We all sang along to the Salt-N-Pepa anthem—Let’s talk about sex, baby! And then we grew older, but, in this one area, not necessarily wiser. “If you’re in your 40s, 50s, and 60s—even your 30s—you really didn’t grow up with sex being normalized, conversations around sex, accurate information,” says sex therapist and educator Emily Morse, author of the new book Smart Sex and host of the podcast Sex with Emily. “And unfortunately for many of us, we grew up with this notion of sex being performative, more about our partner’s pleasure than our own. I think there’s still this notion that it’s taboo for women to be sexually open and expressive.”
It’s Morse’s mission to flip that script, and Oprah Daily’s to help you live your best life—including in the bedroom. So we asked Oprah Daily Insiders in their 40s and beyond for their most pressing questions on the matter. Needless to say, Morse had plenty to say. Now let’s talk about sex, grown-ass women!
Why am I no longer in the mood like I used to be?
One thing that’s important to understand, especially for women, is that desire and arousal are two different things. Desire is the wanting, being excited for sex. And arousal is what follows—our breath quickens, our genitals engorge, that whole process. This notion that it’s gonna strike us over the head and we’re just gonna wanna rip our partner’s clothes off doesn’t really exist for many people beyond the early, honeymoon phase of a relationship.
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A lot of us walk around feeling broken because we’re not struck over the head with a desire to have sex. But you’re not broken; there’s nothing wrong with you. The real work we have to do is to understand our own process of what turns us on. Women, typically, have something called responsive desire; we respond to certain cues in our environment. Maybe it’s foreplay, or our partner helping with housework, or having a really exciting conversation. If you’re not in the mood like you used to be, that just means you need to understand who you are right now and what will get you in the mood.
First, consider what’s going on with your health and wellness. Are you taking certain medications, like an SSRI or antidepressant, or a blood thinner? Those can impact our ability to be aroused. Are you moving your body? Exercise and blood flow are a big part of our arousal. How is your relationship with your partner? Collaboration is a big part of sex, too. Do you communicate about your sex life? Have you let him or her know what turns you on? Self-acceptance is another pillar of sexual health. How confident and comfortable are you in your body at this stage of life? Self-knowledge is another. Do you know your desires and turn-ons? Think about when you were in the mood in the past. Were you on vacation? Had you just gone for a great workout? This is reverse engineering our arousal and understanding that we’re responsible for turning ourselves on; we’re responsible for our orgasms.
How does orgasm change as we get older?
Everything changes as we age. We may not like the same foods, exercise, movies, or music. Our orgasms change, too. Sometimes we notice that they’re not as strong as we get older.
There is also an orgasm gap: Men are more likely to have them in every sexual situation, and women are not. Hormones are often the culprit because our hormone production changes and slows as we age, and it can be more difficult to achieve orgasm. A lot of times, it’s related to the diminishing strength of our pelvic floor muscles. This doesn’t have to mean that the orgasms aren’t as satisfying. They’re just different. And it means you have to find new ways to orgasm, because we can still have them, and we deserve to.
This is where we get to explore our bodies and figure out what we require to achieve orgasm. It could be lubricants, more oral sex, more foreplay, more touch, more patience, more time. It’s also about always using lube, finding the right kind of hormone replacement, and not beating yourself up about your body not being where it was 20 years ago. Toys can be a great source of pleasure for women. Our bodies are covered in nerve endings, especially our genital areas, our erogenous zones, and our secondary erogenous zones. Vibrations allow us to explore them in a much deeper way. A toy will access all those nerve endings.
Why do I sometimes not know if I’ve had an orgasm?
We expect that orgasms are gonna be these big waves that hit us over the head, but there are different intensities and different kinds of orgasms. Sometimes we can just have little sensations in our genitals that feel really good, and we don’t realize it’s an orgasm. I would encourage you to do a little bit more self exploration, some masturbation, some solo time, and start to understand your own body and what your orgasms feel like.
As a society, we center sex so much on orgasm, but the truth is, so much of healthy, satisfying, pleasurable, collaborative sex has to do with intimacy, connection, touch, and feeling close to our partners. I’ve found that the more we take the pressure off ourselves, and stop defining great sex as having an orgasm, the more likely we are to genuinely connect with a partner and feel pleasure. There’s so many different ways to have pleasure.
