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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 antidepressant?"

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 husband?

Joyce's experience 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).

Doctors often 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 truth.

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 years.

It's not 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 expectation.

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 following:

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 about them?

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.

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Sept. 9, 2004


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