Sex at Midlife and Beyond

Sexiness has no expiration date, and women above 40 are beginning to realize this. Sex at midlife is just as fun and exciting (if not more so) than at any other time in life. Groundbreaking new studies show that women reach their sexual peak in their early to mid-40s, while men taper-off mid-20s. Breaking out of a sexual rut and reviving romance can be tough but well-worth the effort once you shed those old inhibitions and stereotypes and start experiencing sex and intimacy on the mid-life level.

Sex at Midlife and Beyond

Sex after 40

Lisa laughs a little when the subject of women, sex and middle age comes up. With her glasses, short-cropped greying hair and makeup-free face, some might assume the 65-year-old mother of three is sexually retiring. But Lisa says sex with her husband is as fun and exciting as it was when they were newlyweds, 45 years ago. And it is not as though their marriage is a perfect union, untouched by conflict. They are argumentative, and there have been times throughout the years when the stresses of life have dampened their ardour, but “the drive is still there, sometimes even more intense than it used to be,” she says. And there are moments of real romance, something not often associated with long marriages. Their home on Vancouver Island overlooks the ocean, and it’s not unusual for a great day of sailing to wind down into an evening of “really nice lovemaking.”

Of course, their aging bodies do not always perform the way they used to. Her troublesome hip means certain positions are now too difficult, and sometimes his erection just isn’t there. Lisa has sought medical help for vaginal dryness — about as difficult to deal with as getting bifocals. Their frequency has also declined, from several times a week to four or five times a month. But Lisa says that bodily limitations have become a subject for humour, and cuddling makes up for the times when sex doesn’t happen. “Every morning we lie together very close and talk about our kids, or what we are going to do that day. I think neither one of us could do without that.”

Sexual pleasure skyrockets mid-life

Sound unusual? It isn’t. Plenty of evidence — ranging from formal studies, to the observations of sex therapists and researchers, to dating experts at Brides Dating and several women themselves — suggests that female sexual pleasure hits new highs after 40. With careers established, childbirth behind them and physical vigour largely still intact, many mid-age women find that, finally, they have the time, the confidence and the desire to enjoy sex as they never have before. Several prominent Canadian women, clearly just hitting their professional stride in mid-life, are emerging as icons of strength, confidence and enduring attractiveness.

Former prime minister Kim Campbell, 54, currently teaching at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, is involved with a man 22 years her junior. Hilary Weston, the 60-year-old lieutenant governor of Ontario, radiates poise and mature beauty. Former federal cabinet minister Barbara McDougall, now president of the Toronto-based Canadian Institute of International Affairs, remains a striking presence with her throaty, confident voice and flip of blond hair.

Mid-life women are also storming the barricades of broadcasting, long the exclusive preserve of dewy-skinned youngsters. Wendy Mesley, the seasoned political and cultural reporter who is the co-host of CBC-TV’s current affairs show Disclosure is a 44-year-old, kinetic blond, fond of high heels and form-fitting clothes. And who would ever refer to the unattached Mary Walsh, 49, the effusive star of This Hour Has 22 Minutes, as a spinster?

Attractive middle-aged women shine

Even major U.S. networks, while still overwhelmingly populated by impossibly perfect young women, are beginning to acknowledge that “attractive” and “middle-aged” are not mutually exclusive terms. The cast of West Wing, the top-rated television series about working in the White House, includes one of the sexiest women on TV: C.J., the savvy, energetic press secretary played by Allison Janney, 41. To wit, Montreal-based Josey Vogels, author of the syndicated newspaper column and host of the television show My Messy Bedroom, says more and more middle-aged women are realizing that sex often improves with age. “When you are young, sex is something you dole out, and often define yourself by. But lots of older women are saying, ‘Thank God, I’m not defined by my appearance anymore, I can finally live my life the way I want,’ and it frees them up.”

Sex begins at 40

In fact, solid statistical evidence supports the theory that sex gets better for women as they age. Masters and Johnson were the first out of the gate with their groundbreaking studies showing that women reach their sexual peak in their early to mid-40s, while men’s performance begins to decline in their mid-20s. More recently, in 1999 a comprehensive study of sexual dysfunction at the University of Chicago reached some surprising conclusions about older women and sex. In a poll of more than 1,700 women, researchers found that women aged 40 to 60 had fewer sexual problems than younger women in areas ranging from lack of interest, to pain during intercourse, to anxiety about their sexual performance.

Problems in the bedroom do occur of course; the mood swings of menopause, for one, can disrupt sexual activity. And some middle-aged women, overwhelmed by the North American obsession with youth, find their self-esteem dropping with every extra pound, new wrinkle and grey hair. Toronto novelist Susan Swan, whose 1993 book, The Wives of Bath, has been made into a film, is an eloquent spokeswoman for the notion that, as she puts it, “sex begins at 40.” Mid-life women should stop worrying about physical changes and concentrate instead on becoming the person they want to be, she says. “In my late 40s, I was living in New York City and I had a lot of romantic affairs,” Swan, 56, and the mother of a 28-year-old daughter, recalls. “At that age, if you take care of yourself, you still look fairly youthful. I was surprised that a lot of young men still wanted to be with me. It’s largely a question of attitude.”

