Bummer alert: A recent study published in the journal Menopause, which dug deep into libido loss in 4,500 postmenopausal women, found that an underwhelming 3 percent—3 percent!—of participants reported any positive sexual experiences. The thought that I may at some point stop enjoying sex has me deep in my feelings (of fear around aging). But is such a shift away from sexuality really so inevitable?
It’s fairly well established, say the study’s authors, that menopause-related hormonal changes can make sex uncomfortable or even painful. While there are effective treatments for resultant symptoms (such as vaginal dryness), sex therapist Claudia Six, PhD, tells me they don’t solve the problem entirely. This is partly because no matter one’s sexual orientation, the physical urge to have sex typically decreases significantly once a person has left their prime reproductive years, she says. In other words, when arousal ceases to be, you may not even get to the point with a partner at which moisture matters.
“One of the best kept secrets of aging is that it correlates with self acceptance.” —Claudia Six, PhD
Physical changes can lead to psychological shifts that are deadly for libido, says Dr. Six. “A lot of women kind of figure, ‘Well, that part of my life is over,'” she says. This conclusion is short-sighted and results from a misunderstanding around desire. “People assume that desire is that horny feeling, and after menopause, that doesn’t happen,” she says. “But I think of desire as the willingness to get started, to engage the other person sexually.” You can access this type of desire, Dr. Six says, through either your heart or your head. “You can come to desire from a different place where it’s not just about getting off, it’s about connecting emotionally,” she says. Then—once you’re in the ring, so to speak—arousal can happen.
Some of the study’s participants listed confidence issues from internalized ageism as a factor in their waning sex lives. The good news, however, is that not all women experience self-esteem issues as they age, and Dr. Six tells me she often sees the opposite. “One of the best kept secrets of aging is that it correlates with self acceptance,” says Dr. Six. “The older you are, the more you like yourself.”
Age-related shifts in fitness habits can affect libido too, says Dr. Six. “People who are more physically active tend to have more libido because they’re more in their body and they feel more confident and competent,” she says. “You don’t have to be running marathons, just stay in your body because it’s hard to get turned on if you’re not.”
“Be responsible for your own orgasm; don’t wait for a partner to give it to you.” —Shannon Chavez Qureshi, PsyD
Finally, there’s an often unavoidable logistical issue crippling the sex lives of older women, at least according to the study: many no longer have a partner with whom to be intimate. Or partners they have are not able to participate in sex due to illnesses or loss of their own libidos. But all hope is not lost, says Los Angeles-based sex therapist Shannon Chavez Qureshi, PsyD, because healthy sex lives do not always require a partner. “I recommend self-pleasuring, masturbation,” she says. “Be responsible for your own orgasm; don’t wait for a partner to give it to you. Masturbation not only boosts mood and sexual self-esteem, it increases sexual interest and satisfaction,” she says.
Ultimately, Dr. Six is optimistic when it comes to the possibility of enjoying sex throughout life despite the challenges which come with aging. “People design their lives based on what they conceive of as possible for themselves, and if somebody has a conception of life that sexuality/sensuality is something that continues into old age, then that’s something that they will manifest in their lives,” she says. “I hear about women in their 70s who are saying they’re having the best sex of their lives.” Besides, she says, in the 30 years since she started practicing, the average age at which women experience a sexual peak has risen from 35 to 50. In 30 years (or less) from now, perhaps it will be 65+.
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