Someone once said, ‘Ageing doesn’t matter unless you are a cheese’. That’s not strictly true. From about age 40, attitudes start to change. Some of us really, er... come into our own.
But many women worry about the wobbly arms, stretchmarks and the grey hairs. Others wait like rabbits in the headlights, wide-eyed and scared, terrified of menopause, says Margie Orford, 42, co-writer with Karin Schimke of Fabulously 40 and Beyond (New Africa Books).
But life and sex after 40 should be much more fun than that. Orford, for one, says she is looking forward to uninhibited wild sex with her husband of over 20 years when their three growing children finally leave home.
And, after interviewing loads of over-40 women for her book, she says that she has learned that there will never be a better time than midlife ‘to start having the sex you want, whatever form it takes, or to happily not have sex, if that is what you choose.’
Fireworks in your forties
Sharon Stevens* is 48. She married for the second time about four years ago. ‘I still feel like a young girl, I still really like sex and I make that pretty obvious. But perhaps the greatest difference is patience. I was easily bored when I was in my twenties. I used to think the best sex was first-time sex.
‘After a few times with the same person, it never seemed as exciting. And I had no patience for light, fun sex. It had to be intense and dramatic. But in the past few years, I have discovered the delights of making the effort to really get to know someone.
‘I am capable of enjoying all aspects of sex now. Sometimes we have wild, abandoned, intense sex, sometimes we play make-believe games and pretend, sometimes we just have cuddly sex and sometimes we laugh all the way through. Sadly I missed out on all that for years.’
Marlene Wasserman, a Cape Town-based sexologist also known as Dr Eve, says: ‘After 40, a woman becomes kick-ass powerful. Because, with age, women are not as concerned about what others think of them. Many women decide they want to enjoy sex now, that it’s time to take charge of their sexuality. They are more daring, more adventurous and more demanding.’
Renate Strauss*, 46, a single woman, agrees, ‘I would say my desire for sex is pretty much the same as in my thirties but much more than in my twenties. The feeling of power is greater and the feeling of freedom... the power to make him groan, the freedom to just do what you want.
‘This freedom is not wholly about being experimental, just “I feel like this, I feel like doing that”. Also I think as you mature, you are more comfortable with the political incorrectness of sex, the physical intimacies – the smells, the sounds, the juices.
‘I believe that when you’re peri-menopausal in your forties, your hormones are making you particularly horny and that getting it off with someone is like lighting a Catherine wheel.’
Dr Lorraine Becker, a Johannesburg-based GP specialising in sexual wellness, says there is no medical evidence to support what Renate is saying, but she believes, ‘it’s just that women become more confident with their own sexuality and know how to ask for what they want. Older women also have more experience and can tell the difference between a lousy lover who is just after his own pleasure and someone who is sharing and caring in the pleasure department.
‘The confidence also allows her to be the initiator. When a woman is younger and less experienced, she would never be the aggressor, hence the Catherine-wheel effect.’
Baring more than your soul
Wasserman agrees that a change of circumstance as you age can also pre-empt a whole new approach to sex.
Belinda Levin*, 44, says that her divorce in her early forties has meant a spate of new lovers, who have each brought out a different aspect of her sexuality. ‘Sometimes they’re into light bondage, others have been tender lovers. After sleeping with the same man for over 15 years, I’m going with the flow. People seem to think I should rush to find a husband, but it’ll be hard to give up this delicious new world of exciting experiences.
‘I thought I would mind taking off my clothes in front of a new man but I was far more self-conscious in my twenties and thirties. Now I accept myself and not one boyfriend has complained about a wobble or a stretchmark.’
Yes, but what about those who have been together for years?
Says Jackie Sunter*, 45, who has been married for 14 years: ‘There is the problem of getting into a rut at this stage. I find I’m increasingly putting sex on my to-do list, which is probably unfair but I know he’s always there and up for it if I am. I suppose that doesn’t help to make it all that urgent.’
Dr Becker comments, ‘With single women, the thrill of a new relationship combined with infatuation helps boost testosterone levels, so she is more likely to be turned on. In a long-term partnership, many women settle for a poor sexual relationship. Many become resentful and avoid sex. Others try working at their relationship, where sexuality is an exciting part of the mix and they “keep the home fires burning” with interesting play, touch, fantasies and time for each other. They embrace and adapt to any change together as a team, whether it is retirement, illness or menopause.’
The flipping fifties!
But just as we’ve got used to those fabulous forties, the fifties come along. That’s when most of us have to take physiological considerations into account.
But there’s no need to panic if we believe Margie Orford and Karin Schimke, who quote US sociologists John DeLamater and William Friedrich in the Journal of Sex Research (2005): ‘among older people who are healthy and active and have regular opportunities for sexual expression, sexual activity in all forms – including masturbation and same-gender behaviour – continues past 74 years of age’.
Experts agree, apparently biological changes, such as the decline of oestrogen, don’t mean you won’t have a wonderful and satisfying sex life after menopause.
