50, Fabulous and Frisky: Part 2
Last week, I addressed the first part of this reader's question about how to confront our own attitudes about sexuality that we'd like to change. This week, I'll answer her second question about changes that take place in our bodies as we age that may affect our sexuality. Although our minds and bodies are inextricably intertwined, each topic is important enough to deserve a separate answer.
Most of the bodily changes that affect women's sex lives as they age are due to fluctuations in hormone levels. As early as our late 30s, the levels of estrogen and progesterone produced by our ovaries start to decline. Menopause (defined as the cessation of menstruation and fertility) occurs on average around age 50, and perimenopause (the time when a woman begins to experience symptoms of menopause) can begin five or more years before that.
Some sex-specific changes that can occur during perimenopause and menopause include a loss of sexual responsiveness, vaginal dryness, and the thinning of the vaginal walls. (Lest we sound all doom-and-gloom here, let's also remember that for many of us, no longer having to worry about contraception and getting pregnant is incredibly freeing. Finally, sex is completely unhooked from baby-making!) Some women may find that they have more difficulty achieving orgasm than they did earlier in life, that vaginal penetration can be painful due to lack of lubrication, and that the vagina may tear or bruise more easily during penetration.
Other changes in our bodies may affect our psychological ability to enjoy sex. Our breasts may droop, we may lose muscle tone, and suddenly we seem to have a lot more wrinkles. Since our society puts a huge premium on looking youthful, these normal changes can make us think we're less sexy or attractive. On the flip side, many women find themselves more accepting of their bodies' imperfections as they get older and may find it a relief to be free of the constant pressure that younger women endure to look or act "sexy."
Some diseases that become more common as we get older, like heart disease, arthritis and diabetes, can also affect our energy levels, our blood circulation, our mobility, and other factors that can alter our enjoyment of or our ability to participate in sexual activities.
So, how to handle these changes? Some medical treatments for the symptoms of menopause, such as hormone replacement therapy, can also affect your sexual responsiveness. However, medical treatments come with a huge list of pros and cons and should be discussed very carefully with a medical provider, so I'm not going to get into that here. Instead, I'm going to suggest that you view this new stage of your life as a good reason to treat yourself to new toys and lubes and increased time dedicated to exploring your sexuality.
If you've never used a vibrator before, menopause may be a good reason to try one. Since some women find that it's harder for them to achieve orgasm, vibrators can be a big help, especially plug-in models like the classic Hitachi Magic Wand that provide powerful, steady vibration. Some women may find that they aren't as interested in vaginal penetration as a form of sex play, but if you are, regularly using vaginal dilators, dildos or Kegel exercisers (see my earlier column on PC muscle strengthening for some suggestions) can help keep the vaginal walls limber.
Lubrication is also key. Since your own body will be producing less of it, finding a good lubricant is absolutely essential to reducing pain during penetration and keeping sex slippery and fun. I recommend lube to people of all ages and think that it can enhance sex play for everyone, and I try my best to combat the myth that using lube means you're somehow "defective." A great first lube to try is Liquid Silk, which has reached an almost cult-like status as a long-lasting lubricant that is also very moisturizing.
If you are experiencing some loss of mobility, position aids (such as Liberator wedges or pillows) can also be a help and ease strain on backs, knees and other vulnerable spots.
Since The 40-Year-Old Virgin came out, someone has asked me, "Is it true that if you don't use it, you lose it?" at practically every college sex workshop I've done. Although the questioners usually mean it as a joke, when we're talking about sex and aging, there's some truth to that statement. Even if you aren't currently in a relationship, I recommend regular masturbation, Kegel exercises, and play with penetrative sex toys to keep yourself in touch with your body and maintain your sexual responsiveness. It's important now to take more time than you may have in the past to focus on your own sexual pleasure. I also suggest reading some of the many books that have recently been published about sexuality and aging; Joan Price's book Better Than I Ever Expected: Straight Talk About Sex After Sixty is a good one.
As the baby boomer generation enters their 60s, the face of aging in our society is rapidly changing, and with it, assumptions that older people are not sexual. As I mentioned in last week's column, many of the women who started the sex-positive revolution are now 50, and they are not giving up their sexual activism as they age. Your question is part of a sea change in the way we view sexuality that, I think, will make life better for everyone as we get older.
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Laura Anne Stuart has a master's degree in public health and has worked as a sexuality educator for more than a decade. She owns the Tool Shed, an erotic boutique on Milwaukee's East Side.