When Sexual Desire Changes – and What to do About it
“I just don’t feel sexual desire anymore,” many senior women tell me. They miss the excitement, pleasure, and intimacy of sex, and they ask me how to fix this. Others have decided that they’re done with sex and wish their partners would stop pressuring them. Often the lovers and spouses are the ones who reach out to me: “My partner doesn’t desire sex with me anymore, and it’s killing me.”
Many seniors find that sex continues to be terrific, even better than ever, and finally we’re talking out loud about that. But those who avoid sex out of lack of desire usually think that’s just the way things are when we age — but that’s not true!
Spontaneous vs responsive desire
As we age and hormones recede, we may not feel that biological urge or drive for sex anymore. Our bodies and brain don’t automatically kick into gear, even with someone who would have inspired us to peel off our clothes a few decades ago. In fact, there’s nothing “automatic” about our sexual responses at all. That doesn’t mean you don’t feel desire. It means you don’t feel “spontaneous desire,” which is biologically driven, propelled by hormones.
As we age, spontaneous desire wanes, that’s normal. But that isn’t the only way to experience desire, and it doesn’t have to close down our sexual pleasure.
“Responsive desire” means that you feel desire in response to pleasure and arousal. In other words, instead of having sex because you feel desire in advance, you’re letting yourself relax and open to the pleasure and stimulation of physiological arousal. Then the desire will kick in.
How do you know if this is relevant to you personally? Do you ever resist sex at first because you’re not particularly in the mood, but once you get started, your arousal grows and then you’re really into it? That’s responsive desire. That’s especially true if, at the end, you say, “Wow, that was good. Why don’t we do that more often?”
As Emily Nagoski, Ph. D, explains in Come As You Are: The Surprising New Science That Will Transform Your Sex Life:
The standard narrative of sexual desire is that it just appears – you’re sitting at lunch or walking down the street, maybe you see a sexy person or think a sexy thought, and pow! You’re saying to yourself, “I would like some sex!” This is how it works for maybe 75 percent of men and 15 percent of women…That’s “spontaneous” desire.
But some people find that they begin to want sex only after sexy things are already happening. And they’re normal. They don’t have “low” desire, they don’t suffer from any ailment… Their bodies just need some more compelling reason than, “That’s an attractive person right there,” to want sex.
For more about women’s sexual desire and response, I heartily recommend Nagoski’s book. Read more about spontaneous vs. responsive desire.
How to talk with your partner
Lack of communication makes lack of desire far worse. The jilted partner thinks, “It’s me. My lover doesn’t desire me anymore.” The partner who’s been turned away over and over feels frustrated, alone, unloved, unwanted. They may decide that cheating, leaving, or becoming a monk are the only options. Soon it’s not just sex that feels mismatched — it’s the whole relationship.
Don’t let that happen. Talk to each other openly, lovingly, without blame. Listen to each other without interrupting. Ask for clarification. When you respond to the other, explain your feelings without arguing or coming across as defensive.
Read these sample scripts. Would one of them help get you started? If not, write your own.
• “I admit I’ve been resisting sex lately and I know this hurts you. I love you very much, and I’d like to explain what’s going on for me and hear how you feel.”
• “I’m having difficulty feeling sexual desire. It’s not you — it’s how my body is working these days. I’ve learned about something called ‘responsive desire’ that I’d like to tell you about. Then let’s try it.”
• “I’d like to try a no-goals cuddle time where we’re naked in bed, holding each other, with no assumption that it has to lead to sex. If it does, we’ll enjoy it. But if it doesn’t, we’ll still enjoy holding each other.”
If you can’t have this kind of conversation on your own successfully, please enlist the help of an age-positive, sex-positive couples’ counselor or a sex therapist. The future of your relationship may depend on it.
What to do instead of waiting to be in the mood
(excerpted from “Getting Your Mojo Back” in The Ultimate Guide to Sex after 50:
How to Maintain – or Regain – a Spicy, Satisfying Sex Life)
I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to approach our sexuality in this new way: Relax, start getting physically aroused, emotional arousal will happen, and voila, we’ll be in the mood. So the key is to commit to regular sex, partnered or solo. How does this translate to real life?
Here are some tips:
• Schedule sex dates with your partner and/or with yourself.
• Create rituals with your partner that signal sex would be welcome.
• Allow plenty of time for warm up.
• Make sex a habit. The more you do it, the more you’ll want to do it.
“You may have just saved my marriage,” a woman told me after I explained responsive desire at a presentation. Incorporate this into your sex life — you may feel the same!
This article originally appeared as part of Lion’s Den Senior Sex Month, July 2022, at https://www.lionsden.com/blog/when-desire-changes.