It’s more about romance than sex, says Wasserman: ‘Romance, the state of your relationship and the way you feel about your partner is going to affect your sexuality as you get older much more than any other factor.’
And Wasserman says this in full knowledge that menopause is going to take ‘some dealing with’.
This information correlates with a 2000 US study of over 3 000 women at the University of Massachusetts, where researchers discovered that women nearing menopause find their sexuality is more affected by their relationships, health and attitudes than their menopause status.
Oh yes, baby, yes, says Joburg-based sexologist Dr Elna Macintosh: ‘Menopausal women are capable of having fabulous sex. It’s who you have the sex with that plays a huge role, as well as how you feel about your own body.’
Johannesburg-based single woman, Bridget Schoeman*, 54, agrees. ‘I have better sex now than I had in my twenties. I have confidence in myself.
‘I was diagnosed with breast cancer last year and, as part of my treatment, I was put into menopause chemically, because my tumour is oestrogen-sensitive. I thought “well that’s the end, no libido, dry vagina”... but no. The fact that I date a gorgeous 34-year-old also helps!’
But people are complicated. As Mel Dooley*, 53, puts it: ‘When you are no longer fertile, sex seems to somehow lose its oomph. You know that you cannot fall pregnant and although in one way that is a huge relief, in another way it makes the whole experience less exciting.’
Says Wasserman: ‘If a woman hasn’t had a great sexual history, menopause certainly won’t make it any sexier. And yet there is a positive aspect to ageing. By 50-plus another shift occurs. In many cases, children have left home, couples can scream their lungs out, women may find a new love, some women will feel more experimental and try a vibrator for the first time or watch their first porn video – and many discover their bodies responding.’
Some Moët please!
But getting naked after 50 does cause the odd shudder, even for those married to the same man for years. As Diana Wolf*, 56, says, ‘I have sex with my husband about once a month. I’ve put on weight and I don’t want him to touch me or look at me so I avoid it as much as I can.’
In her book Pillowbook (Oshun), Wasserman suggests an old favourite. Soften the lighting with candles or a piece of cloth over a lamp – but don’t start a fire, except between the sheets. She quotes Candida Royalle from How to tell a Naked Man What to Do (Fireside), who suggests moving the candle away from the bed so the lighting does not reflect directly on your face and body.
But, says Wasserman, ‘You might think darkness and covering yourself up protects you from your partner’s gaze. In fact, it inhibits your arousal and response and will take stimulation away from your partner. Offer him the visual gift of your body, cellulite and all.’
Easier said than done? Maybe. Champagne may help. Yes, for drinking, but also, suggests Wasserman, for rubbing all over each other.
Still sexy at 60
Some women sail through menopause. Actress Sandra Prinsloo, 60, says: ‘For me it feels like a state of mind. I can’t complain about heavy symptoms and, at 60, there has been no change in my sex life.’
Joburg-based physiotherapist Solange Czerniewicz, who has an interest in the benefits of exercise and sexuality in people over 60, says: ‘Remember much of the decline in sexual interest among ageing women is not physiological but defensive. It is sometimes far easier to suppress sexual needs than to deal with the taboos and prejudices or sexism and ageism, which older women have to deal with in our society.’
Others need to be hormonally replenished.
Says Wasserman: ‘If you feel your desire to be sexual is being taken away – one in two women over 50 feel low desire – have your hormones tested and consider going on HRT if necessary.’
Watch your weight, de-stress and exercise frequently. If you are depressed, tell your doctor. And have lots of sex, she says, ‘your vagina elasticises and it’s a deterrent to atrophy’. Plus ‘the more you get wet, the more you get wet’.
Wasserman says masturbation is another good way to give your vagina and vulva a workout if you don’t have a partner.
Staying alive ah ah ah ah…
Should we still be placing so much emphasis on sex in later life? Is it just another pressure?
Susan Maushart, in What Women Want Next (Text Publishing) writes, ‘Previous generations accepted, indeed, welcomed, the waning of sexual desire as a natural part of the life cycle… for women who went the distance, surviving multiple pregnancies and childbirths, menopause must have been welcomed as a gift, and the associated waning of sexual attention a reward for services rendered.’
Esther Perel, US couples’ therapist and best-selling author of Mating in Captivity (HarperCollins), disagrees: ‘Now we have a midlife, and the reasons we suppressed our erotic instincts are more established – our children are older, we have the house and the financial stability we craved – then, we remember, don’t we?
‘Maybe a friend divorces and remarries, or our children are teenagers and bringing sex back into the house, and we watch them and think: “Can I still have some of that?” Because it’s not just about sex. It’s about vitality and the frisson, it’s about the connection and renewal, and I think most of us need that.’
* Names have been changed.
[This is an edit of an article by Nia Magoulianiti-McGregor which originally appeared in Femina magazine, October 2007. The current edition of Femina is on sale now.]