He’s Just Not That Into It
After months of his wife’s pleading and an eventual ultimatum, “Ted” (not his real name) found himself sitting somewhere he’d never imagined—the office of a sex therapist. The three-year journey leading up to this day was painful; a strained effort along a cumbersome path littered with resentments, accusations, and much confusion.
As Ted told his therapist, “I just don’t get it. I love my wife. She’s intelligent, she’s compassionate. She’s a wonderful mother to our children. She’s my best friend and I love hanging out with her. I just don’t want to have sex with her anymore.”
It turns out Ted isn’t alone. In the United States, there are an estimated 10 million men in sexless, heterosexual marriages. And while many would assume that women’s lack of desire is the main culprit, recent trends indicate that it is just as likely the men who have lost that loving feeling. Many sex therapists are seeing an increase in heterosexual men coming to them for problems with desire, some noting that the percentage of men with low desire now outweighs the percentage of women.
Calgary sex therapist David Hersh, EdD, observes, “When I first started and I would see couples with discordant desire, it was mostly the woman who wasn’t interested. Now about 55% of these couples are seeing me because the man has lost interest.” Several therapists queried confirmed a similar trend in their practices.
It’s not clear if there are actually more men experiencing low desire or if it’s just that more men are now seeking help. Hersh says he believes the latter is the case. “Now, men are more informed about the condition. Traditionally there was a double standard where ‘real men’ always wanted to have sex. But you’re not so strange anymore if you don’t want it.”
Sex therapist Ricky Siegel agrees, stating, “I think there’s little doubt that the most obvious factor to the issue of low desire in men is that ‘Real men are not supposed to have low desire!’ So where it has become an acceptable script for women, it’s one of the things that men suffered about in quiet shame.”
In 2008, Bob Berkowitz and Susan Yager-Berkowitz published the results of their survey of over 1300 men who identified as no longer having sex with their spouses. The respondents listed several reasons for their loss of interest in sex, some of which included emotional struggles with things like depression and anger. Others reported they began avoiding sex because of problems with sexual functioning and eventually lost interest in sex altogether. And while many men initially suspect their loss of libido might be a result of low testosterone, research findings, such as those reported by Sari van Anders in the May, 2012 issue of Archives of Sexual Behavior, continue to suggest this is more often not the case.
Despite his assertion that everything was okay, “Derek” told his therapist that he reluctantly agreed to a session because, “I love my wife and I will do this if she feels it is important.” Derek’s wife “Cindy” was concerned because recently Derek had stopped initiating sex with her, something that she said was “unusual” for him.
Derek said was likely due to stress or perhaps “getting a little older” but when Cindy was invited to talk about experiencing her own sexuality, a different kind of narrative began to emerge. Cindy stated that in the beginning of her relationship with Derek, “Sex was okay but I was never all that into it.” But she added, “Lately, something happened. And now it’s like I can’t wait to jump on this man.”
It turns out that “something” was her reading the best-selling 50 Shades trilogy. Cindy’s sister had turned her onto the books and to Cindy’s surprise the books turned her on, prompting her to embrace and embody her sexuality like never before. After some contemplation, Derek finally conceded that Cindy’s sudden interest in sex had a surprising blanketing effect on his desire for her. “I don’t get it,” he said. “I mean, this is what I always wanted. But when it happened, and all of a sudden she’s wanting to go to the sex store and buy toys and try new things—I don’t know, I guess it kind of turned me off.”
When it comes to treatment, experts often recommend a physical examination (just to be sure) and then consultation with a sex therapist. But what can therapists do to help men get their mojo back? Fortunately, those who practice and write about clinical sexology are continually developing ways for therapists to think about and respond to requests for help. The traditional model is to look at problems in the relationship first. One of the current trends in therapy is to go right to the sex.
As for Ted, the specific course of his future sessions will be guided by the choices he and his therapist make as their therapy conversations unfold. Today’s session marks a turning point in his journey, a change of direction toward the possibility of getting out from underneath the weight of low desire.
“This was good,” he told his therapist at the conclusion of their meeting. “It feels good to get this off my chest.” He added, “I guess I feel a lot more hopeful, like this isn’t just the way it has to be when you get married and are with someone for a long time.”
