Healthy sexuality can last a life-time. In midlife, due to physical and relationship changes, we may encounter some special challenges.
One day a few years ago, I was standing in line at a little bakery in Cannon Beach, Oregon thinking about the fact that I hadn’t had a period for months and worrying what that would mean for my sexuality. In front of me in line was a couple wearing matching blue jean jackets and hats, and barely able to keep their hands off each other. She had her arm around his waist under his jacket, rubbing up and down on his back, his hand gently massaged her butt. They giggled like school kids. Ah, young love, I thought to myself. Their sexual energy was palpable and I was more than a little envious. Just then they took off their hats and turned around. These young lovers, these school kids must have been at least 70-something! Her hair was white, his a distant memory. They were both wearing gold and turquoise jewelry against their wrinkled skin. And, oh, those smiles. Smiles that said “We had sex this morning!”
That day in the bakery I had come face to face with a woman at least 25 years older than me and experienced first-hand the strength of her sexual energy. The experience went a long way towards reassuring me that, regardless of all the hormone and desire fluctuations of menopause, as a midlife woman my sexual future can be as bright as I choose to make it.
As a marriage therapist with over 20 years experience treating sex and intimacy concerns I know that maintaining a good sex life has a lot to do with getting accurate information about what’s going on, developing positive attitudes, having access to helpful interventions, and learning new behaviors that can be put into play when needed. The biggest thing we have to fear is not the natural sexual change that our bodies go through, but the tendency many of us have to ignore sexual concerns, due to feeling embarrassed about sex. Our self-inflicted isolation can produce a lot of needless suffering and missed opportunities for pleasure.
Several years ago (following my experience in the Cannon Beach bakery no doubt), I became fascinated with researching and passing on to other women, the secrets to staying sexually vibrant forever. Here are a few key ideas that can I discovered can empower all women who want to stay hot and sexy forever.
Sex is ageless
Unlike other species, we humans have a sexuality that can last way beyond the years of fertility and procreation. In fact, barring serious health problems, we have the ability to stay sexually active (with or without a partner) until we die. Freda, an 87-year-old poet, told me that she enjoys pleasuring herself to orgasm everyday imagining a man with an big erection wanting to make love to her. “You never lose your fancies,” Freda chuckled, “Your fancies never die.”
Numerous sexuality surveys reveal that many people in their 50s, 60s, 70s and beyond, continue to enjoy sex regularly. One third of post menopause women report no change in their sex lives, and another third say their sexual experiences have actually improved with age. Consider: no messy periods, more privacy at home, more time to develop intimacy and enjoy sensual moments.
Women who report a decrease in sexual satisfaction, usually attribute this change for the worse to vaginal dryness, lack of a partner, health problems, and relationship difficulties (including sexual problems the partner is experiencing, such as impotence). Sometimes problems result when estrogen hormone levels fall and produce symptoms, such as nightsweats, hot flashes, skin sensitivity and vaginal atrophy which interfere with sexual enjoyment. Similarly, unusually low levels of testosterone can decrease sexual fantasies and diminish desire. (A wide variety of traditional and alternative medicine options now exist for addressing these concerns.)
We humans have the priviledge of being a species who can, theoretically, continue to experience different stages of sexual arousal, such as, excitement and orgasm, indefinitely. As with any physical response (be it seeing, hearing or jumping rope), though, we can expect some gradual slowing down and natural weakening as time goes on. Actor Jack Lemmon once quipped, “After a certain age, I found out not only did it take twice as long to rev up my motor, but it stalled frequently.” The trick is to learn to accept and adjust to changes rather than giving up on sex altogether because it’s different than it was when we were younger. Midlife actress Mae West once said, “Fifty men outside? I’m feeling a little tired. Send ten of them home.”
