Yes, really! Relationships expert Tracey Cox reveals how to get your sparkle back and have the best sex ever.
Fifty-plus looks nothing like it used to. Asked to conjure up an image of a middle-aged woman 20 years ago, most would picture a stout female in sensible shoes, pottering about in the garden. Now look at Jennifer Lopez – who turned 50 last summer – and you’ll see things have changed.
We’re different to our mothers when it comes to sex as well. We’re better educated than ever before. We’re aware of the benefits of testosterone supplements, know that hormone replacement therapy (HRT) will keep our sex organs in good nick, as well as our moods stable. We exercise more, eat better, feel and dress younger.
Your kids might look disgusted at the thought that you’re still at it, but some older women are having more sex, and more satisfying sex, than ever before.
There’s lots of new research suggesting sex gets better with age. A study by Health Plus magazine of people over 45 found older women were more adventurous: 89 per cent of women admitted liking various positions and locations. Most said sex was better in their 40s than in their 20s. A recent study by the University of Manchester found 80 per cent of sexually active men over 50 are satisfied with their sex lives; 85 per cent of sexually active women aged 50 to 69 said the same.
And yet… something happens to us sexually at 50. Our appetite for sex can plummet. Low desire is the most common sex issue affecting older people, and it’s twice as common in women. Lots of couples don’t talk about dwindling desire, where any type of physical intimacy starts to feel awkward and, without acknowledgement, all affection stops and couples drift apart. There are a lot of older people free-falling towards a sexless future – and panicking about it.
It’s not that we’re all just lazy, either. Even if 50 is the new 35, our bodies are still changing. The menopause brings with it a whole set of physical challenges and body-image issues. Meanwhile, many men worry that they don’t perform like they used to, suffering a crisis of confidence as they grapple with erectile dysfunction. Other challenges go beyond the physical: is it possible to reignite desire after decades with the same person? What do you do when you love your partner but no longer want to have sex with them?
Happily, information and enthusiasm are all it takes to work through a lot of these issues and reclaim a robust sex life…
Age-Proof You Libido
If you’ve gone off sex, for whatever reason, you’re not alone. Here are some simple, practical things you can do to get the ball rolling.
LIVE WELL. Exercise, eat healthily, cut back on drinking, stop smoking, lose weight if you need to. By this age, we all know what’s doing us favours and what isn’t. Take stock and make changes. Start taking vitamin B12, magnesium and a good general multivitamin. Manage stress. Do a stretching class, yoga or pilates (they really do help with flexibility).
DO THINGS THAT MAKE YOU HAPPY. Yes, your desire for sex is affected by a drop in certain hormones, but emotions and your general outlook have as much influence. If you’re excited by life or have just met someone you like, your libido is elevated. Try new things, go on holiday to new places, socialise with your friends. The happier you are, the more open you are to intimacy.
PHYSICALLY PREPARE FOR SEX. Take a painkiller if you have chronic pain. If you’re stiff, do a bit of stretching. Have a bath or a hot shower beforehand. Do whatever it takes to put you in the best possible place, both physically and mentally.
CHANGE THE TIME YOU HAVE SEX. Experiment with different times of the day. Switch from sex at night, when you’re tired, to the morning. Men’s testosterone levels are highest then, so it’s easier for him to get aroused. If you’re taking medication and it has side-effects, when do you feel your best? Plan around it.
GET MORE SLEEP. A recent study found the longer women slept, the more interested they were in sex the next day. Just one extra hour of sleep led to a 14 per cent increase in the chances of them having some type of sex the following day. Another study found that, among menopausal women, sleep problems were directly linked to sex problems.
RETHINK THE POSITION YOU HAVE SEX IN. Tricky backs, stiff joints, knee problems – these can make your favourite sex position difficult. It’s good that there are many others to choose from and lots you can do to make the originals more doable: adding pillows to cushion body parts, or letting your partner do more of the work if they’re better able to. If you’re flush, invest in some ‘sex furniture’: wedges, ramps and other things to help make sex more comfortable. Lying on your side is a good choice for most people, so experiment with side-by-side positions.
FOCUS ON FOREPLAY. If intercourse is difficult, the things you used to do as a ‘starter’ suddenly become the main course. For women, this is the best thing that could happen to your sex life. As I’ve said (possibly a thousand times in my career), intercourse is one of the least successful ways for women to orgasm.