Jason Kae-Smith is a certified sex therapist with a practice in Grand Rapids, MI. Among other things, he is interested in ways people are able to give value to sexual pleasure throughout their lifetimes. The article from which this is excerpted first appeared in Contemporary Sexuality, the journal of American Association of Sexuality Educators
Counselors & Therapists (AASECT).
I hope you’ll read my discussion with writer David Templeton about the film in the Pacific Sun. Here are excerpts — and click here for the complete article. (Warning: spoiler alert.)
“What bothered me, at first,” Price says, “was that the filmmakers seemed to be making fun of something that is an enormous issue for seniors, something that isn’t really a laughing matter. I couldn’t see what Kay [Streep] saw in Arnold [Jones], and I couldn’t understand how two people in their 60s, in 2012, ended up with this 1950s-style marriage. They sleep in separate rooms, they never talk, she does all the cooking and cleaning even though they both have full-time jobs, they don’t talk about anything except his job and golf, and they never do anything together—and by anything I especially mean…sex.”
…”What was wonderful about the film,” Price says, “once it got to Hope Springs and the therapy sessions, was that it settled down and took its time to flesh out some very real concerns and fears that older people have. At first we think that Arnold is the one who turned away from Kay, but then she admits that it was she who stopped having sex with him. But by then, after she started to miss it, there were so many hurt feelings and misunderstandings between them, that it was just a big mess.”
…”It actually bothered me a little,” says Price, “that Dr. Feld didn’t suggest that they get a medical opinion. If something changes in a man’s sex drive, there is often a medical reason. Men don’t stop wanting sex overnight, even if their wife did turn them down one or two times too often. That might happen gradually, but if it’s sudden, then a man really needs to see a doctor. In this movie, we learn that he’s having erectile problems, and is afraid to put it to the test, so he avoids sex. But erectile problems could be an indication of heart disease, or diabetes, or any number of other treatable diseases. That message was never put into the movie, and it should have been, by the therapist, if no one else.”
…”I wonder,” asks Price, “if, at any point in this couple’s history, there was ever any sex between them that was for her pleasure? The therapist even—and this completely shocked me—asked if she’d ever had orgasms…’vaginal or otherwise.’ Excuse me? Orgasms come from the clitoris. Was this guy trained in the 1940s?
I also encourage you to talk about it with your partner if you have one, with your friends, with anyone who will participate. That’s my mission after all — to talk out loud about senior sex — and this film lubricates the topic, so to speak.
8/18/11 update: I’m bringing this older post to the top because it answers so many of the questions about erectile dysfunction that my readers are asking. Michael Castleman is also one of the experts in Naked at Our Age and I respect his knowledge and ability to convey important information simply and compassionately.
So many readers–both male and female–have been asking for information about erectile dysfunction that I asked Michael Castleman, a sex educator, counselor and journalist specializing in men’s sexuality to answer some questions. His interview starts here and continues here.
Q: Explain erectile dysfunction (ED) and why it happens.
MC: Only a small fraction of men from age 45-60 have true ED. A larger but still modest fraction of men over 60 have true ED. True ED is the inability to raise an erection despite vigorous extended hand massage of the penis. True ED is usually the result of a medical problem, either a problem with the nerves that control erection, or more likely, narrowing of the arteries that carry blood into the penis. Like the arteries of the heart, the arteries into the penis can become narrowed by atherosclerotic plaques. Causes of plaque formation: heart disease, diabetes, smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, high-fat diet, sedentary lifestyle. In other words, all risk factors for heart disease are also risk factors for ED. In addition, ED can be caused or aggravated by stress and anxiety, which constrict the arteries and limit blood flow into the penis.
Q: What about men who are capable of erections, but they’re less reliable than they used to be and require more stimulation?
MC: While only a fraction of men over 45 experience true ED, just about every man experiences what sex therapists call “erection dissatisfaction” (EDis). After 45 or 50 or so, men with EDis can still raises erections, but they don’t rise as quickly as they used to. They no longer rise from fantasy alone–seeing an attractive woman or some erotic scene. Men begin to need direct penis stimulation by hand or mouth. When erections rise, they may not look/feel as firm as they were in the man’s 20s. They may also droop from minor distractions, anything from donning a condom to hearing a motorcycle roar up the street.