Sexual fitness makes a difference
Good sex has a lot to do with stamina, flexibility and blood flow. Thus, keeping yourself in general good health—by eating well and exercising regularly–may be the most important thing you do to keep sex alive as you age. Low-fat, high fiber eating in small amounts throughout the day can help you have more energy and ward off that sluggish, uncomfortable (I’d rather sleep than make love) feeling. And if you want choice in lovemaking positions and want to be physically spontaneous and intense at times, you will probably need to practice a variety of exercise styles. For instance, yoga for flexibility, weight training for strength, and aerobics for stamina. One recent study showed that a good workout on an exercise bike increased sexual interest in women more than a candlelit dinner. The more blood flow to your genitals, the healthier they will be and more you will feel.
But your biceps and thighs aren’t the only muscles in your body that need continued exercise and attention for good sex. You need to keep your pubococcygeus muscle–or PC muscle, for short– in shape. In animals, the PC is the muscle that wags the tail. In women and men, it’s the muscle that contracts when we climax. The PC muscle is a hammock-like muscle that extends from the pubic bone to the coccyx (tail bone). Also known as the “love muscle”, the PC holds up our sex organs. When it is thick and strong it gives good support (and keeps us from peeing when we laugh or cough) and when it is weak, it can reduce pelvic blood flow and cause weak orgasms or no orgasms at all (not to mention more than a few stains in our underwear!)
To keep your PC muscle strong for enjoyable sex, you will need to exercise it frequently–ideally, daily, for the rest of your life! No, I’m not kidding. This one belongs right up there with flossing and bathing regularly. The standard PC exercise consists of TIGHTENING, HOLDING, and RELAXING the muscle over and over again— sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly,— for up to 100 times a day. Also known as “kegel exercises” these PC exercises are effective in treating urinary incontinence and improving recovery after childbirth. Many women have told me that they experience stronger, longer-lasting orgasms when their PC’s are in shape. [Detailed descriptions of the kegel exercises can be found in many childbirth and women’s sexuality books.] PC exercises can be tedious and time-consuming. Women who do them regularly have learned to integrate them in with activities such as driving, talking on the phone, or watching TV. You may also find at times that a few sets of PC exercises will increase sexual arousal. Thus, they can be great to do when waiting for your lover to join you in bed or during a candlelit dinner.
Comfortable settings, comfortable vaginas
The older we get, the more we need to focus on being comfortable in sex. It can help to create settings for lovemaking and self-pleasuring that are relaxed and relatively stress free. Take the phone off the hook. Turn on some soft music. Give yourself lots of time. Make sure you have lots of privacy.
It’s important to identify what you need to feel more comfortable sexually and then give yourself permission take action. Mattie, a 52 year old, self-described hot and sexy midlifer, keeps a wide variety of different size and shape pillows near her bed. This way she has them handing when making love to prop up a hip or a lover’s head. Joan, a woman in her mid-forties, suddenly developed a self-consciousness about her own vaginal odor. This new anxiety made it difficult to touch herself at night. To remedy this she created a ritual of gently cleansing her vaginal opening and lips before retiring to bed.
But it’s not just external comforts you’ll need to address in active ways. You’ll need to be sensitive and responsive to how your body is feeling on the inside during sex, as well. Vaginal dryness and discomfort are concerns of many midlife women from time to time. It is natural for vaginal lubrication to diminish some as we age and fluctuate according to our levels of stress and hormonal changes.
Continuing to have sex when you feel uncomfortable inside could damage tissues, or at the very least, promote negative feelings about sex. Because menopausal women are more susceptable to bladder and vaginal infections, it’s a good idea to consult a health care professional to determine what is causing the discomfort and get you started on appropriate treatments. A lot of problems with vaginal dryness can be remedied by keeping lubricants, such as Astroglide and Creme de la femme, handy and using them liberally during lovemaking.
