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Every month in Sex at Our Age, award-winning senior sexpert Joan Price answers your questions about everything from loss of desire to solo sex and partner issues. Nothing is out of bounds! To send your questions directly to Joan, email email@example.com.
A reader writes:
I have no sexual desire and I wonder if that’s even a problem. I’m a 64-year-old woman, two years out of a divorce. I caught my husband cheating several times and finally sent him packing. My sex drive was practically non-existent after menopause, and I had little interest in sex with my husband, so part of me gets why he cheated.
To be honest, my husband was a good lover, and before menopause I enjoyed sex a lot. After menopause, my husband and I rarely had sex because I was seldom in the mood. Surprisingly, on the rare occasions when we did have sex, I enjoyed it, despite not being in the mood in advance.
That’s history. Now I’m making a life for myself on my own. My single friends think I should be out dating and bed-hopping, or at least looking for Mr. Next, but with no sexual desire, I have little interest in men. I tried masturbating a few times. The orgasms were fun once I got there, but it took so long to get aroused that it hardly seemed worth the effort. I can go months without thinking about it.
Maybe that part of my life is over now, and I should just move on and enjoy my friends, my grandchildren, and my hobbies. But when my friends talk about their sexual adventures, I wonder if I’m missing something.
Why don’t I feel desire anymore? What should I do about it? Should I bother? And is there something wrong with me that it’s so easy to give up sex? —No Desire
Joan Price responds
There’s nothing wrong with you. Many women report less sexual desire after menopause and through the decades beyond. The hormone-fueled urge for sex has receded, plus our relationships no longer have that zing of newness. Troubles in the relationship – such as catching your husband cheating multiple times – contribute to being turned off to sex.
But you’re out of that marriage now, and you’re wondering whether you should just give up on sex. It’s your choice, of course, but I vote for stoking your sexual fire, single or partnered. Sexual expression is good for our health and well-being, and for nurturing our intimate relationships. You may think now that a new love will never come along, but millions of people in our age group can tell you otherwise.
Let me give you a different way to think about desire. You, along with many others, do not experience what’s called “spontaneous desire.” Your sexy bits and your brain don’t go boom in advance. Instead, you experience “responsive desire,” which means that after you get going physiologically and your body starts getting aroused, the desire follows in response to stimulation. This matches the way you described enjoying sex with your husband once you got started, though you didn’t feel desire in advance.
Emily Nagoski, Ph.D, explains it in her book, “Come As You Are: The Surprising New Science That Will Transform Your Sex Life.” She writes:
“The standard narrative of sexual desire is that it just appears – you’re sitting at lunch or walking down the street, maybe you see a sexy person or think a sexy thought, and pow! You’re saying to yourself, “I would like some sex!” This is how it works for maybe 75 percent of men and 15 percent of women…That’s “spontaneous” desire.
“But some people find that they begin to want sex only after sexy things are already happening. And they’re normal. They don’t have “low” desire, they don’t suffer from any ailment… Their bodies just need some more compelling reason than, “That’s an attractive person right there,” to want sex.
“…Desire is arousal in context… Arousal begins when you activate the accelerator and take pressure off the brake – turn on the ons and turn off the offs… And then desire comes along when arousal meets a great context.”
If you look at your own experience, it’s what you’re describing.
Another helpful book is “Inviting Desire: A guide for women who want to enhance their sex life,” by Walker J. Thornton, a self-help book of questions and exercises that help you take steps to understand and own your sexuality after the shifts you’ve experienced post-menopause. It’s written as a 30-day process to invite desire and sexuality back into your life, and will help you examine new ways to think about sexual desire.
Besides reading these books, I suggest that you start to turn things around by self-pleasuring. You said you tried masturbation, but arousal took so long that it hardly seemed with the effort, and you can go months without thinking about it. The longer you go between times of sexual stimulation, the harder it will be to get aroused and reach orgasm – I think you’re finding that out. The good news is that the opposite is also true. The more frequently you self-pleasure, the easier and faster your response will be. Use it, don’t lose it.
To help yourself over the hump and speed up your arousal time, I suggest bringing a sex toy or two into your solo sessions. I review sex toys from a senior perspective on my blog, and I’ve written “A Senior’s Guide to Vibrators” for Senior Planet.
