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Sexual Desire Beyond 50

by Deborah Nedelman PhD & Leah Kliger MHA

It’s almost enough to make you pull out your hair by its gray roots – the way our society treats older women. The stereotypes we’re confronted with portray us as over-the-hill dowagers good only for hawking constipation relievers or denture creams. In typical baby boomer fashion, though, women who are turning 50 or even 60 today are unwilling to be stuck in these moldy pigeonholes. We are determined to remain vital, stimulated, and interesting to others. We reject the notion that the best years of our lives are behind us. In nearly every arena, that is, but one — our sexuality.

Although we can now talk openly about menopause (even dropping the “the” as a sign that we’re comfortable with that previously unmentionable topic), we are primly silent when the issue of sexual desire comes up. In fact, a common response one is likely to get when asking another ‘over 50’ woman what's happened to her sexual desire goes something like this: “Huh? Sexual desire?” But when given the chance to speak confidentially, she's likely to have a lot to say.

How do we know this? Because over the last 3 years we've been posing that question to women all over the US. Over 500 demographically diverse women from 50 to 95 have told us about what has happened to their sexual yearnings as they have aged. They talked about how easy it is to feel invisible in a world whose lens is focused on youthful sexiness.

We contribute to this problem by carrying in our heads and hearts damaging myths about what is supposed to happen to our sexual desire. Exposing these falsehoods is an important step toward regaining a positive sense of ourselves as sexual beings. One of the most powerful of these myths is this: “Once an older women's sexual desire has disappeared, it's gone for good and will never come back.” This is simply not an accurate depiction of what happens for most of us. As a result of our research, we know the reality for women beyond 50: sexual desire ebbs and flows.

Women told us that sometimes they could identify a stressor that accounted for a drop in their desire; other times there was no apparent reason for it. Then, months or even years later, they might experience heightened desire. Many times this occurred at the beginning of a new relationship, other times it just happened. Women in long-term marriages described this variability, as did women who had been single for most of their lives. Widows experienced it and so did lesbians in committed relationships.

One such woman, Maggie, a cheerfully wrinkled Southerner married for 25 years, experienced a sweet surprise at age 55. "It seems almost inconceivable to me that one could go through youth, and all those years when one is supposed to be most sexually active, exist in a state of hibernation, and then experience a whole new sexual world just as one goes through menopause. I can't necessarily attribute it to my hormones. Who knows if has to do with the fact that I've cut way back on my commitments, the kids are out of the house, and my job is not nearly as stressful as it once was? "

Tisha is a 68 year old beautiful Latina who lives in a charming townhouse near the beach south of Los Angeles. Initially, anger and grief overwhelmed her during a lengthy and bitter divorce proceeding. Now in a new relationship, Trisha reflected on how her desire had shifted over time. "Especially after the divorce, I wasn't feeling like I had any desire, any libido, or that I was desirable to anybody else. But that feeling has come back. I know it goes up and down. When it's down I don't feel quite content, if I were to put a finger on it. And it has nothing to do with the sexual act. It is part of my being."

What is the impact of recognizing the fluid nature of sexual desire as we age? Knowing that what you feel today is more than likely a transitory state can help you gain a new, positive sense of your sexual self. It may even motivate you to talk with your spouse or partner. Too often silence on this subject leads to hurt and resentment on the part of a partner who takes lowered desire as a reflection of how you feel about him or her. By talking, couples can work together to find ways to keep the intimacy and romance alive while honoring the reality of their current levels of desire. Women who do not have a sexual partner are just as likely to experience these shifts in their desire. As Tisha says, it's part of your “being” as a woman.

Regardless of your relationship status, we encourage you to take a peek over the top of your bifocals and focus on the bigger picture. Legend has it that an older woman with diminished desire will never again experience an increase. We want you to know that, as conveyed to us by many an aging woman, nothing could be farther from the truth.

Since this is an issue that gets so little air time, all that most of us know about older women's sexual desire is based on old wives tales and folklore. Our society's mythology is powerful and demeaning. Once you've passed into the realm of the postmenopausal, your sexual self esteem is subject to an onslaught of negativity.


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