As empowering and joy-giving as sex should be, unfortunately there are many women who can’t imagine enjoying or wanting sex. I teach a class on female sexual health for a large healthcare provider. Many of the women who attend my class arrive feeling a range of emotions - disappointment, frustration, sadness, even anger - about their lack of a satisfying sex life. Some have almost completely given up on sex. Maybe they’ve recently had a baby or their hormones have dipped due to menopause. Others have lost long-term partners to death or divorce and now in their 60s or 70s, they feel it’s unlikely they’ll find someone new. (Check out Are You Over 50 and Having Sex? for more on the importance of sex at any age)
Women Ask: Can I Ever Enjoy Sex Again? (The Answer Is Yes!)
My class promises a lesson on female sexual anatomy, a description of the sexual response cycle and discussions about libido and other common issues. Armed with my PowerPoint, my vulva puppet, several sex books, sample lubes and sex toys, I do my best to cover these topics in the short time we have.
Sexuality is a complex issue. Although these women are unlikely to rediscover their sexual selves in just two hours, I do aim to provide them with the tools and resources they need to take steps toward their own sexual self-discovery. My real job and biggest challenge is to give them a reason to feel hopeful.
Lack of Desire? Low Libido? Factors and ConcernsSome women admit they feel nothing: no desire for sex or interest in it at all. Sometimes their eyes well up as they explain how much they love their partner and how bady they want to feel aroused. Sometimes they feel deep anger at their own bodies, bodies they feel have betrayed them. Sometimes they feel anger at their partners for not understanding. Often there is fear -fear that a partner will leave, give up, or simply get tired of waiting around for things to change and sexual desire to return. (Read 6 Steps That'll Help You Love Love Love Your Naked Self for motivation to accept and be kind to your body).
For some of these women, faking it or merely tolerating sex is not an option because penetrative vaginal intercourse has become too painful. My co-presenter, who is an OB/GYN nurse practitioner, often explains the changes in the vagina due to hormonal shifts and offers possible solutions to these changes. In our class, we cover multiple factors that could be affecting a woman's libido - medications, stress, relationship issues, body image issues, negative childhood messages about sex, a history of abuse, lack of childcare, or maybe just good old fatigue. The question is, what can women do about it?
Tools and Tips to Boost LibidoIf a history of sexual abuse is the issue, then it may be important for the individual to create a safe space in which to be intimate and sexual, to help control their negative associations with sex. If the issue is fatigue, then timing is an important factor. Couples often think that bedtime is sex time, but in fact, bedtime may be the worst time to get busy, due to exhaustion and other factors. Scheduling morning or afternoon sexy times, when both partners have increased energy, may make more sense. (Is sexual abuse or trauma a part of your past? Read Sex After Sexual Assault: How to Find Joy After Trauma.)
Sometimes sex is last on our to-do lists. My class is about striving to put it nearer to the top of that list. I recall one woman who laughed as she admitted she’d rather be vacuuming than having sex with her husband. She said she didn’t feel as close to him as she used to and that she missed having that intimacy with him. This led to a great discussion about the reasons we have sex. I always stress the importance of being open: to playfulness, to physical closeness, and to asking for what we want from our partners. When these are our priorities, it’s possible to find our way back to fun and fulfilling sex.
These tips don’t just apply to the older crowd either.
Sex Can Be Stressful ... At Any AgeOne class, I had a woman in her 20s and a woman in her 70s in attendance. At the beginning of class, I ask the participants to share what they were hoping to discuss. The woman in her 20s expressed that she was waiting to have sex with the right person. She said she was nervous and had some fears and a lot questions. The woman in her 70s had been out of the dating scene for many years and wanted to get back in. She expressed that she was waiting to have sex with the right person. She was nervous and had some fears and a lot of questions.
These two women happened to be sitting next to each other. They had the same issues and the same concerns; they bridged 50 years and bonded over their similar struggles. They both left the class feeling braver, armed with hope.
Luckily, there are usually one or two women in my class who are still having good sex and often have their own advice to share. One woman described herself as a crockpot. She said she could still get excited but that she took a long time to heat up. Many of the other women could relate to this as well. (Check out 10 Things You Didn't Know About Foreplay for advice on how to "heat" things up before the main event).
Never Lose HopeAccording to Joan Price, senior sexpert and author of "Naked at our Age: Talking Out Loud About Senior Sex," a well-chosen and well-positioned sex toy can make a world of difference when achieving orgasm. Yet, for some of the women in my class, the thought of using a sex toy or going to a sex shop is intimidating. Normalizing the use of sex toys, erotic materials, and lubrication are several of our top goals.
At the end of our class, some of the women will thank me as they leave. Others will leave together chatting, happy to have found an ally who shares their concerns. I don’t know what happens once my participants get home, but my hope is that they find the courage to talk to their partners about what they want sexually, to enjoy masturbation, to find the courage to go to a sex shop, to consider using a sex toy, and to talk to their doctor about their sexual health concerns. Mostly, though, I hope that I’ve given them a reason to feel hopeful themselves.
Remi Newman, MA, is a sex educator, counselor and writer with over 20 years of experience in the field of sexuality. She currently works as an STI educator and counselor in Northern California. She received her master’s degree in sex education from NYU and is a PhD student in the human sexuality program at CIIS in San Francisco.