We talk to sex educator Walker Thornton who speaks and writes about women and midlife sexuality. She’s on a mission to help women find the resources and inspiration to live fully expressed sexual lives–in whatever form that takes. Sounds great to us!
1.What made you decide to do what you do?
It was a mixture of things coming together –my previous work with women who had experienced sexual violence, dating post-divorce and blogging about it, and my realization that there was a gap in understanding and education for older women around sexuality.
I was already pursuing a career as a freelance writer so it was easy to begin to narrow my focus. Over the last several years I’ve begun educating and public speaking on topics of sexuality, relationships and aging, and just last summer I published a book, Inviting Desire.
2.Why did you wait until you did to do it?
I got nudged out of my job and was forced to look at other options. The idea about women and sexuality had been perked and things slowly fell into place. I do wish I’d started this earlier but I hadn’t realized it was what I was meant to do.
3.What are you hoping to accomplish?
I want to change the narrative about aging and sexuality. I want to help women find their comfort level around sex, aging, relationships—the process of growing into being “older”. When I hear from someone who tells me my writing has helped her find her sexuality I know I’m doing the right kind of work.
4.How did you make the change? What or who helped you?
I was pretty burned out from my work as the director of a sexual assault crisis center and ready for a change in direction. In those programs we did a lot of work with youth from elementary school through college but there is nothing for adults. And what little sexual education we receive in the American educational system doesn’t prepare us to be sexual people. Add to that the layers of ambiguous messages women receive around sex, aging, and menopause and there is confusion, frustration, fear and dissatisfaction.
I was going through my own challenges—ending a marriage, dating, and coping with my own thoughts about my worth as a single woman in her 50s. The people who helped me came later as I attended workshops and networked with other sexuality experts. The editors I worked with were focusing on older women and eager to add an expert voice on sexuality to their content. Those writing gigs gave me a chance to get feedback, see what women needed and refine my focus.
5.How did your family and friends react?
I didn’t share with family or many friends that I was leaving a job under pressure so it was a surprise. The transition was quietly done to preserve my reputation and that of the agency I left. Resigning I was able to negotiate my terms and to leave with dignity. So there wasn’t much conversation.
I think my mother still doesn’t believe I have the qualifications or the personal experience to talk about sex, but that’s mostly a matter of her not knowing details about my life!! Initially my adult sons were a bit uncomfortable with the idea of Mom writing about sex.
Five years ago the topic of sex and older women wasn’t being addressed very openly. It still seems to surprise people, particularly men, that someone writes and speaks about sexuality for a living.
6.How has your life changed having gone down this path?
I’m much less stressed and free to chart my own course. And at the same time it can be worrisome to know that I am responsible for creating my own structure and finding paying work. I’ve grown to love the openness and the mild taboo of talking about sex—I’ve always been talkative so having these conversations is great fun for me. This kind of work and being self-employed has changed how I approach life as a single, older woman (I’ll be 63 in August). My attitude about sex has changed—for the better.
7.What advice do you have for women considering a similar life change?
Obviously it’s better to plan such a drastic change—something I didn’t do. Having money set aside to ease in the transition helps because entrepreneurial work means you are on your own. Starting over, without a second income can be challenging.
I say “go for it” if that’s what you want. Life is too short to be stuck doing the same old thing every day if it doesn’t bring us a sense of satisfaction. Some of us find ourselves with these great ideas as a part of the wisdom and experience we’ve gained through living life—proof that it’s never too late.
8.What are you proud of and what keeps you inspired?
I’m proud of my book—it wasn’t what I initially intended to do, though I’ve been writing in some form since I was a child. The book has helped women address their relationship to their own sexuality. I’m enjoying the work I do and the interactions I am honoured to have with women and men who are searching for new answers in this stage of life. Their appreciation and growth is what keeps inspiring me.
9.What do you love most about being the age you are?
I get to do and say and think whatever I want. I feel pretty good about life and the opportunities I have before me. Contrary to that idea that we become invisible when we age I feel just fine with things as they are.
I’m not sure if I’m “visible” but I’m doing what I want; ageist thinking isn’t drastically affecting my day to day life. I’m dating and traveling and thinking about what I want to do, just for me, for the first time in my whole life, actually.
My sexuality is in full bloom and I’m finding opportunities to engage with men who are interesting and charming—and in my age range. That being said there are days when I bemoan the sagging neckline and damage from my sun worshipping days.
10.What do you hate most about being the age you are?
I worry about aging alone—who will care for me in my dotage? Will I miss companionship at some point if I choose to remain unpartnered? This is driven by the awareness that I will have health issues and physical challenges, at some point.
11.What do you know now that you wish you’d known in your twenties?
I wish I’d understood that I was enough all on my own, just as I was. Instead I rushed into marriage and stayed too long because it was drummed into me that being a wife was what I was supposed to do. I also wish I’d known how strong my sexuality was and what it could be like to understand and own my desires. It would have changed my relationships with men and allowed me to be more vocal about my own needs as a woman—in or out of bed.
12.What are the most important business and/or personal lessons you’ve learnt along the way?
I’ve never been good at asking for help and that’s been problematic. There have been times when I’ve needed help—coaching, a mentor, business advice but felt it was a sign of weakness to not be able to figure it all out.
I’m still learning and one of the biggest ah-ha moments happened when I began to ask myself, “What do I need?” today, in the moment, to help me write, to…whatever. I learned that I get to take care of my own needs—that it’s not selfish, but necessary to take care of myself first. That’s a business lesson and a personal one.
13.Do you have a mantra that has guided you more than any other?
I’d say it was the above question, “What do I need?” That has allowed me to pause and think about my body, my emotions, my intentions, and how I interact with others. That process allowed me see how we as women dismiss ourselves and how we can grow through valuing ourselves as worthy of that attention.
14.Which woman do you most admire and why?
The one I think about in terms of my work as a sexuality expert is Betty Dodson. She’s in her 80s, is still sexually active, and continues to work with women who want to explore and expand their sense of self as a sexual being. She’s totally unconcerned about public opinion, works tirelessly and has been a groundbreaker in talking about orgasms and bodies for decades.
One of her statements resonates with me and is a quote I used in my book, “You are responsible for your own orgasm. ” It’s an affirmation that we are equal partners in any sexual relationships, that we can and must take an active role in creating what we want. And not just when it comes to sex. I see Dodson as a reminder that I can be who ever I want—bold and brash, innovative, soft and sexual. Old.
15.Is there anything people consistently misunderstand about you?
Men immediately assume that I’m very casual about having sex!
16.How can Mutton Club readers find out more about what you do?
The best place to start is on my website, where I write about myself as well as topics relating to older women and men—sex, dating, relationships. I’m on Instagram and getting ready to ramp up my presence there. And I post fairly regularly on Facebook, curating content and starting conversations with followers.