USE LUBRICATION – FOR EVERYTHING. Start using it for every sexual activity. If you haven’t already discovered it, this will make a big change to your sex life, especially if vaginal dryness makes sex uncomfortable.
TRY SEX TOYS. They’re the solution to lots of problems: they help you to stay sexual if you’re single, can sort any erection issues and the need for more stimulation if sensitivity has decreased.
CONSIDER HRT. If you can take this (and it’s not suitable for everyone) the change can be dramatic. It helps immeasurably to put your bits back to good working order and to stabilise your mood.
MAKE OVER YOUR BEDROOM. Use soft and low-wattage lighting. The most flattering: low-level. Try putting glass-encased scented candles on the floor; candles are proven to change your mood. Fresh air makes you feel more energetic. Make sure your bed is firm enough for sex. Tablets and phones turned off, no telly, no clutter, no piles of dirty laundry.
But I just don’t feel sexy any more…
Feeling sexy is totally different to looking sexy or wanting sex. Feeling desirable is an attitude, not a look. And this attitude is extremely important because it alone can dictate how happy you are with your sex life.
Study after study turns up the same result: feeling sexually attractive means you’re far more likely to enjoy sex, have more orgasms and be more comfortable discussing sex with your partner. It’s not rocket science: if you’re ashamed of your body and think it’s ugly, why would you want anyone looking at it or touching it? Hating how you look is making you hate sex.
But UK research found that one in ten women never feel confident about their body during sex (compared to three per cent of men). How can we change this? One recent study of 662 straight women in a relationship pinpointed feeling desired as the number one turn-on. It also made them more likely to lust after their partner.
This means two things. First, your partner needs to know how important it is to tell you – regularly – that they find you sexy and attractive. Not ‘You look nice, dear’ but ‘You look hot!’ Second, when they say it, you need to believe them. Unless you believe you’re sexy and attractive, what they say won’t make a difference.
How to boost your sexual self-esteem
EXERCISE. It might sound strange to tell you to exercise, but it’s exactly what will help rekindle your desire for sex. Research by the University of Texas discovered exercise can significantly increase sexual desire even in women with low libido. It found that women who worked out on an exercise bike had sometimes dramatically higher levels of sexual arousal, when asked to look at erotic images afterwards, than women who didn’t exercise beforehand. So do it. Your sex life will thank you.
EXPECT A FLICKER, NOT A FIRE. Most of us experience high-intensity arousal at the very start of relationships, when we’re young – and when we’re doing something we shouldn’t be, such as having an affair. It’s rare to feel continual, powerful, potent passion for someone you’ve been with for a long time and are faithful to. It’s just not how humans are programmed. The flicker is the flame. Accept it and work with it.
INITIATE SEX TO FEEL MORE POWERFUL. The person who initiates sex more often is seen as the ‘sexy person’, and being this person makes you feel sexy. Shift the power – change from being the person who waits to be asked for sex to the person who is demanding sex from someone else.
TAKE RESPONSIBILITY FOR AROUSING YOURSELF. US ‘supertherapist’ Esther Perel is very clear about this: it’s not our partner’s job to arouse us, it’s our own. This might mean fantasising to get in the mood or during sex. It might mean putting on music that takes you back to when you were up for it all the time. It might mean reading or watching erotica.
BE GREAT IN BED. Improving your sexual skills will do far more for your self-image than going on a diet or telling yourself you’re beautiful. Women who know they are sexually competent rarely experience body consciousness while they’re having sex – even if they do outside of the bedroom.
HAVE SEX BEFORE YOU GO OUT TO DINNER. Who wants to expose their body when you have a belly full of food?
Sex after an affair
The majority of couples who have experienced affairs stay together. Sometimes you shouldn’t try to repair the damage of infidelity; if your partner treats you badly or love left a long time ago, take the affair as the death knell it is. But if your relationship is great, you are best friends with your partner, you both love your kids, sex wasn’t amazing but it wasn’t bad either and then you discover your partner’s been unfaithful. What next?
Good things can come out of affairs – and the person who often ends up benefiting is the deceived partner. Once the affair is exposed, they no longer have to pretend they’re completely satisfied and happy either with mediocre sex or zero attention.
