We've Gotta Have it
Sex or Sexlessness at Midlife?
Libido either ramps up or slows down in midlife. How to handle the change
As an age 50+ therapist specializing in sexual issues, I’ve observed that midlife women settle into one of two camps: the “A”s, who experience a precipitous drop in sexual function and libido, and the “B”s, who undergo a sexual renaissance, sometimes enjoying sex for the first time ever.
According to a 2009 AARP survey, only 43 percent of older Americans report being sexually satisfied. Sixty percent of singles aged 45+ enjoy robust sex lives with dating partners, as opposed to 52 percent of marrieds. However, a University of California, San Diego, study of 800 sexually active older women found that satisfaction actually increased with age.
I’m a clinician, not a research psychologist, so my own findings are purely anecdotal. But after talking with upwards of 200 middle-aged women, I’ve noticed certain factors separate the “A”s from the “B”s.
Where Sex and Midlife Intersect
Both As and Bs experience the physical changes that menopause, or other health conditions, bring: lower libido, lubrication problems, thinning vaginal walls, difficulty climaxing. However, the A ladies seem to get hit the hardest. Sometimes hormonal, herbal, or sex toy remedies alleviate their symptoms.
But some report that nothing reboots their sexual hard drive. These women mourn the loss of their sexual function and are frustrated by the lack of effective medical interventions.
Menopause doesn’t seem to encroach as much on the Bs, who are often in better physical health than the As. B ladies are more responsive to corrective measures. Lube and longer foreplay remediate their mild symptoms, and hormone replacement therapy (HRT) soothes more severe ones.
Puzzled by the disparity in midlife women’s sexual response, I asked a gynecologist for her thoughts. (Note: she referenced heterosexual women.) The real culprit, she told me, isn’t menopause; it’s the quality of women’s relationships with the men in their lives. In her words, “after 20 or 30 years, women get tired of being treated like penis receptacles.”
This doctor had witnessed many midlifers undergo a sexual metamorphosis after jettisoning arid marriages and finding more progressive mates.
The conversations I have with midlife women reflect this same learning. Many say their lackluster sexual response reversed itself with the right new partner. They become easily aroused, lubricate naturally, and climax powerfully — sometimes better than before. They’re proof that female sexuality often ripens in middle age.
How to Evolve Sexually With Your Partner
Midlife women who have fulfilling sex lives while in long-term marriages have two things in common. First, they and their partners successfully navigate the shifting tides of desire, which tend to ebb with the physical and emotional demands of child-rearing, and flow when children require less hands-on attention.
Second, they evolve sexually with their partners. Domesticity can leech erotic energy out of a marriage, so it’s important to ignite desire through an exploration of different kinds of sexual expression.
As long as it’s consensual, pushing sexual boundaries creates both emotional and physical intimacy as you experience yourself and your partner in new ways.
Sexually Invisible Women: A False Narrative
Unfortunately, many women absorb the toxic cultural message that we’re only desirable when fertile and cellulite-free.
Implicit in this propaganda is the notion that women’s sexual expression should focus on what men want. While the desire to please one’s partner is important, true erotic fulfillment requires stepping into one’s intrinsic sexual power.
A sexually empowered woman knows she doesn’t need a twentysomething body to be sexy. Her life experience and comfort in her own skin fuels her libido. She shifts from performance-driven sexual behavior — I’ve gotta act like a porn star or he’ll be disappointed! — to healthy entitlement: this is what I like and what I expect from a sexual partner.
I’ve spoken with women in their 40s, 50s, and 60s who are having hot sex with men in their 20s and 30s. I’ve also heard from women in their 60s and 70s who report that they’re having the best sex of their lives with partners of the same age.
What, then, to make of some midlife women’s claims that middle-aged men want only younger women? The age bigots are out there, for sure. But I’ve talked with plenty of older men who prefer being with their female contemporaries.
Unlike boy-men, who feel emasculated by strong women, mature men desire women their age. They’re less attracted to body parts and more aroused by the erotic pull of confidence and life experience.
