So many things affect our sex lives, and getting older is definitely one of them.
As much as we might not want to talk about it, it’s true. Menopause, which the National Institute on Aging says generally comes on around age 51, gets a lot of bad press when it comes to causing problems with our sex lives as we age.
But, contrary to popular belief, menopause is not the real culprit. It's actually perimenopause, the two to 10 years prior to menopause that causes women the most trouble, explains Evelyn Resh, a certified, practicing nurse-midwife and author of the upcoming book, “Women, Sex, Power, and Pleasure: How Living a Pleasurable and Powerful Life Will Give You More of the Sex You Want.”
Medically, menopause is defined as when a woman goes 12 consecutive months without having her period.
But the time leading up to that often brings the most common sexual side effects, including hot flashes, worsening PMS or the onset of PMS, noticeably increased dryness, painful intercourse, sleep disturbances, night sweats, and more noticeable mid-section body fat. It’s easy to imagine that a woman wouldn’t feel very sexy when she’s exhausted, overheated, grumpy, unhappy with her body, depressed, physically uncomfortable, and so on.
"Not all women notice symptoms of forthcoming menopause,” Resh says. “Some women just wake up and realize they haven't had a period in months and have never been bothered by anything. Other women are plagued with symptoms.”
When it comes to perimenopause and menopause, a woman will likely follow in her mother’s footsteps.
So, how does menopause affect woman sexually?
"Tricky question," Resh says. "Some women say that their sexual desire goes out the window. Others tell me that they've never felt sexier, and are especially relieved that they don't have to worry about pregnancy anymore. I think this has much to do with your overall feelings about getting older and what your relationship with your body is. If you're in good health and have a good partnership(s), then there's nothing about menopause, per se, that will alter your sexuality."
Biologically, it’s decreased estrogen that is the primary cause of the physical changes women do experience.
“Estrogen is an escort for central nervous stimulation and often women experience decreased sensation and changes in orgasm,” Resh explains. “I always recommend that women use a vibrator (which helps) maintain their orgasmic function/sensation.”
Resh says to remember that this is in no way related to how one feels about one’s partner and, instead, is all about adapting to what she calls “new normals."
What Can Help
The good news is that there are ways to combat the sexual side effects of menopause.
"Plenty of exercise, especially aerobic; eating well; paying attention to sleep habits and not falling too far behind in sleep; and using hormone therapy,” Resh adds. “If people aren't sleeping, they get depressed and this starts a terrible cascade of problems that could otherwise be avoided. Hormones aren't necessarily bad. They just need to be used wisely and aren't for everyone."
A water-soluble or silicone-based lubricant, as well as vaginal estrogen preparations can also be really helpful in terms of combating dryness and painful intercourse.
Naturally, when a woman is going through menopause, her sexual partner - be it male or female - will be affected as well.
But there are things they can do to ease the way. They "need to understand what is actually happening in perimenopause. The more informed they are, the better they can accommodate the new normals. Be patient, stay informed and remember that intercourse isn't the only way to be sexually stimulated or satisfied,” Resh explains.
The key to not letting perimenopause or menopause put the kabash on one’s sex life is to realign our thinking in terms of what’s “normal.” We’re an ageist society and the “sexy senior” is simply not a part of our culture.
And this, Resh says, is at the core of the problem.
"This sort of internalized hatred is terrible for women as they grow older. We also expect that we will be the same sexual person at 60 as we were at 35. This doesn't make sense. We have to adapt to our aging bodies and understand that nothing - including our sexual desires and pleasures - stays the same.”
And, Resh says, the only thing wrong with that fact is ignoring it.
Jenny Block is a freelance writer based in Dallas, Texas. She is the author of "Open: Love, Sex, and Life in an Open Marriage." Her work also appears in "One Big Happy Family" edited by Rebecca Walker and "It’s a Girl: Women Writers on Raising Daughters" edited by Andrea Buchanan. Visit her Web site at www.jennyonthepage.com.