Once you get back in touch with your arousal and orgasm, and the pleasures that these bring, you may find yourself more open to a new relationship. If that happens, you’ll be ready. Even if it doesn’t, you’ll be having good sex, solo style. There’s nothing wrong with that.
Would you like to see more questions and answers? See all of Joan’s advice in Sex @ Our Age.
Send Joan your questions by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. All information is confidential.
Joan Price is the author of “The Ultimate Guide to Sex After 50: How to Maintain – or Regain! – a Spicy, Satisfying Sex Life”; the award-winning self-help book “Naked at Our Age: Talking Out Loud about Senior Sex”; and the sexy memoir, “Better Than I Ever Expected: Straight Talk about Sex After Sixty.” Visit Joan’s blog, “Naked at Our Age,” and her Facebook page.
One year ago, I had breast cancer surgery. Fortunately, it was Stage 1. But it was a year of anxiety, pain, surgery, and radiation. Now I’m on an anti-estrogen pill for 5 years. My sexual functioning is gone!! Prior to surgery, my husband, 77, and myself, 82, had a sizzling sex life several times a week. Now I feel nothing. We have sex once per week. I love my husband dearly and would like to feel something!!
Hello I had almost the same problem. You should talk to a good docter you can still take testosterone an oxytocin has been proven safe for breast cancer survivers. Oxytocin help vaginall dryness it well do the same thing that estrogen does. You could start by looking online you can place under your tongue or vaginally in a gel or cream I hope this helps you.I wouldn’t take that anti estrogen but thats just me.
Coming to bookstores soon, my three-volume opus “Email: an inadequate vehicle for conveying subtle concepts.” The glibness criticized was my own; your advice on how to bring sexual pleasure into people’s lives was intended to be praised. My admiration for your work is complete. My pity for lives ruined from unexamined values remains.
Can’t we just give sex a break! We are such a sex obsessed society. I’m so tired of EVERYTHING being about sex sex and more sex. Take a look at so iety and see if we are any better off. I’d love to find a man where sex was way down his list of priorities and a really close deeply intimate relationship in a mindful way could develop. Something that would endure long past a superficial sex, but I guess I’m dreaming.
Mary, since this is a sex column, it will be about sex. Sex does not contradict intimacy and mindfulness. For many of us, they co-exist beautifully. However, there are couples who agree to be non-sexual, and you can find a partner who doesn’t care about sex. Best to emphasize the positive aspects of what you’re offering in a relationship to attract someone like that. I wish you well.
Dr AlanK, whether the letter had been addressed to me or to Emily Nagoski, you’re right that dealing with the letter writer’s lack of desire a few years ago might have changed the course of events, maybe saving the marriage through salvaging their sex life and understanding themselves and each other better. If the letter writer had asked how/whether to keep her marriage together at the time of discovering her husband’s infidelities, I certainly would have pointed out that it was an impossible (and cruel) situation to withhold sex and still expect fidelity — in essence, denying the husband’s right to a sexually vibrant relationship. I would have offered some ideas, including recommending sex therapy or couples counseling with a therapist like you. But the marriage is over, and that wasn’t her question, and I needed to address what she asked.
I don’t know what you mean by “as Ms Price suggests, in more neutral tones–simply offering introductory courses in sexual openness….” or what you’re criticizing as glibness. I do appreciate your comment, and I join you in seeing this as a very sad — and all too common — problem.
There is something hideously wrong about a woman with no sexual desire who divorces her husband for infidelity. A marriage is not a suicide pact nor is it an agreement allowing one member to unilaterally declare celibacy for both parties. Far better had this letter been written to Dr Nagoski a few years ago than to Ms Price today.
I am a psychologist interested in the changes society will have to make as our active lives continue well into our 80s and 90s. I do not claim to have answers. Our society and ourselves are badly designed for 50+ years of enjoyable sexual monogamy. Must marriages become renewable? Must we allow monogamy to become looser? Or would–as Ms Price suggests, in more neutral tones–simply offering introductory courses in sexual openness (subsidized sex toys for those of us in our better years? sexual gymnastics events with free early bird dinners as the prizes?) be an important first step?
It is easy to be glib. I am often too guilty of it. The letter describes two lives destroyed because of ignorance and closed-mindedness. We should weep.