Dr Bianca Fileborn, of La Trobe University’s Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society, has just published the results of her new study: Sex, Desire and Pleasure: Considering the Experiences of Older Australian Women. Fileborn says that far from women’s level of sexual desire gradually fading away over time, many women’s appetite for sex and intimacy increases in later years and that this is driven by factors other than ageing. Drawing on semi-structured interviews with 43 partnered Australian women aged 55–81, Fileborn considered women’s sexual experiences and desires in older age.
Here are her findings:
Diverse Experiences: A particularly striking finding was the diversity of sexual experience and desire amongst this group of women. Participants ranged from having ceased sexual activity completely to still engaging in regular sexual activity of various forms. The following comments from participants illustrate the range of sexual activity that the women currently engaged in, and the importance of sexual satisfaction to them:
No, we don’t have it. It doesn’t worry me. No…
Do you have cuddles [hugging]? [Italics are used here to denote when the interviewer is talking.]
Oh yeah. Yeah. Cuddle, sit on the lounge and hold hands and all that stuff. (Jessica, age 67)
Really important. With my partner it’s very good, very satisfying. But yeah, it’s really important and it’s a lot of fun achieving it too. (Rolly, age 63)
Less focus on penetration: Many participants remained intimate in the absence of penetrative sex; however, this interaction was not always overtly identified as a form of sexual intimacy. Direct questioning of older individuals about their sexual behaviour might not elicit a complete picture of their experiences. For instance, Jessica responded that she did not have sex with her partner anymore, yet when prompted she revealed that they did still engage in some forms of sexual interaction. This may reflect the influence of cultural norms in which “sex” is defined as limited to penetration at the expense of other forms of sexual intimacy.
Respondent Anna distinguished ideas of sexual satisfaction and sensual satisfaction:
I’m quite happy to have what you might call a fuck, I mean it’s great and to feel horny and to have somebody else feel attracted and passionate…But I also probably desire more whole body intimacy. I love to be touched, to be stroked, to be massaged. (Anna, age 69)
Anna related this focus on sensuality to her previous sexually disappointing and unfulfilling relationship. This indicates that the context of a relationship and the individual trajectories of women’s lives are fundamental to understanding how they negotiate their sexual subjectivity.
Ebb and Flow: For individual women, sexual desire was often fluid across their lifetimes. That is, rather than desire for sex being static or uni-directional (i.e. traversing towards a decline and eventual cessation of sexual desire), women’s desire ebbed and flowed according to contextual factors and events. Common influences on desire included entering into a new relationship, physiological changes and the women’s partners. For example, participant Joy (age 59) experienced a dramatic increase in both her sexual desire and activity following a significant period of celibacy. During this period, Joy indicated that her desire for sex waned due to sexual incompatibilities with her partner. Her desire for sex returned with a new casual sexual partner, and the ability to negotiate a non-traditional relationship arrangement with her partner greatly improved Joy’s sexual satisfaction. Other participants experienced a decline in sexual desire as they aged:
I just don’t have a sexual urge anymore. (Connie, age 60)
For some participants, this shift in sexual desire was a welcome one; however, for others, it was discussed with a sense of loss or grief. Participant Joy, for example, described her lowered libido and sexual response as “disappointing”.
The gap between desire and activity: Desire for sex did not always relate to sexual activity. Some participants expressed various levels of desire for sex, yet were unable to translate this desire into action:
How important is sexual satisfaction to you?
Very important and I don’t feel very satisfied. Well, it’s not very important. Oh no, I’m going to burst into tears. (Rusty, age 57)
So do you miss it [penetrative partnered sex]?
At times. I get a bit kind of cross [answering back quickly]. But generally, I was thinking there was almost a time when you didn’t have a cuddle just in case he wanted it and you didn’t want that. So now you can have a cuddle whenever you want to because the other is not necessary. (Janet, age 74)
Liberation from a sexual imperative: For some participants, a level of ambivalence was apparent in relation to whether sexual satisfaction was important to them. Rusty’s comments provide an example of this. In other instances, the gap between participants’ sexual desire and sexual activity was paradoxically experienced as both limiting because they still desired partnered sex, and liberating because the expectation of sex was removed. The possibility for other forms of intimacy, such as cuddling, was often opened up for participants in the absence of a (presumably penetrative) sexual imperative.
Yet, other women engaged in regular sexual activity in the absence of any sexual desire:
I just don’t have a sexual urge anymore…You know my husband and I are still sexually active. (Connie, age 60)
One participant discussed her friend’s continued engagement in sex with her husband in the absence of any desire:
She’s pleasing her husband, which is always done, but in pleasing your husband you often get a lot of pleasure yourself. (Susie, age 68)
Masturbation: Many participants discussed sexual acts in a way that constructed a sexual hierarchy. These hierarchies tended to privilege partnered, penetrative sex, with ‘alternative’ forms of sex, such as masturbation, relegated to the bottom of the sexual heap:
Do you ever self-satisfy yourself?
