It should be a time of new sexual beginnings. But, from hot flashes to mood swings, menopause is often cast as the end of sexual intimacy. Yet its transformations don’t have to be for the worse.

Contrary to popular belief, menopause is a chance to reflect upon and strategize about one’s sex life. Often requiring new tricks and sexual experimentation, it can invite some of a couple’s most exciting sexual moments.

According to a 2003 article in “Sexual and Relationship Therapy,” while society perceives older women as less attractive and less functional, these women still feel young in many ways. As stated by the National Institute of Health, some women actually feel liberated post-menopause, even reporting an increased interest in sex.

This isn’t surprising when you consider that once a woman reaches menopause, she (and her partner) don’t have to worry about pregnancy, PMS pains or menstruation. The kids are grown and out of the house (hopefully!), so lovers are thrilled that the empty nest has been reclaimed as their love nest. All of these factors can make for more enjoyable, satisfying sex.

In a 2000 study published in the “Journal of Women’s Health & Gender-Based Medicine,” 65 percent of women between the ages of 51 and 64, and 74 percent of women over 65 engage in sexual activity at least once a week. So menopause isn’t sidelining as many women as one would think.

The physical and emotional changes that come with menopause are different for everyone. How this final phase of her reproductive cycle affects her sense of self and sexual relationship can vary from woman to woman.

As a woman approaches and experiences menopause, her sexual responsiveness may be affected by:

— Vaginal dryness, thanks to lower estrogen and testosterone levels;

— A slightly shorter and smaller vagina (meaning both in diameter and length);

— Less sensation during vaginal intercourse, due to tissue changes;

— Pain during penetration with thinning vaginal walls producing less vaginal lubrication;

— Reduction in number and intensity of vaginal contractions;

— Pain or soreness post-intercourse;

— Mood and energy changes, with the loss of estrogen.

Since some hormonal changes occur over the course of several years, a woman may notice the effects, like the fact that it takes her longer to get sexually excited, over time instead of all at once. Ultimately, any of these “symptoms” can lead to a low libido.

She may be plagued by body image issues. She may feel like her body isn't her own anymore. Excess weight may be stored on different parts of her body because of declining estrogen levels. She may also notice reduced muscle mass and tone due to lower testosterone levels.

On the other hand, many experience greater body acceptance and appreciation. They feel wiser and more wonderful as they learn more about the self and all the female form can endure.

Evie Abston, a post-menopausal blogger with "Good Vibrations" Magazine, wrote:

“I got to learn to appreciate who I am, to like my light and shadow self. To listen to my body when I was having hot flashes and asking myself what in my life is causing my intuition to let me know that this is something in my life I can now release — an old outdated message, an opportunity to assert myself instead of stuffing it.”

If you want to own your sexuality during and after menopause, you need to approach this period in your life as a new sexual chapter. You’ll need to be sexually adventuresome, as the same, old tricks may not work. In order to expand your repertoire, consider pursuing the following:

1. Practice patience. It can take up to three minutes for a post-menopausal woman to become lubricated for comfortable intercourse. Couples should engage in plenty of foreplay and have lubrication handy.

2. Masturbate. Pleasuring yourself regularly can keep her vagina sexually “fit,” as in flexible and suppler. Exercising your pelvic floor muscles on a regular basis can further make for healthy muscle tone.

3. Experiment. This may involve using a vibrator for more direct and intense stimulation to elevate arousal. Couples will also want to try positions offering greater comfort, like spooning, or ones where she’s more in charge, like woman-on-top.

4. Take steps to boost self-perception. Don’t buy into common assumptions about the elderly and sex — that they’re asexual, sexless, ridden with sexual dysfunction. You need to believe that you’re sexually desirable. Maintaining positive body image is a huge part of this.

5. Have regular sex. Doing so helps to prevent the pain from thinning vaginal walls, which can become severe with menopause and aging.

6. Communicate. Talk to your partner and let him or her know about any issues or changes. Many lovers want to be supportive and in-the-know, but are often too shy to ask. Allow your partner to be part of the process, especially when it comes to your better sex efforts.

Dr. Yvonne K. Fulbright is a sex educator, relationship expert, columnist and founder of Sexuality Source Inc. She is the author of several books including, "Touch Me There! A Hands-On Guide to Your Orgasmic Hot Spots."

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