AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Darcey Steinke remembers her first hot flash.
DARCEY STEINKE: It was sort of exquisite, you know (laughter). I mean, it wasn't just terrible. It was, like, completely sweaty, but also, like, incandescent with heat.
CHANG: Wow. You're making me want to have a hot flash right now.
STEINKE: You're just like, wow.
STEINKE: And I sat up, and I thought, wow, I mean God is finally trying to contact me. You know what I mean (laughter)?
CHANG: Not a bad opening act for menopause. Steinke is 57, and she's written a new book called "Flash Count Diary." It's about how her body changed during menopause, how her mind changed and how her sex life changed, too. We spoke with her as part of our series about sex, a series exploring how we talk about sex and how we don't. Steinke told me that people are really reluctant to talk about menopause, which meant she didn't know much about menopause before she started going through it. And just a quick warning, over the next eight minutes, we'll obviously be speaking frankly about sex, which may not be appropriate for all listeners.
STEINKE: I feel like in the world we live in, the sort of patriarchal world, like, women are most valued for their sexuality and their motherhood.
STEINKE: So once menopause comes, there's a feeling of shame, I think, that comes for a lot of women. And you know, so I didn't really know much. My - I remember my mother going through it, but she never talked about it. I do remember her having hot flashes. I remember her being very unhappy. And I feel - I sometimes feel bad in retrospect. I feel like, you know, I should've understood it more. But, you know, we never talked about it.
CHANG: What were some of the worst stereotypes you had heard about menopausal women?
STEINKE: Well, the idea of sort of the dried-up woman, the, you know, nonsexual woman, the mean woman.
STEINKE: You know, these are all menopausal stereotypes, and they are actually really stereotypes, I'll tell you, now that I'm moving through it myself. I mean, there's just no reason at all to feel that way. It's like, it's not. I mean, to me, menopause is so much about freedom. It's not really about being closed down or irritable or outside of, like, physical life.
CHANG: Yeah, so give me a sense of the scale of that new phase, what these changes were like. I mean, did you feel like some of the most fundamental things about you were changing?
STEINKE: I did. I mean, I felt my very femininity was in question. It was harder for me to sort of prop it up, you know, because I wasn't menstruating. I didn't have a lot of the female signifiers that I once had. You know, my hair wasn't as smooth. My - you know, and I - I can remember a waiter once saying, like, sir to me, and I was like, oh, my God (laughter). Wow. This is a whole new territory. But in a way, I mean, I have always been more of a tomboy. You know, I'm a big lover of David Bowie, you know.
STEINKE: And so the idea of a more androgynous self, you know, sort of coming out of my more femme, fertile self was in some ways extremely exciting to me, frankly, and not just as a new face but also sexually.
CHANG: OK, so how did sex change for you after menopause?
STEINKE: All right. Well, I feel like it was a gradual process. I - like, I do remember feeling less interested in, like, intercourse. I felt it was sort of uncomfortable. I feel like...
CHANG: Why? Why do you think it was uncomfortable?
STEINKE: Well, the - I'm not sure what - how much you know about the menopausal changes, but one of them is sort of a lack of moisture. But that is so easily fixed by lube. You know what I mean?
STEINKE: It's not, like, a big tragedy. And frankly, like, in my research, a lot of the menopausal chatrooms, there's a lot of sad talk by women that, like, intercourse hurts, and they don't know what to do about it. Like, they don't know - how can they talk to their husbands? They feel forced to have it. I mean, you know, I had this high school friend that said to me, I now understand the term wifely duty.
STEINKE: And that's just so sad, you know?
CHANG: It is.
STEINKE: I mean, that's just so sad to me because there's a lot of other things on the menu. You know what I mean?
STEINKE: Like, you know, a lot of great stuff, you know. And so that's the thing - that was the place that I sort of moved toward. It's not just this one script, right?
STEINKE: It doesn't always have to be manifested in the same way. And I was - I'm lucky; I have a partner that's extremely able to have these really tough conversations. You know, he listens to me. We talk about his needs. We talk about my needs. And so, you know, I was lucky in that way. But...
CHANG: Did he have questions for you? Like, what did he ask about?
STEINKE: Yeah. Well, he's an investigative reporter, so that was helpful.
CHANG: Oh, that helps.
STEINKE: It did help a lot. I mean, because he is always interested in what's true, what's real. He did have a lot of questions. Like, he - you know, he didn't want to hurt me, of course. As part of my research for my book, you know, I talked to so many sex therapists, and a lot of them suggest this thing of having a night of just, like, touching - kind of rub each other's back and everything. But you don't worry about what's going to happen; you just sort of, like, you know, revel in the moment.
CHANG: It doesn't have to end in sexual intercourse.
STEINKE: Exactly. And he'd love that.
CHANG: Like, let's do that.
STEINKE: He'd like that better.
STEINKE: Which I thought was really amazing, you know.
STEINKE: A lot of men, I think, feel like, without, like, intercourse, they feel like their partner maybe doesn't like them anymore. You know what I mean? And so rather than having a conversation about actually how she's actually feeling and what they could do that would excite both of them, it's like this feeling of, like, oh, you know, she doesn't like me. There's so many different ways that we can be together, like our bodies can be together, our souls and our minds can be together. And it's just so sad that there's this static, sort of dead place that can happen, you know, as people age.
CHANG: Well, as you were having those conversations with, you know, men who have partners who are women going through menopause...
CHANG: ...And they're feeling rejected...
CHANG: ...How - I mean, what kind of conversations did people tell you about...
CHANG: ...About how they got past that?
STEINKE: Well, the men - I have to say, I, like, interviewed more women; I interviewed about 25 men. And it was interesting. They tended to deflect questions about their own aging and sexuality and wanted to focus more on their partners not wanting sex. But some men told me that their wives had said, I don't want to have sex with you anymore. Let's, you know, go some - you know, either let's be celibate, or you can do what you want, you know. Some men told me that there was less sex but more, you know, hugging and kissing and cuddling, which they liked, you know. The most enthusiastic men, as they entered menopause, some of them were very relieved that they couldn't get their partners pregnant anymore.
STEINKE: And that actually - they felt that sex that could lead to a child had always been kind of, like, apocalyptic, one man said to me, you know; like very powerful in its sort of scariness.
STEINKE: But the fact that that wasn't true anymore was actually extremely freeing. And the one man that was the most actually verbal about this told me that, like, he felt like sex was now connected more to play.
CHANG: And he liked that?
STEINKE: He liked it. There was a lightness. There wasn't this, like, incredible feeling that, you know, oh, what if she gets pregnant, you know?
CHANG: Right. The pressure's gone.
STEINKE: So that was interesting to me. I wouldn't have thought that.
CHANG: Yeah. You know, listening to you talk, you make it sound like there's a lot to look forward to with menopause.
CHANG: So what I really want to know is what surprising, just awesome things happened for you because of menopause?
STEINKE: I think I feel closer to my partner, my husband, than I ever have, I think, in part because as you - your bodies both age, you know, you have to be more intimate, you know, because you have to have these discussions.
STEINKE: Things are changing. You can deny all this and just decide not to be physical anymore. But if you go into it, the level of intimacy is kind of mind-blowing, I'll be honest, you know. And, like, that's really beautiful. I would hate to miss it.
CHANG: Darcey Steinke is the author of "Flash Count Diary: Menopause And The Vindication Of Natural Life." It's out in June. Thank you very much for joining us.
STEINKE: Thank you so much.
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