Do women want steamy sex or just a companionable cuddle? Bettina Arndt reveals what really gets women going.
It was a fascinating sight; two older women chatting loudly in the doctor’s waiting room about the erotic bestseller, Fifty Shades of Gray. Yet watching them it occurred to me there’s every chance they’d prefer to read a book about sex or have a good night’s sleep than actually have some nookie. What do most women of a certain age want? Well, it’s certainly not sex.
“I deserve a rest!” one woman in her late 50s told me, complaining that her husband still won’t leave her alone. It’s one of life’s dirty tricks that women are far more likely to go off sex than their partners. It’s probably due to men having up to twenty times more testosterone than women which means they are more likely to have an itch that never goes away.
Yet the sad truth is that many older women don’t really go off sex - they go off their husbands. Melbourne-based psychiatry professor Lorraine Dennerstein conducted path-breaking research on menopause which found many women reported a drop in libido at this stage of life. But not all women. Those who found themselves with a new man reported their sex drives were flourishing!
There’s such a difference between mating in captivity same old and mating in the wild, with a brand new man. A strange body, all those new pheromones buzzing around, plus there’s a different brain chemistry when you are first in love which can give a boost to even a well-worn libido.
Of course, there are older women who simply never lose their sex drives, or who miraculously regain interest once young sprogs are off their hands. There’s an amazing group of women (I call them ‘juicy tomatoes’) who have libidos that match the most sexual of men. Then there are women who find themselves with partners who lose interest, perhaps due to problems with erections, and suddenly realize they really miss physical intimacy.
So some older women are keen for more action, but it is more common for senior females to find they have no spontaneous desire sex is simply never on their agenda. But the hormonal changes that accompany ‘the change’ can certainly make things worse by causing loss of lubrication and thinning of the vaginal walls, which can lead to painful sex.
What’s maddening about this situation is that many women could remedy these problems using estrogen products (pessaries or creams) yet have been unnecessarily scared off all hormone treatment due to media beat-ups about health risks. Most women can safely use these products, so it’s advisable to search for a well-informed, caring doctor who can help you decide if this applies to you. But even if estrogen treatments aren’t suitable, there are now new products available from chemists, which are designed to relieve dryness and irritation.
There’s a great collection of essays, Naked at Our Age – Talking Out Loud about Senior Sex (edited by Joan Price) which talks about all sorts of issues affecting older folk, including some great advice on looking after the vagina. It includes really specific information such as recommending water-based lubricants rather than glycerine products, showing how to massage the vagina to keep the tissues healthy, warning against fabric softeners when you wash underwear, and so on.
Now, finally, women have specialists to help with problems in this area. Across the country there are physiotherapists working with the pelvic floor, helping women keep those critical muscles healthy. Plus there are doctors specializing in vulval pain and other problems with the vagina. At last women’s nether regions are starting to get the attention they deserve, which is great news.
But there are plenty of older women who’d far prefer just a cuddle. Many like their partner’s arms around them but every time they enjoy this physical intimacy, his hand strays to the breast or the bottom and it turns into a grope which drives them crazy. “Every time we spoon I get forked!” one woman complained to me.
For sexually active couples, the answer to the problem of the dreaded grope may lie in scheduling sex. During my research on how couples negotiate differences in desire (published in The Sex Diaries), one woman told me that she’d spent the first 10 years of her marriage fighting about sex. Finally, they had a breakthrough and were able to sit down and negotiate a solution. She decided they should schedule regular dates for sex and initially they agreed three-day intervals might work for both of them. They told me the plan really worked for them because on the days when there was no sex scheduled he could give her a big cuddle without her thinking he was trying it on. This meant they were far more intimate all the time. And on the sex days, she’d plan a relaxing day and send him flirty emails, getting her head in the right place to look forward to making love.