“I just don’t feel 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.