In the aftermath of an affair, couples ‘will have depths of conversation with honesty and openness that they haven’t had in decades. And partners who were sexually indifferent find themselves suddenly so lustfully voracious, they don’t know where it’s coming from,’ says Perel.
In fact, lots of couples find they’re having more sex with each other post-affair than ever before. There are several reasons why this happens. First, you desperately want to connect because you’re terrified you’ll lose each other. Second, primal ‘mate guarding’ kicks in: you want to lay claim to what’s yours. Third, the affair creates distance between you – and distance fuels desire. You see your partner through the other person’s eyes. When someone else wants what we have, things become far more attractive: you appreciate what you didn’t before. Even if you hate yourself for having wild, fantastic sex – you don’t want your partner to think you’ve forgiven them – it happens. Or it doesn’t. Both reactions are normal.
After an affair, if you get through to the other side, many couples fall in love all over again – but ignore the erotic side of your relationship at your peril. You need love and sex to survive: lots of affairs happen because while love grows, sex is allowed to wither and die. Every couple deals with an affair differently, but certain things help everyone to move forward sexually…
If they had the affair
DON’T ASK FOR SORDID DETAILS. ‘These questions only inflict pain and keep you awake at night,’ Perel advises. Skip the ‘I bet they were thinner/sexier/better in bed than me’ and instead ask ‘investigative’ questions such as, ‘What did the affair mean to you?’
HAVE BRUTALLY HONEST CONVERSATIONS. At some point, sex has to become part of your relationship again or you will forever be just friends. Be honest about what you both want sexually and don’t be scared to criticise your old selves.
TAKE BABY STEPS. You will feel angry when you first become physically intimate. The ghost of the other person is there for both of you; time and patience are the only things that work to drive them out of your bed and your head. Start by simply cuddling, then progress from there. Don’t give up even if lots of sessions end with you storming off or in tears. See a sex therapist if you feel you aren’t progressing at all, and don’t forget after-play. Cuddle, chat, lie there together – it’s just as important.
OWN YOUR PART IN IT. You aren’t to blame for your partner having an affair, but it takes two to make a problem. Take responsibility for your bit. ‘There are many ways that we betray our partner: with contempt, neglect, indifference. Sexual betrayal is only one way,’ says Perel. What do you regret – constantly rejecting sex, never initiating? Not giving compliments? Make the same mistakes and your relationship will end up in the same place.
If you had the affair
ADMIT YOU F****D UP. Because you really did. Even if it was the best thing that ever happened to you, or you think your partner drove you to it, you have to acknowledge the pain it’s caused.
HONESTY IS ESSENTIAL, TACT EVEN MORE SO. What your partner is likely to want to know is obvious, so think about how you’ll reply. Answering the question, ‘Was he better than me in bed?’ with ‘Yes. Amazing,’ won’t help. Saying, ‘It was someone new. The novelty made it exciting,’ is easier to stomach.
BE CLEAR ABOUT WHAT YOU WANT. The first thing a good therapist will do is ask who you were in the affair: what sort of person were you in that relationship compared to the person you are with your partner? Think about how you could fulfil those needs with your partner and then communicate them – when you’re at the fixing stage. (Presenting your partner with a list two weeks after they found out will simply get you a divorce.)
HEALING COMES FROM SMALL DAILY ACTS OF KINDNESS. Rather than grand gestures. Making a cup of tea. Going out of your way to make their day better. Saying ‘I love you’.
5 truths about sex that will never change
- One of the most powerful aphrodisiacs is being desired. Knowing someone really wants you beats even outstanding sexual technique any day.
- The most erotic sex of your life won’t necessarily include an orgasm. When you’re totally immersed in the experience, having an orgasm becomes irrelevant. This is why orgasm-focused sex misses the point entirely.
- Saying no to sex now and then means you feel comfortable saying no, leaving your partner reassured that when you say yes, you’re really in the mood.
- Sex is psychophysiological. This means you have to keep your brain stimulated for your genitals to sit up and pay attention.
- Sex isn’t something that ‘comes naturally’. We aren’t born knowing how to make love to someone. It’s something we learn.
This is an edited extract from Great Sex Starts at 50: How to Age-Proof Your Libido by Tracey Cox (published by Murdoch Books, price £12.99).