Women Beyond 50: A New Reality of Sexual Desire
Sexual interest may
decrease in their 50s and 60s but see a resurgence of sexual appetite
when they reach their 70s or even 80s.
by Deborah Nedelman PhD and Leah Kliger MHA –
Joyce sat on the
edge of the examining table, dressed in a thin, faded gown. She felt
vulnerable and a bit ridiculous. She was hoping that her doctor would be
able to enlighten her about her declining interest in sex.
"We can treat your
vaginal dryness," the doctor said after the examination. "One option is
Hormone Replacement Therapy. Or, to increase your desire, you can take
testosterone or even Viagra. If you're feeling blue, how about an
Armed with three
prescriptions, Joyce left his office more puzzled than ever. She also
had more unanswered questions. Would she have to take medication
forever? Would she ever feel desire again? And what would she tell her
with her doctor is all too frequent. Medications are often necessary and
helpful, but they are not the answer for every woman. For some, the side
effects of certain prescriptions may actually diminish sexual
responsiveness. Others aren't interested in a quick fix for only the
physical aspect of their desire (or lack thereof).
respond to a commonly held myth about sexuality in older women: once
sexual desire has disappeared, it's gone for good and will never come
back. Yet the truth is, for many women beyond 50 this is far from the
By surveying and
interviewing women from 50 to 95 all across the United States, we've
discovered that the spectrum of 'normal' sexual desire in older women is
exceedingly broad. But one consistent theme emerges: sexual desire ebbs
and flows over time. Women talked about periods when their desire was
particularly low: "Sexual Desire? I'd rather be picking apples!"
Sometimes they could identify a rationale that seemed to account for
this, but other times it would drop for no apparent reason. They also
reported times of heightened desire that were equally unpredictable, "My
partner and I are experiencing the best sex of our lives! Who woulda
thought!" Women in long-term marriages talked about this variability, as
did women who had been single for most of their lives. Widows
experienced it and so did lesbians in committed relationships.
Our data revealed
another interesting aspect of this waxing and waning pattern:
Many women found
that after an initial decrease in their 50s and 60s there was a
resurgence of sexual appetite when they reached their 70s or even 80s.
So what may seem an unrelenting downward spiral at first may just be a
temporary shift, albeit one that lasts for decades, not just a few
surprising that changes in sexual desire go hand in hand with the
experience of aging. Often, we don't take the time to examine how those
changes may benefit us. Commonly, we continue to judge our level of
functioning by those youthful standards that our culture endorses rather
than appreciating the growth that comes with maturity. This can lock us
into self defeating patterns that negatively affect our sexual self
esteem. By examining what is really happening to sexual desire in women
of a certain age, we can begin to break out of this spiral of negative
If you are a woman
over fifty, stop and ask yourself a few questions. You may wish to write
about these in a journal, or, if that's not your style, think about them
while you're washing your hair. Take some time to honestly answer the
How is my sexual
desire currently? Has it changed within the past several years? What is
the nature of these changes?
How do I feel
about these changes? Have I noticed a pattern of my desire waxing and
waning? Do I care that it is different?
Which aspects of
these changes do I value? Are the changes I've noticed a problem for me
(or for my partner if I have one)?
What are some of
the factors have affected my sexual desire as I have aged? Has my body
image, my energy level, or my lifestyle changed?
Are any of these
factors within my control? If so, what, if anything, do I want to do
By challenging the
youth-focused definitions of sexuality that are so predominant in our
society, we can see changes in desire not as a problem to be fixed, but
rather as an aspect of maturity to be appreciated. Beginning this
process with a self evaluation can lead to embracing a whole new range
of possibilities for women's sexual future. The women we interviewed
across the United States taught us the necessity of valuing our sexual
individuality. We learned that valuing the aging process means talking
about the changes in our sexual desire not just with our doctors, but
also with our partners, our friends, even with our daughters and sons.
Finally, we learned the importance of dismantling the negative
stereotypes about women and sexuality, and the vital need to put a new
face on sexual desire in women over 50.
Sept. 9, 2004