retired Rockette. But was she flirting with my guy? This session was supposed to be about me! In fact, I’d actually been to Francesca’s studio once before, solo, where she taught me relaxation methods—much needed due to my earlier abuse. Now, all attention was on him. Had I unwittingly signed up for a threesome? Obviously, I’d be the third wheel. We seemed headed in that direction as our hostess ushered us into the back room of her incense-filled lair, laughing conspiratorially with my man.
Entering the Sex Inner Sanctum
A big brass bed took up most of the real estate. I considered grabbing Kurt and walking out the door, but then I remembered everything else we’d tried together: hypnosis, role play, a couples’ retreat in Florida.
Tantra offered hope. This ancient practice, which harnesses sexual energy for sacred connection, was reported to increase orgasm frequency, decrease depression, and boost immune function. What most attracted me, however, was how it was developed and passed down by females, goddesses possessing immense erotic knowledge. If the Tantrika taught my paramour new moves, would it make a difference? I prayed it would.
Beginning our tantric sex lesson, Francesca placed us in delicate chairs at the foot of the monster bed, where she taught us chants to open the chakras. I knew these from yoga and was relieved to find something familiar and safe. But soon enough, she uttered the phrase I both loathed and longed for: “So do you want to get naked?”
Getting Naked and Getting Busy
As Kurt and I removed every stitch, the shapely sexpert watched. I felt self-conscious, freezing, and paranoid about my husband’s nudity. Surely, these extra female eyeballs would affect his privates, though I couldn’t decide which direction I wanted them to go. (They stayed neutral.) When we hopped on the gold, tasseled comforter, I lay on top of his body so I could cover his form with my own.
“You look great together,” said the Tantrika. “So proportional.”
She was referring to our physical compatibility (we are both slender and short). Gazing into my husband’s face, I saw a shining pride that said: At least our embrace is working for us. This intimate moment was interrupted by our hostess, who had scooted next to us on the bed. “Show me,” she whispered. “How do you kiss normally?”
On command, awkwardly, we French-kissed.
“How was it?” asked Francesca with Mediterranean candor.
“Great,” said Kurt.
“Honestly, I don’t love the way he kisses me,” I blurted out.
The Awful Truth
I hadn’t planned on admitting this—I suppose I did have an inkling of what pleased me, or at least what displeased me. Now I was mad at myself. Couldn’t our guru give my man new skills without my rejecting the old ones?
“What’s wrong with the way I kiss?” Kurt asked a little too loudly.
Luckily, Francesca came to the rescue, describing myriad mouth variations. As my spouse and I experimented with each one, I tried to define, for the first time ever, the kind of smooches I preferred.
“I like a lot more lip,” I concluded after more trial and error. “Maybe some little nibbles.”
Voicing my preferences was terrifying—I was sure I was hurting my husband. But Kurt became busy with his own proclamations.
“I hear what you’re saying about the lips. But I need more tongue,” he told me.
He didn’t like my make-out style either. Ouch.
I don’t know why we needed a third party to speak our truth. Frankly, I was shocked I even had a truth. I had always viewed myself as a blank canvas that men painted upon. In that room, I discovered that I was also an artist. The kissing compromise Kurt and I eventually worked out felt like creative collaboration.
All the Right Moves
As activities gradually moved down the body, to our respective genitals, Francesca had us reveal how we wanted to be touched. I definitely felt braver having this other woman in the room, one who had immense knowledge of erotic options (and anatomy), but I was still apt to say, “Fine,” instead of “Softer…Slower…Softer.” Wasn’t it just easier to keep this to myself, pretending everything was OK, like I’d been doing for decades?
The Tantrika said, “No!” And I was beginning to agree. Even fumbling with “Can you…” requests that required more lady-part knowledge than I possessed (where did the clitoral head begin and all that skin of the hood end?), I could feel warm blood flow in the right places until I pulled away. I didn’t want full arousal, not here (Kurt refrained too). But I could finally imagine being alone with my spouse and getting hot.
The last part of our sex lesson involved spiritual aspects of Tantra. We learned rituals like looking into each other’s left eye, breathing together (“from the belly”) while hugging heart to heart, and sitting in each other’s lap in a position called yab-yum. When our guide said we were out of time, I was surprised to feel disappointed, to see that same emotion on my beloved’s face. These intimacy exercises, layered on top of our new honesty, created a bubble around us that was beginning to feel more powerful than rampant self-consciousness. Almost.
Back in the front room again, fully attired and pulling out our credit card (a whopping $700 for 90 minutes) the Tantrika said: “If you want to come back again, we can go further. We can even go into intercourse.” Perhaps we would have done it, given the sense of trust and privacy we were developing, but I’m glad we stopped short. I needed time to master baby steps, and we both needed time to pay off this debt.
Aftermath & Afterglow
It’s been three years since my husband and I had our Tantric sex lesson, and every day we’re grateful we made this investment in time, money, and embarrassment. I’m not sure how else I would have demanded my own delight (post-Francesca, for six months, I sheepishly asked for what I thought might bring me orgasm until I found the right combo, at which point I stopped being sheepish). I never would have otherwise acknowledged the full damage of my sexual abuse and of what I’d lost. I wouldn’t have had the courage to get it back.
Francesca, the Italian Tantrika, definitely showed us how to make love, but what she really taught us was how to love each other and ourselves.
Laura Zam is a writer, speaker, and wellness coach for women who’ve been sexually violated. She’s been published in The New York Times, Salon, and other publications. Laura’s memoir of sexual healing is The Pleasure Plan.