No not really.
Did you ever?
When I was a teenager. Before I knew boys. (Janet, age 74)
Similarly, participant Sally constructed “other” forms of intimacy and closeness as lesser forms of sexuality:
Do you find substitutes for it?
There’s not a real substitute. You’re just close, that’s all. (Sally, age 64)
However, other participants held more inclusive definitions of sexual intimacy:
I think basically we care for each other. We sleep together, and we curl up together. We touch each other, all these things, which is basically what intimacy is. (Tabitha, age 78)
Other participants welcomed masturbation as part of their sexual repertoire:
There’s not a lot of sex anymore and it doesn’t really worry me. You know masturbation is still perfectly available. (Greta, age 61)
Participants’ views towards masturbation must also be viewed in terms of the social and cultural context these women grew up in:
Not supposed to masturbate?
Oh god no! No, no. And that’s one of the issues with me was, growing up as a good Catholic girl. You know you certainly didn’t do that. (Jeffa, age 64)
Taboo: Many of the women in this study reported growing up in a social context where sex was not openly discussed, and masturbation was taboo and shameful, although this was increasingly challenged throughout the 1960s and 1970s as many of our participants were coming of age. It is thus difficult to separate the influence of social and cultural context and the influence of ageing on women’s attitudes towards masturbation.
Life Stage: For many participants, their particular stage of life increased both their desires for sex and abilities to engage in it. Being free from the pressures of raising a young family, work and the risk of pregnancy, opened up opportunities to engage in and enjoy sex. Additionally, many (though certainly not all) women had a strong sense of what worked for them sexually at this point in their lives and were confident in asking for or negotiating what they wanted with their partners:
The women I’ve known, like in this stage of my life, are not frightened of sex. I reckon it’s probably the best time in your life actually because you’re not going to have kids, you don’t have to think about a house. (Rosie, age 57)
For some women, the ability to negotiate pleasurable sex came after involvement in sexually disappointing relationships earlier in their lives. This was occasionally accompanied by general dissatisfaction with the relationship, and less commonly by physically and emotionally abusive behaviour. Many women commented that they were no longer willing to compromise or “put up with” unsatisfying relationships later in life.
Partner’s Attitudes: Women’s sexual lives were also shaped, influenced, and at times limited, by the attitudes and behaviours of their partners. A number of women indicated that their partners displayed minimal insight into their sexual needs and desires, leading to an unsatisfactory partnered sexual life:
He couldn’t see that I had sexual needs. He couldn’t see that I didn’t need a penis…Because once he’d done his bit that was it. He’d roll over and go to sleep. And I’d be left going “what the fuck”? (Jeffa, age 64)
Women’s attempts to negotiate sex with their partners were met with varying levels of success. Some partners were resistant to discussing their sexual techniques and women’s attempts to raise problems fell on deaf ears:
And as I say I have tried to talk to [partner] and to do it differently or, whatever, and I felt that he was like a bull in a china shop sometimes, and he’d just roll over. (Rusty, age 57)
Rusty believed her partner felt “undermined” whenever she raised issues regarding sex, particularly if she had suffered in silence for some time with her partner believing that she was sexually satisfied. Participant Kim (age 56) also indicated that her husband was reluctant to develop new sexual techniques in order to adapt to the physiological changes she had experienced during menopause. Kim described her partner as a “man who does not do intimacy”. His unwillingness to expand his sexual horizons left Kim feeling sexually dissatisfied.
