Women of all ages — up to 97! — dish about sexual desire in new book

Writing a book about women’s sexual desire brings an interesting collection of joys and challenges.

If, like me, you were raised in Presbyterian churches in Texas, it first means a serious talk with your mother, as she makes clear her hope that your book will not be “vulgar.”

Fortunately, even back in 2010 when I began this project, I was able to reassure my concerned parent that I had no intention of penning a lurid book — though I warned her that many of the direct quotes from some extraordinarily candid women would carry serious shock value.

I needn’t have worried.

Fast forward to earlier this year, when “Kiss and Tell: Secrets of Sexual Desire from Women 15 to 97” was released. My mom devoured the book in four days—and pronounced it free of vulgarity.

Furthermore, her Austin home has become a satellite sales branch in Kiss and Tell’s marketing campaign. Despite its steamy title and cover, my proud mother carts copies of the book with her everywhere, and has made sales in locales that include her dentist’s office and, yes, the Presbyterian church.

Like me, she’s learning that conversations about what factors create and sustain desire in women, and how their desire evolves over a lifetime, don’t have to be awkward. The more you discuss the topic, the more natural it becomes.

My book partner, Wellington gynecologist and sexual health expert Dr. Maureen Whelihan, was my model for how to talk to people about sex and desire. As I began interviewing the women who became the characters for Kiss and Tell, I strove to match her tone, interest and impartiality, and found that in time, it became second nature to converse on all manner of intimate topics with women I’d only just met.

In fact, one of the things Maureen and I hoped for when we began this process was to encourage conversation on the topic.

“Women don’t have low desire for sex,” the doctor is fond of saying. “But they have low desire for the sex they’re having.”

We wanted to know why this seemed true, so Maureen and I devised a six-question survey focusing on desire. It included such questions as “what are you thinking about during sex?” and “what stimulates your desire?” We collected responses from 1,300 patients in Dr. Whelihan’s gynecological practice over a period of 15 months. Then we selected between five and ten women from each decade in a woman’s life to interview in-depth, as representatives for their age group.

Those fearless women faced extensive questions from me about their sexual preferences, their memories of the first time they had sex, their thoughts on what sustains desire throughout a lifetime, the number of partners they had been with and what they would do differently in their sex lives if they were 20 again. More than a few times, at the conclusion of these lengthy interviews, a subject would tell me she felt like she’d been to a therapy session.

As the interviews in each decade unfolded, I made fascinating discoveries. I quickly noticed teens and twenty-somethings had no trouble talking about sex. They boldly shared every aspect of their intimate lives, but their youth precluded them from having much wisdom to impart. At the other end of the spectrum, women in their 80s and 90s had a lifetime of rich stories to share, and much wisdom, but they had almost no experience putting any of it into words. I was surprised to realize that some of the older women I spoke with had the most substantial conversation about sex in their lives … with me.

It was the women in their 40s, 50s and 60s who seemed able to best merge the ability to talk about the nature of their sexuality with an understanding of what they had learned and discovered over the course of their lives, thus sharing their wisdom as well. Accordingly, the chapters dealing with those decades in a woman’s life are the longest ones in the book.

I also discovered that most women don’t have a Sex and the City gang that casually shares the details of what goes on behind the bedroom’s closed doors—which makes the stories in Kiss and Tell even more valuable. In the absence of information, many women tend to think there’s something a little odd or perhaps even wrong about what they prefer or shun sexually. But all it takes is a few starkly honest interviews and you realize that everyone’s different, and yet the same.

Time and again, as I read the surveys or interviewed respondents, women would say things I completely identified with. Just as often they would express enthusiasm for some practice or activity that didn’t appeal to me at all. And as soon as I was able to glimpse the vast sea of experiences, preferences and responses that existed in the female population, I began to feel comfortably normal and exceedingly average.

Malcolm Gladwell posits in Outliers that becoming an expert in your field requires 10,000 hours devoted to the subject. Researching and writing Kiss and Tell has put in this “expert” category when it comes to women’s sexual desire, though I’m here to tell you we’re a small subset.

But that’s all right. The fun of surprising people keeps me going. When I was finally able to speak without self-consciousness about my book and its research, I discovered it’s a great topic to bring up at parties—or just about anywhere. Everyone wants to hear more when I mention my field of expertise.

And don’t worry, Mom. I promise the conversations are never vulgar!

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