How normal is it to have low sexual activity in a marriage? We’re empty nesters in our late 50s, married for 26 years. We consider our marriage to be strong, respectful, comfortable, safe, fun, and playful, but we don’t really have a sex life. We might have sex four to six times a year. It doesn’t feel like anything is wrong with us, but I wonder if we’re the exception.
I will say that, for many people, once a month is not enough. I’m never going to give people a prescriptive number of how many times a year to have sex. But I’m gonna ask, is there still intimacy? Do you still feel connected? That’s a really important part of it, because when we have sex, we get all those feel-good hormones—oxytocin, dopamine, serotonin. If you still feel, We are lovers, best friends, then we don’t have to fix anything if it’s not broken.
For many people, this whole empty-nest situation is a really big thing. The kids are gone and people are like, Oh, shit! Now we really have to look at our sex life that we put on the back burner for 25 years because we were raising our kids. And that’s just about communication and exploring what turns each other on.
Do other women have pain issues? I’m 60, and it’s frustrating that sex is so painful.
We definitely have more pain issues as we get older. This is due to hormone changes, the loss of estrogen. The vaginal tissues become less elastic, more fragile, more susceptible to bleeding and tearing and pain. And due to vaginal atrophy, the vaginal walls become thinner and more dry, and the vaginal canal actually becomes shortened and tight, which means there’s more inflammation, and it can cause more urinary tract infections. So penetrative sex can be very, very painful. As a result, I think it’s really important to always use a lubricant—like every time you have sex.
Also, there’s a lot of great hormone replacement therapy now that’s safe for most women, even if they have a history of breast cancer. My friends and I are all taking estrogen in different ways—the patch, the pellets, the ring, vaginal suppositories. And my mom, who’s 80, has been doing it for 30 years. I highly recommend vaginal estrogen for every single woman experiencing pain who is over the age of 40. That really, really helps to heal the tissues. It helps with the tearing, can help strengthen your vaginal wall again, and also helps with night sweats and perimenopause symptoms. Talk to your gynecologist about your options.
Before my cancer diagnosis and six weeks of radiation down there, I loved sex. Post-cancer, it became so painful. I tried dilators, creams, gels, estrogen-replacement suppositories—all to no avail. I just put the kibosh on dating because I know partners will want to have sex and I no longer possess the ability to enjoy it.
I’ve talked to a lot of women in similar situations, and I think it’s going to come down to reconnecting to your body after all this pain. You had a lot of trauma, and you might benefit from trauma therapy. That could be EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) therapy, which is very helpful for all kinds of trauma; you can find information and clinicians at emdr.com. It could be through journaling and positive affirmations, standing in front of the mirror naked and learning to love your body, touching yourself, taking baths—just doing all the things that help you reconnect with yourself and feel safe and comfortable in your body. Finding a trauma-informed therapist could be incredibly healing.
I also recommend pelvic floor physical therapy to women who have pain. It has been on the rise in the last five, six years. There’s so much going on in our pelvic floor that we truly don’t understand, and seeing a specialist helps women identify why they have pain. Start to build a really healthy solo masturbation, self-love process, maybe bring in some vibrators and some lubricants, and just reconnect with yourself as a sexual being. And remember that, especially in our 60s, sex doesn’t have to be about penetration. You could find a partner where you’re doing mutual masturbation, you’re kissing, you’re making out, he or she is going down on you, you’re using toys.
I’m wondering, as a woman, if not having sex for a long time (15+ years) will make it difficult to resume an active sex life in my mid-60s.
It can be really scary getting back in the game. I don’t want you to do that without having a connection with your own body first. You can use estrogen for your vagina, but the truth is, so much of our sex life has to do with our brain. Get comfortable with your body again; start a self-love or masturbation practice. Start reading books about sex, listening to podcasts, following more sex-positive voices. Move your body; it’s all about blood flow. Take a dance class, get active, go hiking. Your entire wellness routine will impact your sex life.
How do I know if my sex drive is lower because of hormone shifts or if I’m just tired of being with the same person for so long? And what can I do about it?
You won’t know. It’s probably a little bit of everything. What you can do is, first, get a hormone check. If women want to be responsible about their health and wellness at this stage of life, it’s very important to find a doctor who is educated in the recent advances in hormones and talk to them.