Gary and Vance Robbins. 2 things: First, if your woman is not interested in sex, are you SURE she’s not mad at you for some other reason? And I mean justifiably mad. 2nd, is there good reason why she SHOULD be interested in sex? I am 65, my husband’s a little older. He changed after we were married, and he really changed about 10 years ago. I nearly left him, and probably should have. He’s always been selfish, and he got very controlling. He dominated everything we did. We both worked full time, but I traveled a lot, and I was happiest when I was away from him. We got along when we were only together a short time. When I quit work, things really went downhill. I do everything, and he just plays with his hobbies. When I ask him to do something, I get pouting, negativity, and irritated comments, and maybe he’ll do it a few days later, or not. I do all paperwork, bills, taxes, shopping, ordering, and 90% of the cleaning. I also shovel snow, run the snowblower and run a small tractor to move snow, as we have a large area to clear. I’m MAD at him. He demeaned me for years, and he has acknowledged that he did not treat me well. He is actually trying to change, but I will never be the same. 2nd thing, I know Gary said his wife had been happily sexy many years ago. We had a lot of sex at first, but unless he went down on me, or I manually stimulated myself, I didn’t orgasm. A significant portion of the time, ONLY HE had an orgasm. He got frustrated if I didn’t climax quickly when he fingered me, I couldn’t get him to change how he did that, and he never helped me orgasm by intercourse, so yes, I lost interest. Menopause? Men should have to experience some of it! I had nearly a decade of misery, and yes, I lost all interest in sex. But now? I lost weight, I have libido, and I’m very interested in sex, but my relationship with him is tenuous. He’s also in very poor health. I rely on vibrators and fantasy.
There seems to be a reluctance in sex advice columns and podcasts to be really honest with men on this issue. In my case, for example, nobody told me that there would be ZERO chance of getting back to how my then-future wife was in college, when she creamed her jeans so much from just kissing that she got a big wet spot on her crotch, requiring a change of clothes before we went out. I naively thought she’d always be like that, ready for sex at the drop of a hat. I still am, so this has been a HUGE adjustment and a test of our love and commitment.
Men who have had high sustained sex drives through middle age need to understand that no amount of lube, vibrators, talk therapy will ever get your wife back to that level of sexual response, PERIOD. Too many articles try to sugar-coat this tough message.
Interesting all we hear about is how men peak in our 20s before a long decline of hormones turns us into men whose only hope is viagra or the like once we hit 60. I know for a fact that this is not a certainty – plenty of men don’t have a rapid decline and enjoy frequent sex and in effect, slow this decline down considerably.
Many women simply lose interest in sex as they age. Many don’t really miss it (regular sex). It’s almost as if they feel they have put in enough years to be able to retire from it. Men are expected to just get over it. It really puts a lot of us in horrible places. I don’t want to have an affair or become a porn addict (like my son-in-law), but I didn’t imagine spending my golden years having sex 2-3 times a year with a woman I still adore.
Gary, I hate seeing that you’re having such a negative experience. As a 75-year old man, my experience is quite the opposite. For me, penetrative sex with women in their 60s and 70s has been the best in my life. All are wet and eager, passionate and liberated. The common thread is estrogen-only therapy. They all take a different form, from pills to suppository’s, with similar results.
These are women that were always sex-positive, from their 20s, into their 60s and 70s. They all say that they are enjoying sex more than any time in there lives. They’re having multiple orgasms of all types and enjoy sex more than ever.
For me, I’ve been using a testosterones gel for around 15-years now. It’s a low dosage, that keeps me at the low end of the “normal” range. Because of a bad reaction to a BPH medicine, I have serious, non-reversing ED, that allows only around a 60% erection, but penile injections fix that and allow for a 90%, 2-hour erection. (Most guys don’t need that, but it just shows that there’s even hope for those with extreme issues).
I swear, this is on the up and up. Don’t give up.
Joan, I haven’t had any sexual contact with my wife of 35 years since Obama’s first term. She went thru menopause in early 40s and lost all interest and desire. The few times we tried it was so painful for her that I stopped trying. I just don’t let myself think of her in any sort of a sexual way. She says she loves me, which I don’t doubt, and I care for her but I’m lost and lonely and miss the intimacy of a true fulfilling relationship.
I know you’ll suggest therapy but i think we are far past the point where that would be beneficial. So at 67 my sex life is back to what it was when I was 14, my hand. It’s been a sad existence, this isn’t what I signed up for and if I had known this is how my life would’ve turned out, I would’ve moved on years ago when I at least had hope. Your articles do give me some hope, keep up your good work!
I’m sorry, Moose, and I thank you for commenting. It sounds like intercourse was painful for your wife, and you both abandoned sex altogether, although non-penetrative pleasure might have worked. It’s not too late to work through this with a sex therapist if you’re both willing, but it sounds like you both feel that ship has sailed. If you’d like to book a consultation to discuss options and feelings with me privately, please inquire at https://joanprice.com/contact.
I see that always wise Joan Price has mentioned sex without penetration (e.g., via touching with hands, fingers, mouths, sex toys), as an alternative to your dilemma, and as someone older than you by quite a few years I can’t recommend this highly enough. In truth, it is more satisfying than penis in vagina (PIV) intercourse. I dare say that my partner finds it so, too, and the feelings of closeness and happiness that result are wonderful. So, Moose, please consult a sex therapist along with your wife, or book a consultation with Joan Price. You’re way too young to spend your remaining years limited to self-pleasuring, nice as that can be. Break free!