These men also accept their own age-related physiological changes: less reliable erections, decreased sensitivity, and a longer time achieving climax.
It’s not that the B women don’t feel the impact of age. It’s that they’ve embraced a different narrative. They believe their chronology is an asset.
Younger women often have a hard time identifying what they like in bed. Many think of sex as a performance to please a man. If a man is into them, they’re desirable; if he’s not, they’re not.
Mature women are motivated by their own pleasure, not a performance.
They know what they like and are more comfortable asking for it. They believe they’re sexual creatures with or without a man telling them they are.
An older woman’s sexual power is enticing — but only to partners who are evolved enough to handle it.
When Sex Just Isn’t That Important
Not every midlife woman grieves the loss of sexuality. Some A women report feeling relieved that they’re no longer preoccupied with sex. Others tell me sex was never a core part of their identity, so they felt midlife gave them “permission” to define themselves in nonsexual ways.
The camp-A women who flourish shift their focus elsewhere: career reboots, creative endeavors, volunteer activities, deepening friendships.
These women share a similar outlook: they don’t measure themselves by the cultural yardstick. They don’t buy into the tiresome notion that women’s worth is tied to sexuality and fertility.
Not caring what others think of them enables many A women to embrace the loss of earlier sexual function and move on.
7 Steps To Finding Sexual Pleasure In Midlife
Are you an A hoping to be a B? Or a B determined to stay a B? Here are some key steps for nurturing your midlife mojo:
- Consult a sexual function doctor. One client told me her gynecologist — a woman — shrugged off her complaints of painful sex with the comment: “women stop having sex at 65 anyway.” If you have a similarly apathetic gynecologist, get a doctor whose job it is to improve your sex life. Consider consulting an ob-gyn who specializes in treating women’s sexual dysfunction, such as painful intercourse and problems with arousal.
- Embrace your body as it is now. You’re not supposed to look like you’re 20. Sexual desirability has more to do with pheromones and confidence than with washboard abs and pert breasts. You can’t reverse the clock — and you’ll make yourself miserable trying — so get comfortable in your midlife skin.
- Take care of yourself. While it can be tempting to succumb to the downward tug of age, refusing to care for your body is an act of self-violence. You should be exercising and eating right to stay healthy, not to rock a bikini. Staying physically strong, and respecting your body, will help keep you sexually vibrant.
- Don’t drink the patriarchy Kool-Aid! Being young and conventionally attractive doesn’t guarantee anyone a good sex life. Plenty of hot millennials slump on my couch, complaining of sexual dysfunction and partners who don’t want to sleep with them. If you refuse to listen to misogynistic propaganda, you’re more likely to experience sexual pleasure.
- Be with someone who deserves you. If you’re single, rest assured: there are good men who will want to sleep with you! But be prepared to weed through the online dating thicket and bide your time. If a man makes you feel undesirable, bid him a hasty adieu and be grateful that he’s kept you available for someone better. Are you married, languishing in a Saharan sex desert? Consider seeing a sex therapist if the two of you can’t figure out solutions on your own. And if your spouse continues to disregard your sexual needs, ask yourself: can I thrive and grow old with this partner? But take note: your relationship to sexuality determines your contentment with a sexless marriage. Some sex researchers believe that asexuality is a legitimate orientation, contrary to what society tells us. So if you’ve never felt a strong sexual interest or desire for sex, you’re going to be far happier accepting the lack thereof than if you choose to squash your sexual urges to stay in a marriage.
- Practice mindful sex. Mindfulness means accepting the present as it is, not how you’d like it to be. If you can’t bear the idea of fornicating with the lights on, or you’re obsessing over the appearance of your labia, then, really, what’s the point of having sex at all?
- Calm your reactive mind. Shift your attention away from negative thoughts to what’s actually happening: the sights, sounds, touches, and tastes that form an erotic experience.
Acceptance is the key to sexual pleasure after 40. Navigating inevitable changes can spur you to get creative, focus on sensuality, and be grateful for the gift of sexuality.