Redefining Sex After 50
We know that, as we grow older, things naturally change. Our internal clocks shift. Our bodies develop new aches, new areas of tightness. Our bladder muscles weaken. We become more fragile in a million different ways.
But we adapt.
Why, then, are so many of us resistant to adapting to the changes that can happen in the bedroom? As we reach our 50s and beyond, and notice that certain things don’t feel the way they used to, why do we assume that our sex life is simply over?
How Sex Is Affected by Aging
As we age, there are numerous changes in the body that have an impact on our sexual lives. For women, the vagina can shorten and narrow. There can be a decrease in natural vaginal lubrication, which can in turn lead to pain during vaginal penetration. For men, erectile dysfunction can become more common. For both parties, illnesses, disabilities, medication, and surgery can influence what goes down in the bedroom. Certain sexual activities may become uncomfortable due to chronic pain. Sexual desire can increase or decrease. Self-consciousness due to surgery or performance anxiety can make sex less pleasurable. The list goes on.
And these physical factors aren’t the only things that can change. There may be psychological changes that come about as a direct result of shifts in one’s interpersonal relationships or day-to-day stressors.
And of course, not all changes at this time are negative. Holly N. Thomas, MD, MS, the Assistant Professor of Medicine and Clinical & Translational Research at the University of Pittsburgh has some examples. “Some women become more confident and comfortable in their own body as they get older,” she says. “Some going through menopause or who are postmenopausal stress out less about what their bodies look like during sex, so they are able to be freer and express themselves a bit more.”
No matter what changes one experiences, however, this shift can be jarring. Which is why many sexuality professionals recommend that we redefine what sex means to us.
Why Redefining Sex Is Essential
“As we age, we have to expand our notion of what sex is to include many non-penetrative modalities. Otherwise, our sex lives become more and more restricted,” says Joan Price, author, speaker, and advocate for ageless sexuality. “Because sometimes erections don’t work. Sometimes vaginas don’t feel comfortable with penetration. And if we restricted ourselves to PIV [penis-in-vagina intercourse], it would mean we would have sex much less often, and that doesn’t have to happen.”
As Price mentions in the description for one of her webinars, Great Sex Without Penetration, “Sex without penetration is still sex. Real sex. Hot sex. The idea that only penetrative sex constitutes ‘real sex’ limits our creativity and our satisfaction.”
Thomas echoes this, saying that sex researchers have been trying to point out for a while that there’s a whole range of things that can be considered sexual activity. In both her research and in her clinical work with older women, she’s seen that those who are quick to adapt to this concept end up happier. “Those women seem able to maintain sexual satisfaction better than couples for whom penetrative intercourse is the main entrée,” she says. “I think that kind of flexibility and adaptability can be really helpful for couples as they get older.”
Price, meanwhile, doesn’t think that we should wait too long to embrace other forms of sex. “I wish from an earlier age we could understand that great sex is so much more than penetrative sex,” she says. “If younger people could start expanding their sexual repertoire, when sexual changes happen as they age, it doesn’t have to be so abrupt or so frightening.”
How to Redefine Sex
It’s easy enough to say that sex needs to be redefined. But what does that look like? For Thomas, the first step is in noticing those changes and evaluating how they make you feel. She notes that there are some who are bothered by the sexual changes they experience, and some who aren’t. She emphasizes the fact that either response is valid.
In her clinical practice, many women have expressed curiosity over what’s “normal.” Thomas doesn’t believe this is the most helpful question. After all, what’s “normal”?
“If people are noticing changes,” she asks, “how much are they bothered by it? How much is it impacting their life, their relationships, their self-confidence, their sense of well-being?” She explains that in acknowledging our feelings around sexual changes, we can begin to see more clearly how we might move forward.
Price, meanwhile, says we need to admit when the old ways aren’t working. “That doesn’t mean you give up on sex,” she says. “That means you figure out what does work… what does bring you pleasure and how you can adapt what you do so you get the most pleasure.”
Then, if you have a partner, you need to bring those discoveries to your partner, kicking off a conversation that allows the both of you to continue enjoying a healthy sex life.
Price acknowledges that this conversation can be a tricky one. “How can we ask for what we need without making our partner think they’re doing it wrong?” she says. “How do we hear a partner’s request without internalizing that they don’t want us anymore or we’re doing it wrong or, ‘If I were enough for her, she wouldn’t need that toy.’ We have to take this big monster ego and shred it up and reconfigure it so that, instead, the ego is saying, ‘I really want to please you. Help me know how.'”
“It needs to come from a place of, ‘I love you. I care about you. I want our sex life to be great. Our sex life has been great and I want it to continue to be great and here are some ideas about how we can maintain that,'” says Thomas. She advises that we come to these conversations not from a place of criticism, but from a place of love.
As for what sex that does not prioritize PIV looks like, Price shares countless tips in books like The Ultimate Guide to Sex After 50 and on webinars that guide viewers through the ways in which they can reclaim their sexual pleasure. For example, she encourages people to incorporate sexual aids such as lube and vibrators into their sex play. She advises them to try different positions if an old standard is no longer working. And she implores people to be open to different types of sex. If penetrative sex isn’t working, for example, try “outercourse,” which can encompass anything from kissing to stroking to erotic massage.
“The main thing people get wrong is that they think PIV has to be the goal and that, if it isn’t working, sex is over,” says Price. “And that’s so far from the truth.”