The good news is that EDis is a normal and natural part of aging. If older erections wilt a bit, hand massage and/or oral stimulation bring them back up again–IF the man remains relaxed and patient with himself. If the man gets stressed and anxious, this reduces the likelihood of a return to fullish erection.
Many (most?) older men are unclear on the distinction between true ED and EDis. Many mistakenly think they have ED when they experience the normal age-related erection changes of EDis. Now EDis can be disconcerting. I’ve been a sex educator for 30 years. I knew all about what happens to erections after 50. But when those changes started happening to ME, I found them unnerving. P.S. Erection medication (Viagra etc) helps treat EDis. In fact, most men who take erection drugs don’t have true ED. They have EDis.
Q: Many men fear that they can’t please a woman without an erection, or they give up on sex altogether. Is an erection necessary for sex?
MC: Of course not. As you know, women’s pleasure organ is the clitoris. Many women prefer cunnilingus to intercourse. Surveys show that only 25% of women are reliably orgasmic from intercourse, no matter how vigorous or how long it lasts. So women know that an erection and vaginal insertion are not necessary or sufficient for sexual pleasure and orgasm. But many men DON’T know this.
Q: How did men’s sexual education skip that important concept that women’s orgasms are based on clitoral stimulation, and that most women don’t need penis-in-vagina penetration for their pleasure?
Most men get most of their sex ed from pornography. Porn is totally penis-centered. Porn actors have monster cocks, which makes normally endowed men feel they’re “too small.” Mainstream porn includes a bit of massage and cunnilingus, but it’s mostly about sucking and fucking, so that’s what men come to believe sex is all about.
I’ve spent my life as a sex educator and counselor trying to persuade men that they’ll have better sex and get better reviews from women if they ditch their preoccupation with their penis and focus instead on leisurely, playful, whole-body, massage-based sensuality. But compared with porn, which is viewed overwhelmingly by men and is by far men’s #1 source of sex ed, the combined voices of every sex expert on earth amount to a little whisper in the hurricane of porn porn porn.
Here’s where I plug my book, Great Sex. Its message to men: If you want great sex, if you want women to sing your praises as a lover, stop trying to imitate porn. In fact, do the opposite of what you see in porn. Not only will she be happier, you will be, too. You’ll enjoy sex more and have fewer sex problems–more cooperative erection and better ejaculatory control.
My book, Better Then I Ever Expected: Straight Talk About Sex After Sixty (Seal Press), will be out in January 2006. Please see here for a description of this sassy, sexy book combining my personal story with tips and tales from lusty, sexually seasoned women.
We’re proving that our society’s view of older women as sexless is wrong, wrong, wrong.
I’d like to invite you –whether or not you’re a woman over sixty — to participate in discussions of ageless sexuality. Please choose a first name of your choice and your age to identify yourself, and feel free to post comments and questions regarding this hot and important topic.
To start you out, what makes sex after sixty better than you ever expected, personally?
I’d like your candid views, and I hope you’ll express them respectfully so that all women will feel welcome to read and post, and won’t feel they’ve wandered into a sleazy place. Thank you, and welcome to our community!
In the past 5.5 years, so much has happened, personally and professionally. Better Than I Ever Expected and I received much media attention –we still do! — and I found myself the spokesperson for senior sex. What had started as a mission to normalize the idea of people over 60 enjoying sex and daring to talk out loud about it became a huge groundswell. I thank you for the part you played in this movement.
Thank you for making this blog a center of that movement by reading and commenting, showing other readers that we have a community of seniors and elders — men as well as women now! — discussing sex openly and respectfully in a manner that’s welcoming even to people who are not used to discussing their sex lives.
Because of you, one book led to the next one: Men said to me, “What about us?” and both men and women said, “Great that you’re celebrating senior sex, but I’m having a lousy sex life and here’s my problem….” I realized that my next book needed to be aimed at both genders, and needed to address the problems and offer solutions. It also needed to include your stories, because we’ve never shared our stories in public before.
Our youth-oriented society may still be saying “Ick!” to the idea of people our age getting naked, loving the pleasures our bodies can give us, loving each other (wrinkles and all!) and finding ways to stay sexually vibrant whether we’re partnered or not — but society can’t pretend it isn’t happening!
Thank you for that. I’m honored that you’ve chosen to join me in talking out loud about senior sex!
As always, I invite your comments!