The Daily Tar Heel

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Sunday January 16th

Sex and the older woman

It’s no secret that society wants older men to be the same sexual stallions that they were in their 20s. With Jimmy Johnson (Extenze), and Hugh Hefner (Playboy) leading the salt-and-pepper herd, men in their 50s and 60s are supposed to continue being sexually active.

But what about older women? They have the images of the old maid and the spinster. Some changes are developing via the rise of the “cougar” stereotype (albeit with its own set of problematic implications), but the myth of the asexual older woman still remains strong.

The idea might come from a conflation of sexual inactivity with menopause. If we associate sex with reproduction, women who are infertile post-menopause should not need to have sex. Or if we equate sexual drive with hormones, lower amounts of estrogen in women after menopause should decrease sexual desire.

But are these correlations valid? For women, should staying sexy stop at 60?

The research suggests otherwise. In a 2009 survey of nearly 2,000 women ages 45 to 80, Dr. Alison Huang found that 43 percent reported their sexual desire or interest to be moderate to very high in the last three months, including 28 percent of women over 65. Also, 60 percent of the women surveyed had some sexual activity in the last three months, including 37 percent of women over 65.

So a significant portion of older women do remain sexually interested or active, but can we explain why others do not? Most research so far has come from a biomedical perspective: Declines in estrogen have been associated with vaginal dryness or tightness in order to explain decreased sexual enjoyment.

Unsatisfied with this reduction of female sexuality, Sharron Hinchliff sought to complete the picture. In a small qualitative 2010 study, she interviewed 12 heterosexual British women experiencing natural menopause.

The results revealed a heterogeneous experience of sexuality during menopause, some having reduced desire, and others increased desire. Additionally, many social, psychological and interpersonal (non-hormonal) factors were affecting sexual desire, such as relationship quality or family issues.

We cannot lump all menopausal women into the same sexual category, and we cannot assume that a change in hormone levels dictates a corresponding change in sexual function. Huang found that only 9 percent of sexually inactive respondents cited personal physical problems as a reason for inactivity.

For the 9 percent, sexologist Rebecca Chalker has some suggestions for staying sexual. Having more regular sexual activity can improve sexual functioning, by the “use-it-or-lose-it” explanation. Some medications may also be causing the physical problems, so a discussion with a clinician may be in order. Finally, intercourse need not be the goal of every sexual experience. One can still derive sexual pleasure from “outercourse” (that is, everything but intercourse), masturbation or sex toys.

So who says there’s no sex for the female sexagenarian? There’s no rule that you should pause for menopause. Try pushing play.

Perry Tsai is a sexual health columnist for the Daily Tar Heel. He is a second year medical student from New Orleans, LA. Email him at perrytsai@gmail.com.

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