Older women have sex.
I’ll say it louder, just because it feels good.
OLDER WOMEN ARE HAVING ALL KINDS OF SEX.
Just wanted to get that out of the way for anyone who did not realize it or who just loves to see it recognized on the internet.
Too often in our society, older women are portrayed as asexual or uninterested in sex. Research funded by the NIH—and the experiences of our friends and patients—tell us that this is just not true. The National Social Life, Health, and Aging Project (NSHAP) began in 2005 and gave researchers more data than ever before on how older Americans have sex. Among many other things, the study found that about 85% of older women aged 57 to 64 were in some kind of romantic or intimate relationship and that almost all of these relationships involved some type of sexual activity.
Thankfully, representations or older women and their sexuality are slowly changing in the media, but pervasive myths abound that sex is generally better for younger people. Our own research shows that, on the contrary, aging can result in many benefits for a person’s sex life, including knowing one’s partner better, knowing your body better, and having decreased sexual inhibition. Our understanding from this research and our experience helping women improve their sexual function in our clinic tells us that great sex is for all people at any age.
At every age, there are self-care strategies that can improve one’s sex life. In the golden years, though the days of worrying about unwanted pregnancy or learning about your body for the first time may be long gone, there are some challenges to optimal sexual function that can be mitigated with age-specific self-care strategies.
Reduce Dryness, Protect from Pain
For many older women, older age has initiated menopause and menopause can mean vaginal dryness. This is because one hallmark of menopause is decreased estrogen in the body. The hormone estrogen is part of what helps the vagina to remain elastic and moisturized—a critical part of pain-free vaginal intercourse. The decrease in estrogen can result in serious pain for many women when attempting vaginal penetration with body parts or objects. Even worse, it can result in real damage to the vaginal “mucosa” or thin, skin-like membrane.
A self-care strategy that is an immediate godsend for this pain and damage is using moisturizers and lubricants . These over the counter products can increase comfort by imitating the body’s natural, slippery lubricants. Not only will this help with pain during sex, but keeping the vaginal membrane healthy is helpful for other reasons…
Prevent Sexually Transmitted Infections
Often when we think of safe sex, we think of condoms and pregnancy prevention. While this is often not a problem for older women, many of whom have gone through menopause, there are plenty more reasons to think about safety in our sex lives as we age and yes—that means condoms, too. Even though the rates of common STIs like chlamydia and syphilis are quite low in older women, the rates for viral infections like herpes are much higher (28% overall, 74% for African-American women, 45% in Mexican American women). In 2015, almost 7,000 of the newly diagnosed cases of HIV were adults over the age of 50.
Damage to the lining of vaginal membranes due to dryness might have something to do with this. Dryness in the vaginal canal and on the rectum can cause tears and abrasions in the lining of the tissues that make it easier to contract HIV/AIDS during unprotected sex. So, in addition to lubrication and regular STI screenings with new partners, condom use is an important self-care strategy older adults can use to protect against possible infection.
There are minor obstacles to using condoms in older age. For example, when used on a penis, condoms are easiest to put on when the penis is fully erect. This can prove frustrating for older couples who may be dealing with erectile dysfunction. Couples may attempt to address this problem by beginning sexual intercourse before the penis is fully erect, without a condom, but other alternatives to condom-free intercourse exist:
- Use internal condoms! Internal condoms (also called female condoms) may be used in the case of a couple who would like to use condoms for safety, but have trouble getting the penis erect enough for a condom before intercourse begins. This also allows both partners to have control over condom use! If you are a woman with a vagina, you can carry and insert them yourself for increased control over your safety.
- Masturbate your partner before attempting intercourse. This can be a form of foreplay and allow the penis time to become fully erect before attempting to put on a condom. Lubrication can also be used during this time for pleasure and to lubricate the penis before intercourse.
These tactics can help the older couple who wants to protect against STIs do just that!
Solo masturbation can be a great self-care tactic for improved sexual function in older age, as many women already know (about 25% of women in the NSHAP study reported regular masturbation). In the NSHAP study, unpleasurable sex and lack of ability to orgasm were problems that were more common in sexually active older women than older men . This self-care activity can contribute to pleasure in the safest way possible—all by yourself.
In addition to providing straight up pleasure, masturbation, particularly with medical dilators or store-bought dildos, can also help to improve sexual function over the long term. Consistent vaginal penetration with these objects can help keep the tissues supple and elastic. It’s like exercise for the vaginal canal!
Did we miss any tips about having great sex in older age? If so, let us know by tweeting at @WomanLab_ or emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org! We’d love to hear from you!
Unless otherwise indicated, the data and information in this blog were derived from Chapters 41 and 42 of Hazzard’s Geriatric Medicine and Gerontology. Seventh Edition. McGraw-Hill Education. 2017.