Essential PleasuresYou know how amazing sex can make you feel — but do you realize that your health depends on it? Many women don’t. According to Dr. Hilda Hutcherson, author of Pleasure: A Woman’s Guide to Getting the Sex You Want, Need, and Deserve (Perigee Books), sexual pleasure is more than a pastime — it’s a prescription for wellness, especially in women over 40. Dr. Hutcherson should know — in addition to having penned monthly magazine columns and two sex guides, she has been a practicing gynecologist for more than 20 years — and is over 40 herself."For older women, sex is absolutely physically necessary," Dr. Hutcherson insists, and she gives proof to back it up. In Pleasure, she points to studies that link longevity to a satisfying sex life. One study even suggests that sexual dissatisfaction increases a woman’s risk of heart disease. But despite the scientific evidence, many women over 40 fail to realize that for them, maintaining sexual activity is especially essential. "Many of us think that sex is only for young women, that for older women it is not necessary. But if you don’t remain sexually active, then there are changes in the genitals [that occur during menopause] — dryness and atrophy — that can make it very difficult and painful to have sex later on."Luckily, there are simple steps that every woman can take to get the pleasure she deserves. Middle age is a great time to start: Dr. Hutcherson views this phase as a woman’s chance to refocus her energy on her own desires — and away from the needs of others. Read on for her expert advice.Me, Myself, and IPleasure is personal thing, and there’s only one person that can tell you where to find it. Whether you have a partner or not, the process begins with yourself."Start slowly," Dr. Hutcherson advises. "Soak in a bathtub with bubble bath and candles. Spend time experiencing your body, concentrating on how the warmth of the water feels. Then after the bath, massage your own skin, and concentrate on what parts of the body feel good, what kind of touch feels good." It almost sounds too simple, but many of us forget to relax and then wonder why we’re stressed. Focusing on the senses — and not the daily to-do list — is the key to experiencing pleasure. Set aside some time to identify what really stimulates you, both sensually and in your life outside the bedroom. "It can be a very slow process," Dr. Hutcherson admits, but who deserves your time more than you?Straight Talk (Without Talking)After you’ve identified what brings you pleasure, focus on getting what you want, whether that process involves a partner or not. To receive pleasure, you must give — information, that is. Be honest about what you desire, and learn how to communicate your needs. "We have to feel deserving enough to give information [about our pleasure] to our partners." Broaching the subject can be difficult, but Dr. Hutcherson believes in the power of subtle, silent cues, such as nudging your partner’s hand toward the areas that drive you wild. No matter how you choose to say it, allow yourself to be frank about your needs.Communicating with your partner is only one part of the equation, however. Dr. Hutcherson is quick to point out the necessity of solo sex. Many women find themselves without a partner as they transition through menopause, but continuing to experience sex is essential to a woman’s health and well-being. As a solution, Dr. Hutcherson prescribes vibrators for her menopausal and perimenopausal patients. Even if you do have a partner, self-exploration can heighten your sex drive and allow you to recognize what gives you pleasure, making sex with your partner that much more enjoyable.The Big Oh-NoAs you explore what gives you pleasure, take care to avoid a common pitfall: performance anxiety. Men aren’t the only ones who suffer from performance issues in the bedroom — the pressure to achieve orgasm can put a woman on the spot, too. And obsessing over the "O" can ruin any chances of experiencing one.The orgasm-centric advice that some of her colleagues dish out peeves Dr. Hutcherson. "One of the things that’s caused a problem with women is that sex therapists are telling them that they should have an orgasm every time, and that they should have an over-the-top, all-night orgasm. All these books about over-the-top sex make some women feel inadequate." She urges women to be realistic about their pleasure, and discourages them from setting sexual goals. She advises pleasure-seekers to relax, concentrate on the moment, and let the orgasm come without forcing it."Focus only on the good sensations that you’re feeling, and you’ll get to the point where orgasm is just second nature." And don’t worry if you don’t have the energy for marathon sex sessions: "I don’t know a single woman who wants to be in the throes of orgasm all night!" Dr. Hutcherson says. "Who needs that? Have a good orgasm or two, and go to sleep."Spice for Stale SexFor many women, it’s only lack of creativity that’s standing in the way of their pleasure. Dr. Hutcherson enthusiastically advocates trying out new techniques to add that much-needed spark. If you can’t remember the last time you diverged from your bedroom routine, now is the perfect time to learn some new tricks.For starters, Dr. Hutcherson insists that you’re never too old for toys. Yes, those toys. Before you say, "Not for me," consider your options: You can start with something low-key, like a diminutive "bullet" vibrator that doesn’t look like a sex toy, or with a lubricant or warming gel. "Choose something that fits your personality," she recommends. Starting small will probably go over easier with your partner, as well. "Most men are going to be open to it if you start out with something that’s not intimidating. If you go out and buy a 12-inch dildo and bring that into the bedroom, it’s not going to work." A more couples-friendly option may be a vibrator that is worn on one partner’s finger, or on other parts of the anatomy. With these toys, both of you can share in the fun. Still wary? Just browse a little. If you’re not ready to saunter into a sex shop, check out your options online. There are plenty of women-friendly sites out there that can walk you through your first purchase — and deliver the goods in a discreet brown box. Babeland.com, evesgarden.com, and goodvibes.com are all great places to start.Toys aren’t the only things that will shake up a stagnant sex life. In Pleasure, Dr. Hutcherson cites research that shows that women who regularly spend time fantasizing about sex have more satisfying sex lives. Fantasies are free, easy, and guaranteed to give you pleasure because you’re in control. Spend some time each day thinking sexy thoughts. Then take your fantasies to the next level: write them down in a journal or, better yet, bring a partner into the equation. Role-playing can rev up a relationship that’s lost its spark: "I think one of the best things that a married couple can do is to check into a hotel that rents rooms by the hour, in the middle of the day." The knowing looks you’ll get from the desk clerk will make you feel risque. "Just remember to bring your own sheets or blankets — I don’t think I’d want to sleep on the sheets in a place like that," Dr. Hutcherson jokes.Pencil It InNow that you know how to reach your pleasure potential, schedule a session. Think you’re too busy? Think again. You build time into each day for meals, chores, and workouts — why not sex? It is, after all, just as essential to your health as these other habits. Think about sex as one more thing that you need to do, and you’ll soon find yourself looking forward to it. And remember, you’re not the only one whose needs are changing: "As men get older, they have better erections in the morning," Dr. Hutcherson reveals. "So I tell older women: You’ve got to switch the time. He’s going to be better in the morning." Sounds like a great reason to stay in bed.Purchase Pleasure by Dr. Hilda Hutcherson Originally published on MORE.com, November 2006.