Several recent studies have made the surprising (to them, not to me) discovery that many women over 50 are having good, even great, sex and that some claim they are having the best sex of their lives. One analyzed “sexual activity, desire and satisfaction” in a group of women over 40 (with a median age of 67) and found that the majority of them were satisfied with their sex lives and that the proportion actually increased with age.
Because I have talked to literally hundreds of those happy folks as research for my books, including How We Love Now: Women Talk About Intimacy After 50, I can boil the reasons for that uptick down to eight.
- You can separate sex from reproduction. In fact, you have to. Not being able to get pregnant removes the calamitous risk/life-changing blessing that has accompanied sex since puberty. Now the sex act is simply that, an act. Emotions may be as fraught as ever, but the act itself has become just another fun activity, like a game of tennis.
- You can separate sex from love. Of course you always could have sex with someone you didn’t love, but since women who grew up in the ’50s and ’60s spent so many years invested in romantic myths — which linked sex, marriage and love — a purely sexual hook-up had a very bad image. Today, many women are on their own (whether through widowhood, divorce or never having married), and while they may occasionally get lonely, they are looking for a good time as often as they are looking for a long-term relationship. Relying on the initiative, smarts and independence that come with “second adulthood,” more than a few of them have no intention of making a major commitment. The fact that for many women sex doesn’t have to be burdened with commitment makes it possible for them to take an encounter on its own terms, whether it's “the real thing,” a friendship “with benefits,” or simply great sex.
- You can separate sex from sin. By the time we hit menopause, we are beyond the reaches of conventional “good girl” morality. The rule-breaking behavior that I call the Fuck-You Fifties is an expression of a more self-confident outlook. We march to our own drummer. When a woman hears herself say, as we all do, “I don’t care what people think anymore,” she knows she means it. For perhaps the first time in her life, her personal choices don’t require anyone’s approval.
- You’re willing to say “what the hell.” Given that women are learning to go for what they want even if, in terms of sex in particular, they don’t know exactly what that is; given that many women's sexual history has been limited; given that the availability of partners has narrowed; given that women become risk-takers with age (it’s now or never!), it seems only natural to try out new acts, positions and partners — and for some, that may even mean a partner of a different gender.
- You are off the hormonal roller coaster. The monthly cycle of build-up, cramps and letdown created a pattern of emotional instability that intensified doubts and regrets as well as the overreaction of getting “swept away.” No more. With the decline and leveling off of estrogen, it is all smooth(er) sailing.
- You are motivated to discover new routes to orgasm. Due to the inevitable physical limitations imposed by changes in the vaginal walls and by whatever afflictions hit a male partner, couples are often forced to find new ways to give each other pleasure. For many women, this turns out to be a great improvement on past practices. Moreover, many have told me that finding a new repertoire of foreplay activities — more stroking, kissing, holding — builds intimacy among lifelong partners as well as first-timers.
- You develop a glass-half-full outlook. It has been observed that people mellow with age, and sweat the small stuff less and cherish the moment more. This definitely applies to sex. As a woman I interviewed put it, “One of the reasons that people might be satisfied with their sex lives as they age is that they finally learn to expect less and appreciate more. Lord knows, as you age, you realize there are more and more things that you can't change."
- Viagra. Enough said.