Mid-life sex is as good as it gets

What troubles her, Swan says, is the sight of so many women in their 40s and 50s and 60s buying into outdated attitudes about aging and sex, giving up when physical problems arise or a relationship fails. “If you follow the conventions about what you are supposed to be doing at a certain age, you’ll be cheating yourself out of life,” she says. “Women who believe that there are no good men out there, tend to remain single.” Swan, who lives with publisher Patrick Crean, says that when mid-life sex works, it’s about as good as it gets. A frequent visitor to the gym, she says that as women age, sexual attractiveness becomes focused on health, intimacy and, most important, self-reliance. “I didn’t meet Patrick until I had faced up to the idea I would always be single, and that was OK,” Swan says.

Of course, sex is about two people, and most experts who study sexuality emphasize that, aside from the physical changes that go with aging, the quality of intimate relationships becomes central to an invigorating sex life. The true aphrodisiac, most of them say, is closeness based on good communication. “There is a four-letter word for sexual intercourse and it is called ‘talk’,” says Stephen Holzapfel, medical director of the Sexual Medicine Counselling Unit at Sunnybrook and Women’s College Health Sciences Centre in Toronto. Issues that couples need to discuss frankly can range from the effects of menopause (decreased libido, vaginal dryness) to psychological stresses such as adolescent children or aging parents. Often, the departure of children can lead to a more relaxed sexual relationship, Holzapfel says, especially since women over 40 tend to be more knowledgeable about what turns them on — and what doesn’t. They also tend to be more comfortable with who they are. “Part of being in a relationship is ensuring that your emotional and physical needs get met and many women get better at this as they age,” he says. “But that doesn’t mean they don’t have questions about their sexuality.”

Celebrating Sex

Often, those questions centre on matters as basic as dealing with bodies that don’t respond as quickly as they used to. Linda Cantelon, a family therapist at the University of Winnipeg’s Interfaith Marriage and Family Institute, finds that many of her mid-life patients are looking for advice on how to keep the orgasms coming. That can include dealing with a man’s erectile dysfunction or a woman’s depressed libido by using techniques like increased foreplay, sex aids and sexual fantasies. “A lot of middle-aged people are shy about discussing these things, partly because they may come from a background where sex was not talked about,” Cantelon says. “Many find that it is easier to get things out in the open during therapy or in group situations. Sometimes, people just need to be reminded that sex is as much a part of us as eating and breathing and that it is something to be celebrated.”

Being more open about sex can lead to other, sometimes unconventional, choices Cantelon notes. More middle-aged women are dating younger men, buying dildos or looking into cosmetic surgery than in their mothers’ day. Jean Carruthers, the Vancouver aesthetic facial ophthalmologist who helped invent Botox (the drug used to temporarily paralyse facial muscles that cause frown lines and crows feet), says she has seen countless numbers of women receive a vital boost from knowing they look less tired. “Sexuality is all about self-esteem and I don’t think you can connect with someone unless you feel good about yourself,” she says.

Sometimes, making new connections requires nothing more than the ability to be open to the possibilities that life presents. Susan, a 42-year-old Guelph, Ont., mother of three who runs a daycare in her home, separated from her husband a year ago. She wasn’t actively looking for a new relationship, and certainly not with a younger man, she says. But her boyfriend of eight months, also a single parent, is nine years her junior, and no one is more pleased than she is. In many ways, it is his youth and her delight in the differences between them that make the relationship exciting. “He is open to all kinds of suggestions about sex,” she says. “You know, times of the day, areas of the house. When I was married, it was always in bed after the movie was over.”

She has also become far more relaxed about her physical appearance: being 20 pounds overweight is not the problem for her boyfriend that it was for her husband. “A year ago, I felt frumpy and old. Now I don’t care if I look silly or make funny sounds,” Susan says. “For the person I’m with now, it is a package deal.” She also credits her partner with a directness entirely new to her. “It’s like rediscovering sex, what’s fun and what’s not fun. What’s fun is the openness of it, being relaxed and being able to laugh. In the past, I had sex but you weren’t supposed to talk about it,” she says. “This person never shuts up!”

Sexiness doesn’t expire at 40

Perhaps one of the surest signs that sexiness doesn’t end at 40 is the widening horizon for older single women. Divorce, once a trauma for women who believed sex might be curtailed by single parenthood or signs of aging, has become a liberation for many. Marni, who was married for 18 years before splitting up with her husband in her late 30s, at first felt overwhelmed by the prospect of meeting men while caring for young children on her own. But her wide range of activities, plus a little initiative — she’s found that men are quite flattered if she makes the first move — helped put her back in the game. Now 53, the Toronto consultant has recently dated men aged 25 and 61.

And the difference between the two? “The younger ones are more fun to look at,” she says, “but the age makes no difference to the sex.” She does find, though, that mid-age men are often more considerate and are not in such a hurry when it comes to their own pleasure. There tends to be a lot more touching and kissing, she says, and less emphasis on an intense orgasm. But things can be just as busy. It’s not unusual for her and her current partner, the 61-year-old, to have sex two or three times a day. Ultimately, she says, “I want to be myself. If men aren’t attracted to that, then I’m not interested.”

North American women have become aggressive and articulate fighters when it comes to defying oppressive, centuries-old conventions around work and family. Now, as so many of us head into middle age, it may be time to tackle one of the oldest, most insidious myths of all — that women’s attractiveness declines with age — and to prove by example that maturity and self-acceptance are the sexiest traits of all.

More Reading on the Topic:

Sexuality in Midlife and Beyond – Harvard Health Publications

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