What older women want – in bed
Do women want steamy sex or just a companionable cuddle? Bettina Arndt reveals what really gets women going.
It was a fascinating sight; two older women chatting loudly in the doctor’s waiting room about the erotic best seller, Fifty Shades of Gray. Yet watching them it occurred to me there’s every chance they’d prefer to read a book about sex or have a good night’s sleep than actually have some nookie. What do most women of a certain age want? Well, it’s certainly not sex.
“I deserve a rest!” one woman in her late 50s told me, complaining that her husband still won’t leave her alone. It’s one of life’s dirty tricks that women are far more likely to go off sex than their partners. It’s probably due to men having up to twenty times more testosterone than women which means they are more likely to have an itch that never goes away.
Yet the sad truth is that many older women don’t really go off sex - they go off their husbands. Melbourne-based psychiatry professor Lorraine Dennerstein conducted path-breaking research on menopause which found many women reported a drop in libido at this stage of life. But not all women. Those who found themselves with a new man reported their sex drives were flourishing!
There’s such a difference between mating in captivity—same old, same old—and mating in the wild, with a brand new man. A strange body, all those new pheromones buzzing around, plus there’s a different brain chemistry when you are first in love which can give a boost to even a well-worn libido.
Of course there are older women who simply never lose their sex drives, or who miraculously regain interest once young sprogs are off their hands. There’s an amazing group of women (I call them ‘juicy tomatoes’) who have libidos that match the most sexual of men. Then there are women who find themselves with partners who lose interest, perhaps due to problems with erections, and suddenly realise they really miss physical intimacy.
So some older women are keen for more action, but it is more common for senior females to find they have no spontaneous desire—sex is simply never on their agenda. But the hormonal changes that accompany ‘the change’ can certainly make things worse by causing loss of lubrication and thinning of the vaginal walls, which can lead to painful sex.
What’s maddening about this situation is that many women could remedy these problems using oestrogen products (pessaries or creams) yet have been unnecessarily scared off all hormone treatment due to media beat-ups about health risks. Most women can safely use these products, so it’s advisable to search for a well-informed, caring doctor who can help you decide if this applies to you. But even if oestrogen treatments aren’t suitable, there are now new products available from chemists, which are designed to relieve dryness and irritation.
There’s a great collection of essays, Naked at Our Age – Talking Out Loud about Senior Sex (edited by Joan Price) which talks about all sorts of issues affecting older folk, including some great advice on looking after the vagina. It includes really specific information such as recommending water-based lubricants rather than glycerine products, showing how to massage the vagina to keep the tissues healthy, warning against fabric softeners when you wash underwear and so on.
Now, finally women have specialists to help with problems in this area. Across the country there are physiotherapists working with the pelvic floor, helping women keep those critical muscles healthy. Plus there are doctors specialising in vulval pain and other problems with the vagina. At last women’s nether regions are starting to get the attention they deserve, which is great news.
But there are plenty of older women who’d far prefer just a cuddle. Many like their partner’s arms around them but every time they enjoy this physical intimacy, his hand strays to the breast or the bottom and it turns into a grope which drives them crazy. “Every time we spoon I get forked!” one woman complained to me.
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For sexually active couples, the answer to the problem of the dreaded grope may lie in scheduling sex. During my research on how couples negotiate differences in desire (published in The Sex Diaries), one woman told me that she’d spent the first 10 years of her marriage fighting about sex. Finally they had a breakthrough and were able to sit down and negotiate a solution. She decided they should schedule regular dates for sex and initially they agreed three day intervals might work for both of them. They told me the plan really worked for them because on the days when there was no sex scheduled he could give her a big cuddle without her thinking he was trying it on. This meant they were far more intimate all the time. And on the sex days she’d plan a relaxing day and send him flirty emails, getting her head in the right place to look forward to making love.
If occasionally it wasn’t working for her, she could always find ways of giving him pleasure. It isn’t a good idea for women to have intercourse when they are not aroused but ten minutes, a bottle of massage oil and Bob’s your uncle. And that applies to men too. Even if they don’t feel like sex, or can’t get erections, they can find ways to make love to their partners. Incidentally, many women find arousal isn’t so easy as they get older and orgasm can become more elusive. It may be time for a helping hand. Vibrators are great for helping older women achieve regular satisfaction. One older couple taking part in my research told me they’d already worn out three electric vibrators over the course of their very active marriage.
Last year I found myself chatting to passers-by in an Adelaide shopping centre. A local pharmacy group was selling my book, What Men Want, to help customers with erection problems. An elderly woman slid up to me, nervously explaining she was widowed and really missed her husband. She blushingly confessed she’d bought herself a vibrator. “Do you think that’s okay?” she asked.
I told her it was a very good solution to provide her with sexual relief. But it does little for the problem of skin hunger. I regularly receive emails from older men and women living on their own who yearn to be touched, desperate for real physical contact with a loved one. There’s no easy solution, although regular massage can help provide some close human contact. I’m also delighted there are now select services using surrogates to offer erotic massage and sexual pleasure to older people on their own, as well as people with disabilities.
And now there’s internet dating which is attracting single people of all ages—a wonderful means of helping people to connect. I recently noticed an internet profile featuring ‘Grabagranny’, an 86 year old Sydney widow. She said she’d been encouraged into internet dating by her grandchildren and joked that she wouldn’t mind a toyboy or girl to get the family scared about their inheritance! Now there’s a brave woman.
What Men Want – In Bed
Melbourne University Publishing (2010)
The Sex Diaries
Melbourne University Publishing (2009)
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myDr provides information on sex and the ageing process
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