Watch the TV long enough, and you’re bound to be bombarded with ads promoting pills for men’s sexual health. There doesn’t seem to be many taboos remaining when it comes to talking about older men and sex, but we still seem to be lagging behind when it comes to discussing older women’s feelings about sex. True, we have begun to look more at how menopause affects women and the way they experience sex physically, and that is positive. But are we really talking about the importance of sex and sexuality to older women? Probably not as much as we should be – sex doesn’t stop after 50! Luckily, a new study is now trying to highlight this subject, and has published some interesting findings about menopause, sex drive, and the importance of sex to women as they age.
It seems like our reluctance to talk about how older women feel about sex has lead to a lot of assumptions. For example, have you noticed that a lot of people assume that once a woman reaches menopause, her sex drive is going to automatically and inevitably fade away? Women over 50 (or even over 35 or 40 sometimes!) definitely have reason to complain that they are left feeling invisible, and misunderstood, especially when it comes to their sexuality. But feelings about sex are intensely personal for everyone – women over 50 included! – and can be complicated. The cure to this silence? More open, honest looks at how older women view their sex lives.
Holly N. Thomas, M.D., assistant professor of medicine at the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania, has spent years trying to get more detailed information on older women’s sexuality out there. Thomas and her team recently presented a long-term study to answer the question of whether it’s inevitable that women lose interest in sex when they get older.
“We were interested in looking at how women’s ratings of how important sex was to them changes or stays the same as they move through the menopausal transition,” says Thomas. They studied 3,257 women over 15 years of their lives, monitoring them physically and consistently asking how important sex was to them throughout these years. Their findings were in some ways surprising, and in some ways completely common sense.
The problem with studies of a lot of people is that they often just show us how people feel on average. So maybe if you asked multiple women how they felt about sex as they got older, and then you lumped all of their answers together, it might look like on average sex usually gets less and less important to women the older they get. Luckily, this study accounted for that and found that, unsurprisingly, different women have different opinions on the importance of sex to them.
According to Thomas, “If you just looked at averages of the group as a whole, it would look like how important sex is to women would go down for everyone, but we actually found three distinct pathways women commonly follow when it comes to how much they value sex as they get older. It’s important to recognize not all women are going to follow the same pathway when it comes to sex at midlife, each woman has her own unique experience.”
So how did these women view the importance of sex? While the largest group of them (45%) said that sex did actually become less important to them as they went through their 40s, 50s, and 60s, 27% said that it had remained “highly important” to them throughout the entirety of their midlife. The remaining group said that sex was not very important to them as they entered midlife, and their feelings remained the same as they got older.
So the study proves what might be obvious to any older woman (or anyone with a close relationship to an older woman!): sex can be a big part of anyone’s life! But the study also found that there are a few things that women can address to keep their sex lives an exciting and active part of their lives.
What was it that The Rolling Stones were talking about? Satisfaction! The study found that one of the most important factors in women remaining interested in sex is satisfaction. We’re talking physical satisfaction and emotional satisfaction – sex that feels good and hits the spot in all senses of the word! If sex doesn’t feel good, then women should feel comfortable speaking with their doctors about possible solutions.
Another factor? Psychological health. Taking care of our mental health is always important. But it is especially vital as we age and our lives begin to change, with kids leaving home and retirement making the whole structure of our days different. In Thomas’ study, she found that women who were depressed were less likely to feel that sex was important to them; she points out that there is definitely a link between depression and low libido. Women should always speak to their doctor if they’re feeling low, including if they feel like it’s affecting their sex drive!
More Talk = Better Sex?
There is nothing inevitable about women losing their sex drives as they get older. Sex does not get less important to all women simply because they hit menopause; if it was important before, it is more likely to continue to be important. But we might need to work at keeping it fresh and interesting, and realize that sex itself might start to change as we age. And we definitely all need to work on being more open about everyone’s sexuality.
According to Stephanie Faubion, MD, director of the Mayo Clinic Center for Women’s Health in Rochester, Minnesota, “Sexual function is usually under addressed in women in general but certainly in women beyond menopause. We need to be more routinely asking women in midlife about their sexual function and whether there are barriers such as having pain during intercourse or if they’re having problems with low sexual desire that’s bothering them.”
Her main point? We should be talking with women about ways to keep their sex life active throughout their whole lives, if that’s what they want. Doctors should talk to women about how sex might look different in midlife and beyond, and nobody should feel shy or uncomfortable talking about how they can reinvent or reimagine their sex lives. Everyone should be encouraged to spice things up, or explore what feels good to them – whether it’s trying out things like talking dirty or switching from regular old missionary position sex to things like oral sex and mutual masturbation.
Doctors agree that we should all be having fun in whatever way works for us (even if they say it in their own doctor language!) Says Faubion, “We have to modify our expectations about sexual functioning as we get older. Sex may not be always be penis and vagina sex; I have that conversation often with my patients.” Most importantly, we need to acknowledge that sexual intimacy in some form remains important for pretty much everyone throughout their whole lives.
The takeaway from studies like this is that we cannot make assumptions about anybody’s feelings, especially on subjects as personal as sex and sexuality. The way to cure our tendency to dismiss older women’s sexuality, and to validate their feelings and support them? Be more open about it! It’s time to ditch old stereotypes and taboos and allow everyone to live their fullest, most satisfying lives.