You Change. Sex Changes, Too

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I guess every generation needs to learn this themselves: that sex at 40, 50, and beyond is not the same as sex when we’re 18 or 21 or 27.

When a grownup learns this, certain sexual “problems” disappear.

After 35, Jose doesn’t get instantly erect from anything, certainly not from simply looking at the nude woman he’s been sleeping with for 10 years. After 45, Sheila and Sam are going to need a lubricant to make intercourse as comfortable as possible. After 55, Taylor probably won’t orgasm every time he has sex. And after 65, Qin may find that outercourse (oral sex, fingers, a vibrator) is way more enjoyable than intercourse.

If only each generation would hand this information to the age group below them about once or twice each decade. But no, most of us have to learn this stuff the hard way—if we learn it at all.

For example, desire changes dramatically as we age. At 23, we may feel “If I don’t rip your clothes off this second I’m going to die.” At 40 we may feel “I’m tired and preoccupied, but the kids are gone for the night so we should probably have sex.” At 55 we may feel “I’d like to feel warm and close with you, but my back hurts. How about we kiss and then you use your vibrator while I cuddle you?”

People who have experienced raging lust when younger often yearn to feel it again. It’s one of the reasons people have affairs, of course—not to diss their spouse and maybe not even for the sex itself, but to experience lust. When people come to my office with a desire “dysfunction,” we often have to explore what desire might reasonably feel like after 20 years with the same partner. Passion is great, but most people over 40 or 50 need a new vocabulary if they want to initiate or respond to their partner’s invitation.

Physical pain plays an increasing role in our sexual choices and experience as we age. Just as some kinds of strenuous hiking become more difficult over time and we eventually stop doing them in favor of easier kinds of walking, the same may be true with some sexual positions or games.

Rear-entry intercourse requires four healthy knees—and so may eventually become a thing of the past. That “I pretend to hold you down and you pretend to resist” game that so many couples enjoy when young may eventually become more trouble than it’s worth. If people love that game but, say, tendinitis prevents it, they’ll need to find new ways to play with power—maybe with kissing, or with fondling in public.

Gay, straight, or bi, some women find that orgasm becomes easier as they age. Many men, however, experience the opposite—that prostate issues, medication, and a slowing of reflexes makes orgasm less dependable.

If the sex itself is enjoyable, many men adjust to this (sometimes to their own surprise—which 25-year-old guy would imagine that not coming would ever be OK?). If both men in a gay couple experience this change, they generally don’t hassle each other. But I’m continually surprised by the number of women who are bothered by their male partner not climaxing.

They worry that they’re not adequate or sufficiently attractive, or that their guy is having an affair or (gasp!) secretly masturbating. If a middle-aged man swears that he enjoys sex with his partner and that it’s OK that he doesn’t always orgasm, I have to confront her about why she’s creating a problem where none really exists.

When people are sexually dissatisfied, I explore if they’re trying to recapture feelings and validation that sex used to provide, but no longer does. If that’s the case, I gently say, let’s not blame sex, and let’s not try to reproduce our Glory Days. Let’s see what we can do with the body we have, the body our partner has, and the wisdom and sense of humor that we’ve acquired over time.

Instead of solving sexual problems that aren’t problems, re-imagining sex can save a lot of heartache—and make sex more enjoyable as the future unfolds.
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