More serious problems with vaginal dryness and soreness can be effectively treated with hormone creams that are applied directly to the vaginal tissues. When Toby, a 49 year old who had been skipping periods for several years, consulted her doctor, she was surprised to learn that her vaginal discomfort and dryness problems could be traced to visible changes in the cushioning layers of her vagina. She went on a program of inserting .5 gram of estriol cream (from a compounding pharmacy) twice a week. It plumped up the tissues to where she rarely needs to use lubricant anymore. Toby says, “I feel like I’m 25 again. . . that is, on the inside, where it counts!”
It’s time for new thoughts and a few new moves
Keeping sex alive involves being able to make adjustments, as they are needed, in the way you think about sex and the way you experience it. We need to move away from thinking that we have to look a certain way (ie. like a Playboy bunny, or even like Goldie Hawn at 55) to be active and enjoy sex. Good sex is not a matter of how you look, but rather depends on how you feel and what you choose to do. Women of any age are sexy when we accept and appreciate our incredible bodies, and tune into enjoying touch and other sensual pleasures. Now is a great time to put on those silk sheets, light up in an assortment of scented candles, and spend an afternoon with your lover and a jar of chocolate body paint.
The willingness to be creative and open to new things is one of the best ways to keep sexuality alive for years. Studies show that the couples who have satisfying long-term sex lives are those who are open to experimentation. Novelty creates excitement. Anticipation builds arousal. We can go wild wondering what might happen next.
Vibrators, sex toys, erotica, and even romance novels, can add to excitement and help get the juices flowing. There are some new “natural contours” vibrators on the market that look like modern art and purr softly (and wouldn’t scare a grandchild who happened to find one lying about). [footnote, Natural Contours 1-800-456-LOVE; also, Good Vibrations, a new age sexuality shop in San Francisco puts out a catalogue of sex toys and vibrators. Call 1-800-289-8423) Romance writers, such as Susan Johnson (Blaze, Pure Sin), Nora Roberts (her Dream Trilogy), and Mary Jo Putney (her Silk Trilogy), offer stories of strong women with strong desires, and, thankfully, no shame. (You may also be interested in an award-winning collections of poems that I edited, Passionate Hearts: The Poetry of Sexual Love and Intimate Kisses: The Poetry of Sexual Pleasure).
As physical problems surface now and then, having a variety of activities to choose from can enable us to stay sexually active. If one thing doesn’t work, you don’t roll over and go to sleep, you try something else. I recommend couples experiment with a “side-by-side” or “scizzors” sexual position in which both partners are reclining next to each other rather than one person being on top of the other. (The man rolls on his side towards the woman. She lies on her back, and drapes one or both legs over his hips so he can enter from the side). These alternative positions can be less stressful when people are tired, stressed or their bodies ache for one reason or another.
Similarly, oral sex can become more important as we age. Men may slow down in their ability to get and maintain an erection. They often need more stimulation to inspire action and response. Erectile difficulties matter less when women have another option for sexual release. And, it’s important to know that men can climax even without becoming erect. Since many physical sexual problems are made worse by anxiety, exercising alternatives modes for mutual pleasure can hasten sexual recovery.
It’s a good idea to do a little soul searching when you are considering something new that you aren’t sure about. Rachel, a 52 year old woman who is actively dating says, “Whenever I come up with a new idea, be it wearing a shorter skirt or tickling my nipples in front of a new partner, I always ask myself first: Does this go against my personal values? Am I feeling healthy excitement or dreadful anxiety? While I want to be open to new things, I don’t want to do anything that will hurt me or anyone else.”
Sexual changes are inevitable but they are not insurmountable. With good information, medical interventions when needed, and a lively and creative approach to sexual sharing we can go on to enjoy this rewarding part of life for many years to come. With a gleam in her eyes, Alicia, a woman in her mid-fifties, told me: “I’m looking forward to being bolder and taking the lead more with my partner. I’m looking forward to our sexual relationship deepening. I’m looking forward to beingmore flouncy. I’m going to get a feather boa. I’m going to be a hussy!”