Let’s talk about sex, baby. Specifically, sex in our 40s, 50s and beyond—a subject that is practically taboo. Indeed, once you enter into the perimenopause and menopausal years, it seems as though society no longer sees you as a sexual being (even the Sex in the City reboot received criticism for its lack of actual sex). And sure, a 50-something woman may have different feelings about sex when compared to her 20-year-old self, but what’s really going on down below? We spoke to a sex researcher and couples therapist to get the full picture about what happens to your sex drive after 40…and it’s not all bad news.
What Happens to Your Sex Drive After 40, According to a Sex Researcher and a Couples Therapist
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Meet the Experts
- Dr. Nan Wise is a certified sex therapist, relationship specialist, neuroscience researcher, and author of Why Good Sex Matters: Understanding the Neuroscience of Pleasure for a Smarter, Happier, and More Purpose-Filled Life. She has garnered international recognition for her research that addresses gaps in the literature regarding the neural basis of human sexuality.
- Moraya Seeger DeGeare, MA, LMFT, is a sex and relationship columnist, and a licensed marriage and family therapist, certified in emotionally focused therapy (EFT). She has more than a decade of experience working with couples at both her clinical practice, BFF Therapy, and as an In-House Relationship Expert at Paired, an interactive app for couples designed to improve relationship quality.
Your Libido May Decrease
There’s this idea that after age 40 women’s hormonal changes start to kill their libido and it’s all downhill from there. And it’s true that as we get older, fertility declines, perimenopause starts and eventually menopause is upon us…but is that really where our sex lives die? Not exactly, say the experts.
So here’s the thing—a woman’s active sex drive does decrease with age, particularly when they are in long-term relationships. When might this dip in libido occur? There’s no concrete answer, although one study found that women experience decreased sex drive between ages 55 and 64; another study found that as many as 40 percent of women over 60 have low libido. Per Wise, this is because of our circuitry, specifically the fact that our brains have fewer sex hormone receptors to begin with and when the sex hormones start to decrease, so does desire. And let’s not forget about those pesky symptoms that often accompany perimenopause and menopause, such as hot flashes, anxiety, weight gain, vaginal dryness and sleep problems—factors that don’t exactly get you in the mood.
But these hormonal shifts don’t necessarily mean that you no longer desire sex at all. Which brings us to our next point…
Seeking Pleasure Is Still Pleasurable
“Sex is a bio-psycho-social process—and that’s true at any age, whether you’re 19 or 94,” Wise explains. Meaning that when it comes to your sex drive, there’s a lot more than hormones at play. “Sexual desire ebbs and flows…and if we know that it’s not abnormal, we can say ‘f*ck desire,’” adds Wise. So sure, you may not want to jump all over your partner the same way you did when you were newlyweds, but what you can do is embrace a different and equally satisfying attitude towards sex. Namely one where one’s perspective, communication with partners and physical arousal all play key roles.
Wise emphasizes that “one of the most important things people need to understand is that what we believe will really create our experience. If we believe that old is ugly and that you go into sexual retirement, that will be creating our reality. In this way, it's our belief system that creates biology.” It also means, she says, that if we can accept the reality that we might not have that same lusty feelings of our youth, we can tune into our responsive sex drive instead (i.e., feeling the physical arousal first, before the mental desire)... and there's plenty of pleasure to be found there.
And Orgasms May Even Get Better
Sex is always better when you feel comfortable with yourself and empowered enough to speak up. Needless to say, older women enjoy the benefit of time; time spent honing the skills required to stand up for what we want and need, and also time spent just being in our own skin. “On the one hand, we have a society that is very much like, nope, you're not hot anymore. But on the other hand, we have so much freedom and movement happening around being in our bodies for longer, and feeling liberated and really embracing that,” says DeGeare. “And the data is really showing us that older couples are having great sex because they are valuing that there's a lot of benefits to orgasm [and sexual pleasure] and also because they are asking, What do I want to be doing with my time?”
Wise tells us that one of her research studies into how orgasm affects the brain included a range of participants from 24 to 74 years old and while the results varied, the 74-year-old (who hadn’t had orgasms when she was married) experienced more intense pleasure than anyone in the bunch. “She was able to orgasm both through her own stimulation of her clitoris in one run and again when a partner reached in to stimulate her, which is very hard to coordinate,” says Wise, adding that, in her experience, “a 24-year-old or even a 44-year-old would never have been able to experience that kind of pleasure and joy and confidence and comfort in her own body to be able to orgasm like that.”
There’s other research, like this 2012 study published in the Journal of American Medicine, that sexual satisfaction increases with age, though it’s worth noting that orgasm isn’t the only (or even the most important) measure of good sex. Both experts agree that having a better sex life often means challenging what Wise refers to as the “North American sex script,” in which the heteronormative expectations of penetration and goal-oriented striving for orgasm can actually be barriers to sexual pleasure. “We’re really trying to find ways to help couples move away from that sex is supposed to look like this attitude and start shifting their focus to having really healthy communication and knowing for themselves what is and isn’t pleasurable,” says DeGeare.
The takeaway? Sex after 40 can still be pretty freakin’ great and potentially better than ever before, as long as you’re open-minded about what that looks like and willing to communicate openly with your partner.