Barbara Hannah Grufferman answers the burning question we all want to know, but are afraid to ask.
My husband and I met in the sweltering summer of 1992 and started rocking and rolling immediately. But from the moment we got married a year later, we were 1) thinking about getting pregnant, 2) in a state of pregnancy, 3) recovering from pregnancy or 4) enjoying (and coping with) the results of pregnancy: babies, toddlers and, now, two teenagers. It wasn’t exactly conducive to swinging from chandeliers.
During those early years, sex was focused more on a result (children), but that’s no longer the case. Like most couples over 50, we are free to have sex pretty much whenever we want. But, do we?
I tried to find some statistics about how many times per week married Americans over 50 made love (with each other), but there were so many different studies saying so many different things, it was hard to suss out the truth. One stated that married couples over 50 had sex once or twice a week, while another claimed it was closer to once or twice a month.
Confused and in need of more information, I met with Dr. Margaret Nachtigall, a reproductive endocrinologist in New York City, who shared some statistics from a study done by The National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior:
A study of married couples found age and marital satisfaction to be the two variables most associated with amount of sex. As couples age, they engage in sex less frequently, with half of couples age 65-75 still engaging in sex, but less than one fourth of couples over 75 still sexually active. Across all ages, couples who reported higher levels of marital satisfaction also reported higher frequencies of sex.
This study left me feeling that the older we got, the less we got it. Not good.
I raised this topic with some girlfriends one night over a bottle of wine, hoping to get insights into their concerns, and (yes, I admit it) how often they had sex (with their partners).
We all had the same question: I love my husband and he loves me, so why aren’t we having as much hot sex as we used to? We want to have sex, but sometimes we just aren’t into it. How do we get in the mood? We all hated thinking that things were slowing down, and that they might slow down even more. For sure, menopause can sometimes make sex uncomfortable, and our libido can drop off. But just because a woman is post-menopausal, does she automatically lose interest? Forever? Was that my future? Was I supposed to lock this door and throw away the key?
I was getting worried. And whenever I get worried, I do research. Finally, someone suggested I meet with Esther Perel, author of Mating in Captivity, which explores many of the questions my friends and I were confronting – specifically, why couples who have been together for a very long time often can’t sustain a rich, enjoyable sexual life … together. Esther was particularly eager to find out because in her view, sex after 50 may be the best sex we’ll ever have.
First, she said, we had to address some long-held views about sex after 50 that may not be true.
- Women over 50 are sexually dysfunctional due to menopause. According to Esther’s research, the majority of women over 50 are sexually healthy. Sexual problems that are menopause-related can be addressed with simple solutions like lubricants or estrogen.
- Men think women over 50 are sexually undesirable. Esther has rarely encountered a man who says his low sex drive is related to how his wife looks, or her age. But, he will be turned off if she has stopped being interested in sex. Men want women who want sex.
- If you’re not having spontaneous sex, it must mean your sex life is over. When, Esther asked, was sex ever spontaneous? When you were first together, you had sex on your mind for hours, maybe even days, leading up to the experience. In many cases, you set the date, thought about it, planned the evening — even what to wear. It may have seemed spontaneous, but it wasn’t. Good sex is planned sex.
- If a couple is having less sex, it’s her fault. News flash: If a woman over 50 is having less sex, chances are it’s him, not her. In men, low sex drive is often related to health problems or medications he may be on, many of which are known to create some sexual functioning challenges. Men aren’t used to needing stimulation, and it can be troubling. Sometimes he’ll just avoid it, causing the woman to think he’s no longer attracted to her — which results in a sexual Catch-22.
- If you want to have a better sex life, you need to get closer. On the contrary, Esther says, excess information and over-sharing can put the kibbosh on desire, while a little mystery can fuel sexual attraction. Creating an erotic space between you and your partner is essential for good sex. (I share lots of tips on how to do that in The Best of Everything After 50.)
Then, we explored the three main tools that women can use to get into the mood:
- Arousal – Watch a movie or read a book, have a fantasy, put on some sexy lingerie. Many things can arouse us. Arousal can lead to desire, and desire leads to sex. Figure out what gets you going and use it when you need it.
- Desire – Desire means wanting to be turned on. With this entry point, you want to get aroused, and you want to actively engage in getting turned on with your partner.
- Willingness – This is the most important entry point for women over 50. If you’ve been ignoring, neglecting or denying your sexual self for a while, then you must consciously decide that you want sex in order to even let yourself feel desire. We talk ourselves into doing things all the time – going out to an event, cooking dinner – but people don’t think about talking themselves into having sex (and they often confuse it with “pity sex”). This makes complete and total sense to me … and, even better, it works!
So here’s the big reveal: After 50, we’re at a sexual crossroads, and need to make a choice: We could go through menopause, shut down that part of ourselves, lock the door and throw away the key. Or we could embrace this new life with a sense of freedom and fun – no more periods, no more worries about getting pregnant, no more doing it because there has to be a result. You may very well find yourself having the best sex … ever!
And finally, one little bit of advice: Stop looking for studies about how often other people have sex. No one really knows what goes on behind closed doors (no matter what they say to the survey interviewer). And … who cares?
Editor’s Note: Barbara Hannah Grufferman is the author of The Best of Everything After 50: The Experts’ Guide to Style, Sex, Health, Money, and More.