Sex and the older woman

Couple 2

There was a lot of media coverage this month on research published about the sex lives of UK women aged 50-75.

The theme of the coverage was that sex dwindles with age. What’s more, only 3% of the women surveyed were positive about it. Hardly a ringing endorsement.

So what’s that about?

The women involved were participants in a study on ovarian cancer screening. One of the questionnaires they completed was on sexual activity. While about 24,000 women filled it in, around 4,400 made extra comments, and it’s those comments that were analysed for the paper I’m talking about.

The comment writers don’t necessarily reflect all UK women their age. They were both a little older than the average age of women in the study (which was 64), and a little less likely to have a partner or be sexually active.

Bear in mind too that they were almost all white and apparently heterosexual.

Just over 65% had a partner and 22.5% (of the total) said they’d been sexually active in the last month (so 77.5% hadn’t been).

Why older women aren’t having sex

The biggest reason for lack of sex was the lack of a partner. Among women who had a partner, around a third said they’d been sexually active in the previous month.

Lack of sex among partnered women was mainly due to ill health of the women or their partners (more often their partners), men having difficulty with erections or women dealing with vaginal dryness or pain following menopause.

One-third of the partnered women who weren’t having sex said the number one reason was their partners’ medical condition — such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, stroke, cancer, dementia or chronic pain.

About 7% mentioned the impact of medication. It’s rarely discussed but some common medications (e.g. for blood pressure, cholesterol, chronic pain and depression) can flatten libido and limit sexual response.

There can be ways around that, but I wonder if GPs have those conversations with patients. And as we know, in people over the age of 75 it’s common to be taking several medications.

Around 13% of women referred to their partner’s difficulty with erections. Age aside, some diseases (e.g. heart disease and diabetes) and surgery for conditions such as prostate cancer can affect a man’s ability to have erections. Again, I wonder how many surgeons, specialists and GPs really talk to men about that.

Many — perhaps most — men in this age group regard penetrative sex as the only form of ‘real sex’, and when that’s not an option, they decide their sex lives are over.

Frenchwoman Marie de Hennezel, author of the 2017 book Sex After Sixty said in an interview that in France there’s an appreciation that being older means being open to a new and different kind of sexuality rather than trying to replicate the sex one had at 30.

That new and different sexuality is focused on tenderness, sensuality, intimacy and playfulness rather than an erect penis.

Of course, transitioning to a different style of sexual connection takes good communication and a solid relationship, and not all partnerships are up for it.

Over 10% of the UK women highlighted relationship problems. Interestingly, it was the women who were having sex who complained more about relationship problems than the women who weren’t.

American psychotherapist Dr Keesha Ewers says that when women come to her seeking hormonal help for low libido, she asks whether they like their partner. Often that’s met with tears.

On the topic of menopause-related vaginal changes, Australian data indicate that less than 30% of us talk to our GPs about those. Yet low-dose vaginal estrogen can make a big difference. It’s also safe. While you won’t get your 25-year-old vagina back, estrogen helps to moisten and plump up the tissues.

In addition to supporting our sex lives that also helps reduce urinary tract problems by keeping a healthy pH balance.

Many women either choose to stop having sex or if they lose their partner through death or separation, are content to call it quits.

Almost 16% of the UK women said they simply weren’t interested and another 7% said their partners weren’t interested. Again, it’s noteworthy that more of the sexually active women than the inactive women said they’d lost interest.

Of course, it’s easy to appreciate that women who grapple with night sweats and poor sleep for years are hard pressed to stay awake and feel half-decent, much less find the energy for a sex life.

For some, sex was never a source of joy, so any excuse to stop was a good excuse. One woman said that “having ‘thought of England’ for 35 years, I decided to draw a line under the whole unsatisfying occupation”.

But it’s not all tumbleweeds

While much of the focus in this study was on what doesn’t work for women, there may well have been a good number who were contentedly having sex but didn’t write comments about it. Like Scott Morrison’s “quiet Australians” perhaps.

Among the comment writers there was also the odd women in a new relationship whose sex life was blooming. Presumably they fell within the positive 3%.

And back home, Queensland data tell us that the rate of sexually transmitted infections among the over-50s has almost doubled in the last five years. That’s because newly single older men and women aren’t used to using condoms. Sometimes old dogs need to learn new tricks.

To conclude

What the UK research demonstrates, and Australian studies confirm, is that sex among older women is extremely diverse, from those who don’t have a flicker of interest to those who still practice penetrative sex and those who remain sexually active in different ways.

An Australian study published five years ago showed that by age 70 women were split about 50:50; half considered themselves sexually active and half didn’t.

The bottom line is that there’s no right way to be. It’s up to us to decide what we want and all choices are valid.

We don’t have to assume that our sex lives will or should disappear with age. Even if we have no partner or a partner who’s not interested, masturbation is available (though seriously, is there a more unappealing word in the English language?).

We might have been brought up to think it’d send us blind, but thankfully it doesn’t, and it just might inject some spring in our step. Here’s an article that makes a good case.

Orgasm is good for us — for example, it lowers our blood pressure and boosts our mood and our immunity. And libido’s an expression of our life force.

Having said that, if we choose not to go down that path, or if for health reasons it’s not available, there are other ways to stay vital and alive.

Exercise and/or physical activity has a role to play in that it gives us more energy and makes us feel better. It can help us to feel more positive about sex and if we’re not having sex, it’s one of those other ways to take care of our body and mind.

We do need to watch that we don’t compensate for a lack of intimate connection by overeating and drinking. If we’re in that situation it’s worth exploring healthier ways to feel fulfilled.

Finally, may our cultural view of sex one day become sufficiently liberated that young people realise that sex amongst oldsters is normal and healthy. Maybe then they’ll stop being horror-struck by such an appalling idea.

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