Erectile Dysfunction: When partners constructed sex only in the limited terms of penetration, the end of women’s partnered sexual life was signalled when their partners could no longer maintain erections and the women were unable or unwilling to leave their relationships or initiate alternative sexual arrangements, for example, by having a casual sexual partner:
I have another girlfriend whose husband had prostate cancer, and so he can’t get an erection anymore…she wishes that he would find another way to satisfy her, but he won’t because he can’t have sex at all. He won’t engage in any sex with her. (Toohey, age 63)
Erectile dysfunction (ED), associated with age or resulting from major health problems, such as prostate cancer and diabetes, was commonly identified as influencing women’s sexual practices later in life. However, this did not signal the end of partnered sex for all women. Some adjusted their sexual repertoires to accommodate for their partners, for example, some participants engaged in mutual masturbation, while others discussed using drugs, such as Viagra, in order for their partners to achieve erections:
Things have changed in our life because my husband has had a prostate cancer. So he was operated on…He got nervous because of the operation and so yes, we managed to have a nice time, but quite different and so that’s it. But there’s lots more cuddles and things. (Janet, age 74)
Health, well-being and medication: Women’s general health and well-being was a significant feature mediating their desire for sex. Depleted libido, caused by the side effects of medications, was mentioned by a number of participants:
And I wonder too about the Zoloft because…I’m not sort [of] interested much [since] I’ve been on those. I think it really has killed a lot of that. (Suki, age 55)
However, major health incidents did not always result in decreased sexual desire. Indeed, for one participant, having a hysterectomy, in conjunction with additional life circumstances, enhanced her sexual desire:
Actually I think on our part the sex is better. It has got better since the kids have left home. And I had a hysterectomy five years ago and now that’s [sex] all I want. (Macca, age 57)
Menopause had a highly variable influence on the sexual desire and activity of our participants:
There is a tenderness and a sensitivity that is unfortunate but undeniable and unavoidable. (Greta, age 61)
I’ve been very fortunate…with menopause…I’ve sort of breezed through that and the physiological things haven’t really, not like the dryness and all that sort of thing. I really haven’t had that. (Narelle, age 67)
One participant discussed the dual impact of menopause and having an sexually transmitted infection (STI):
Herpes, for example, has affected the skin down there. It is very thin, and it means that as things are changing down there just through natural progression of ageing, it is much more tender. I have to be really careful. (Kim, age 56)
Kim also experienced additional complications from past surgeries on her vagina and vulva, which in conjunction with herpes and her menopausal symptoms compounded the effects of a lack of “natural” lubrication and sensitive skin.
Lack of Information: A common theme amongst women’s experiences of medication, surgery or other health interventions was the lack of information or advice provided by doctors in relation to how the intervention would affect their sexual functioning or desire. Participants commented that this lack of information made it difficult to predict how these interventions would affect them, and prevented them from taking steps to minimise or prevent subsequent problems.
Lack of Resources: Participants highlighted the lack of available resources on ageing and sexuality:
I thought this was really important to bring up with you; there are no books about sexuality for older people. (Joy, age 59)
In particular, participants wanted information on how to cope with the effects of ageing on sexual activity:
You can find books on arthritis, diabetes…but where is it about how to discover what’s still good about your body and how to pleasure yourself and your partner? Issues that arise for older people. It doesn’t exist. (Joy, age 59)
Some participants expressed a need for information that allowed them to create opportunities for sexual pleasure in a way that accommodates for changing, ageing bodies. However, the lack of available advice and resources restricted the ability of some participants to adjust their sexual practices accordingly. Other women discussed the fact that the notion of older women experiencing sexual pleasure and desire was a taboo even among their peers. The silence around these issues further entrenched the belief that older women do not desire sexual pleasure. Several participants expressed a wish to know if their experiences were “normal”. Despite still having sexual desire, a lack of knowledge around ageing and sex meant that participants lacked autonomy and control over their sexual subjectivities. This point is encapsulated in Sally’s experience of her husband’s surgery for prostate cancer:
I don’t think he was given any counselling or any information or anything because I believe there’s rehabilitation or something but that certainly wasn’t offered to him…we weren’t given enough information because at the time you are quite shocked and you think…that’s it…that’s both of us that that operation affected. (Sally, age 64)
Sally felt that a lack of discussion, information and advice from health care professionals prevented her partner from having the choice to undergo rehabilitation to maintain the ability to have an erection, leading to the cessation of their partnered sex life. Another participant argued that older women need information exposing them to, and normalising, the diversity of sexual practices:
I don’t think anyone has ever educated us as women to think that we don’t need a penis. Until such time, you know with women seeking out female partners, I think it’s only then that you go, well most of us go, well how does that work? (Jeffa, age 64)
Safe Sex Education: Participants also identified a lack of information relating to safe-sex practices targeted towards older individuals:
It doesn’t matter what age you are. If you don’t take precautions then if you get the consequences you have to deal with it, and if it’s HIV it’s bad luck… [Sex education is] mostly in regard to young people getting started, not older people. I suppose we’re expected to know better. (Rolly, age 63
Older age is often associated with asexuality. That is, older individuals are not viewed as desiring of sex, nor as sexually desirable to others. Broader social and cultural norms that downplay women’s sexual desire and agency further compound these phenomena. Fileborn’s study shows that some women do experience a kind of gradual decline, particularly as they go through menopause, but other women experienced a great increase in sexual desire as they get older..
As Fileborn says “No matter how you look, from when you’re young to now that you’re very old, you’re exactly the same person. All those impulses and desires, for physical touch, for sex, for companionship, they’re all the same. ”