That part of it is physiological. But the other part is your relationship. You might be a little bit tired and bored. Let’s normalize that! If we’re with somebody for a long time, we all crave variety. We want something different, to try new things. So this is about collaboration. I would highly encourage you to have some conversations with your partner about your sex life. Are you both committed to being great partners to each other? Do you have a growth mindset around sex? Would you be willing to talk about this stage of life? Maybe buy some sex toys, get some really cool lubricants, find some erotica you could read together, some porn that’s created for women by women that makes you feel more comfortable and gets your brain on board for sex again. When couples are committed to working on their sex life and prioritizing it, they can make anything happen. Maybe they take intercourse off the table for a while and decide to just reconnect for a week, to kiss and touch, give each other massages, and start to figure out what feels good at this stage of life. Couples who decide to work on their sex life together find that, once they get over all the weirdness, they look forward to it. This can become a really exciting time in life for you to play together.
It occurred to me that age-related changes mean we should all get good with the idea of sex including things beyond intercourse...oral and other types of sex. So how do I approach a conversation about including these things in my sex life with a new man?
I love this question! First, I want to recognize that whatever your religion, your cultural background, we’ve always been told that sex between a man and a woman is centered on intercourse because it’s about procreation. But the majority of women are not going to have the most pleasure or even an orgasm during intercourse. One of my missions has been to take the focus off intercourse as sex and put it into other things that feel good for women: fingers, mouths, toys. With any conversation about sex, consider the three Ts: timing, tone, and turf. The ideal timing is when you’re hanging out together, you’re feeling comfortable. Make sure you’re not HALT—hungry, angry, lonely, or tired—and that your tone is light, curious, compassionate, and open. It’s not judgmental. It’s not, Why do you only want penetration? The turf is outside the bedroom. You want to have these conversations when the two of you are on a walk or it’s date night, or you’re in the car driving, so it’s still intimate, but you don’t have to make eye contact if that’s awkward for you.
Here’s the script for how a conversation could go. Use a compliment sandwich. Talk about what you love about your sex life first: I’m really enjoying getting to know you. I’m so attracted to you. I love when we make out; there’s so much passion between us. The second piece is where you’re going to provide a little bit of feedback, constructive criticism, or a suggestion. Maybe say, I realize what really turns me on and gets me hot is oral sex; it is a huge part of my arousal. Then the third part is, I’m really hoping we can incorporate some more oral sex into our lovemaking. I think it would take our sex life to the next level, because when I feel more pleasure, I promise that you’re gonna feel more pleasure.
I am happy that Oprah Daily is bringing this topic forward. When I asked my GP questions about my sex life, he really did say, “At your age, you shouldn’t be concerned with this; it is just a function of aging.” Then I asked my husband to tell his GP that his wife was having issues and he would like to know what to do to have more sex. Suddenly, all the questions were addressed.
This is really common, and it makes me crazy. Women are just dismissed for their concerns around sex. Until recently, medical students didn’t even study perimenopause or menopause in schools. Doctors weren’t educated about it. It’s so unfair. Men get Viagra, and it’s covered by insurance. And with women, doctors are like, Drink a glass of wine and take antidepressants. Have a nice life.
On top of that, we aren’t comfortable talking to our friends about menopause and sexual health. Nobody normalized it. We just had a void of information. If we haven’t sought out healthy current information about sex, we’re still living with the really harmful misinformation that has been so pervasive all these years. To counteract that, you have to find a hormone-informed therapist. And so many doctors are not. But, also, since you have a trusting partner, you can really explore together and figure out what your turn-ons are. It’s also just about giving ourselves grace and knowing that we just didn’t grow up with this kind of sexual support. But now we have more information, and we get to decide what constitutes pleasure and what we need to lead a happy, satisfying sex life.
Why are so many women in their 40s and 50s afraid of adventure when it comes to sex?
It’s generational. It can be cultural. We grew up in a time where there was a lot of stigma around women being sexually desirous. So I think we just don’t have a lot of experience being adventurous. There are a lot of different tools and suggestions for exploring sex, but the main thing is just knowing that it’s a skill set: Anyone can learn to become sexually adventurous and have more pleasure. It’s never too late to do so—and I highly encourage it. Ditch the golf clubs and make this your new hobby!
A New-York-based freelance writer and editor, Eleni N. Gage is the author of the travel memoir North of Ithaka, the novels Other Waters and The Ladies of Managua, the gift book Lucky in Love: Traditions, Customs, and Rituals to Personalize Your Wedding, and the children’s ebook Wiggly Tooth.