We’ve all probably heard the cliché: Women lose interest in sex as they get older.
While this is indeed a research-backed trend we see among women (some of them), it’s important to really interrogate what’s going on here when women report they’re both having less sex and enjoying it less when they do. We tend to attribute these trends to physical changes that happen to women’s bodies during menopause and perhaps to some inherent lack of interest women have around sex in general. The unspoken assumption is that once they’re old enough to have an excuse to stop having it, they do.
But a new study calls into question many of these assumptions, identifying a big factor in postmenopausal women’s interest in sex: their partners.
Sex with who?
Published in the journal Menopause, the new research analyzed data gathered in the early 2000s on over 4,000 menopausal women between ages 50 and 74. Some 78% were sexually inactive. The main reason? Not having a partner. A solid 45% of sexually inactive women said they didn’t have anyone to be intimate with, with 29% mentioning widowhood.
“[Many] mentioned they found it difficult to meet other men, had lost interest in sex after their partner’s death, or did not want to engage in other sexual relationships,” the researchers wrote in the paper on their findings. “It was clear from our data that many older women restricted sexual activity to committed relationships. Sometimes they were unable to find new partners after a relationship breakup or after the death of a spouse. The loss of a partner is often experienced as one of the most stressful life events in later life, and it is not surprising that many women abstained from sex or were reluctant to engage in new intimate relationships.”
(They quoted one 72-year-old woman: “I have been a widow for 17 years. My husband was my childhood sweetheart. There will never be anyone else.”)
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Her partner’s problems.
Beyond lacking someone to take to bed, the most common reasons for postmenopausal women’s decreased sexual activity were (in rank order) her partner’s medical condition, her partner’s sexual dysfunction, her own physical health problems, and then menopause-linked symptoms.
Did you catch that? The top three reasons for postmenopausal women not having sex actually had little to do with her.
Among those in relationships, a solid 27% of women mentioned medical conditions or poor health of their partners as a reason for decreased and less enjoyable sex. One in 10 mentioned her relationship with her partner itself as the issue—they were having relationship difficulties, which didn’t make for a very sexy atmosphere.
“Previous studies have highlighted that prevalence of reduced libido tends to increase with age and is associated with poor physical or mental health,” the researchers wrote. “It can, however, also be the result of ongoing interpersonal issues, such as a lack of connection with the partner, unresolved conflicts, or poor communication about sexual needs and preferences.”
A woman’s partner plays a big role in the quality of her postmenopausal sex life.
That should seem obvious, right? But we often peg older folks’ slowed-down sex life on the woman in heterosexual relationships without much consideration for the other party.
The study found 35% of postmenopausal women in relationships and 23% of those who were single had had sex in the last 30 days, which isn’t too shabby. Just 16% of those in relationships said they weren’t interested in sex across the board, and 18% mentioned their own health problems as what was affecting their sexual satisfaction and activity.
“Partner factors play a prominent role in women’s sexual activity and satisfaction, including the lack of a partner, sexual dysfunction of a partner, poor physical health of a partner, and relationship issues,” said Stephanie Faubion, M.D., medical director for the North American Menopause Society, which runs the Menopause journal, in a news release. “In addition, menopause-related problems such as vaginal dryness and pain with sex have been identified as problems affecting sexual function, yet few women seek treatment for these issues, despite the availability of effective therapies.”
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To Faubion’s point, we have plenty of ways to treat physical issues that come with menopause that can disrupt a woman’s sexual life, such as vaginal dryness, pain during intercourse, and vaginal atrophy (which is the thinning of the vaginal walls due to reduced estrogen levels). But a lot of older women, who tend to hold more traditional views on sex, don’t tend to seek out help with these sexual issues. The researchers behind the Menopause study cited a prior study that showed 72% of women diagnosed with vulvar or vaginal atrophy had never told their doctor about their symptoms.
“Perceived barriers to seeking help include feelings of embarrassment, discomfort, or failure, but also beliefs that ‘sex is private’ or that sexual problems are part of normal aging or ‘something to live with,'” they wrote. “Open communication about sexuality, including desires, needs, and dysfunctions, is important and will reduce the threshold for women to discuss sexual function.”
The data from this study was gathered in the 2000s, meaning we’re talking about women who spent their young adulthood in the 1950s to 1970s. Needless to say, sexual attitudes have changed quite a bit from then to now—people are way more comfortable discussing their sex lives openly, women are largely empowered to enjoy sex without the shame and outside the confines of marriage, and we know a lot more about how menopause works and how to directly address a lot of its physical symptoms. It’ll be interesting to observe how millennial and Gen-Z women who’ve grown up in this more sex-positive climate will navigate their sex lives later in life, after menopause, and into their senior years. We may see that a lot of our assumptions about “older women” and their supposedly lowered libidos may be more based around cultural factors than anything intrinsic about women.
For any women today who’ve been through menopause or are dealing with its unpleasant sexual side effects, don’t be afraid to talk about it with your doctor and your partner. There’s no reason you can’t enjoy a wonderful intimate life if you want it. (Just in case, here are a few ways to explore your sex life as a senior if and when the mood strikes.)
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