When cartoonist Sharon Rosenzweig was 45 and going through a divorce, she felt the pressure to meet someone new right away. “By the time I’m in my fifties,” she remembers thinking, “I’m going to be so old, I won’t even be interested in sex anymore.” She had this idea that menopause would eradicate her sex drive.
Turns out, she was wrong. She met the man who would become her second husband in the middle of menopause and was surprised to find her sex drive was still quite active. But she did have things to figure out, namely vaginal dryness, a common issue of menopausal and post-menopausal individuals.
Her doctor prescribed her estriol cream and it has made all the difference. For Sharon, sex is now better post-menopause. “I’m surprised how [my body] keeps getting more responsive. Orgasms are longer and more powerful than they used to be. I don’t know if that is me being more comfortable, like being older actually helps, or if it’s this cream or it’s just having figured out a little bit more.”
(By the way, estriol cream can be expensive. Sharon recommends looking into The Women’s International Pharmacy— an affordable pharmacy that offers mail order — however another source warns us that pharmacies such as WIP offer compounded drugs, which are not FDA-approved and can be dangerous. We recommend talking to your health care specialist before making a decision about OTC products. )
Sharon tells her story in the new comic collection Menopause: A Comic Treatment. The embedded video is a promotion for the collection and tells Sharon’s story.
Sharon’s story is not uncommon. MaryJane Lewitt, Ph.D., RN, CNM, FACNM, is a nurse, midwife, and qualitative researcher who studies the sexuality of post-menopausal individuals. MaryJane is discovering that post-menopause is a time of life where many folks are able to prioritize their own sexuality and overall quality of life.
I interviewed MaryJane about her research. Below, you’ll find tips on navigating sex, relationships, and a holistic sexual self during and post-menopause from both MaryJane and Sharon.
But first, a note on the gendered terms used in this article. Since MaryJane’s research has focused primarily on cisgender individuals born with vulvas, for this article, when I quote MaryJane, that’s who we are referring to; however, I hope anyone experiencing menopause can feel included.`
And actually, much of the advice is applicable to anyone in their later years regardless of gender, because much of the changes related to aging aren’t just about menopause. This is really about embracing your whole self through all of life’s changes.
1. Redefine Your Sexual Self
Many aspects of aging can impact one’s sexual desires and goals. You may experience changes in your relationships and your lifestyle, along with physical changes. Menopause (and aging in general) will bring changes to the texture, tone and sensitivity of your skin, including your erogenous zones. You’ll also experience changes to your body hair and natural lubrication.
Combined, these changes can impact what you find pleasurable, as well as how you view yourself as a sexual being. “Women have to deal with the way their body is now versus their expectation of who they were sexually before,” MaryJane said.
What’s important to remember is that these changes do not have to stop you from being a satisfied sexual being, they may just change what that means. And it does not need to be the same as what it was before or what it means to your neighbor.
“Every woman defines what her ideal sexual state is and what her own personal sexuality can be,” MaryJane explained. “It’s not the same for every single individual. Some people want to make sure that they continue sexual intimacy in their lives. Other women don’t necessarily need sexual intimacy in their lives for them to be sexual creatures.”
2. Schedule Time To Talk to Your Healthcare Provider About Sex
“One thing I’m hearing over and over again is that conversations about sexuality with healthcare providers — even OBGYNs, nurse practitioners and midwives — are not happening at the frequency that most patients’ desire.”
These conversations can be uncomfortable for both parties involved, and often, neither the provider nor the patient wants to initiate.
Another reason these conversations aren’t happening is that people assume that the problems they’re facing with their sex life can’t be helped. MaryJane explained this isn’t necessarily true: “A lot of things are starting to become available to women for addressing different elements of their sexuality.”
For instance, during menopause, the body produces less natural lubrication and some over-the-counter lubricants can dry out the skin even more and can aggravate the skin. Physicians can prescribe or offer suggestions for lubricants that will work better.
This is what Sharon experienced. She assumed her doctor would just suggest using generic OTC lubricant, but he was actually well-versed in this issue and had something better for Sharon to try (the estriol cream).
“You have to get past the embarrassment of saying what it is that you are having trouble with. I’ve known my doctor for 25 years, and it was really hard to bring up this topic of vaginal dryness and say those words to my doctor, even though he’s delivered babies,” she explained.
MaryJane recommends scheduling a specific appointment to talk about sex. “These take longer conversations with their healthcare providers to almost give women permission to explore different toys and really figure out what works best for them.”
To prepare for these appointments, she also recommends taking an inventory about what you want and what you’re experiencing. Here are examples of questions to ask yourself from MaryJane:
- What are the things that you’ve tried to help improve your own personal satisfaction?
- What are some of the things that have not worked?
- When have you wanted to experience something different?
- Was it related to desire? Was it related to something physical?
- Were you having issues with urine leakage during intercourse which made you feel uncomfortable so you could not reach orgasm? Or was it a lack of that sensation?
- Are you comfortable with masturbation?”
3. It’s Time to Play
If traditional sexual intimacy (penetrative sex and masturbation) is important to you, but you’re experiencing changes in what’s pleasurable, it’s time to play.
As you age, what feels good changes more quickly. “You’ve got to shift and adapt on a regular basis in order to continuously create those moments of pleasure and intimacy,” Maryjane explained.
To learn to shift and adapt, try new strategies in bed when alone and with partners, which will allow you to rediscover new avenues for pleasure and navigate your body’s changes.
As an example, let’s talk about orgasms. Per MaryJane, post-menopause, it can take people with vulvas longer to achieve orgasm, and the nature of the orgasms can change. “They have to either pregame with a lot more foreplay or different lubricants or, for the first time, they have to try more specific forms of external stimulation from the variety of toys out there.”
And play does not need to involve a partner. Want to really understand your body’s changes and get a sense of your sexual self? You’ll learn new things on your own and it’s good for you.
“Masturbation gives both short term and long term health benefits for women moving through the menopausal period,” MaryJane explained. “The act of masturbation itself increases circulation and lubrication and can maintain elasticity.”
4. Find Companions
Find folks you can open up to about changes to your body, your sex life, and your relationships. You might find that it’s a relief for them to open up as well. And if you’re dating and exploring, you might also find some partners-in-crime.
“Other women are your best allies,” Sharon explained. “They’re not your competitors, they’re your allies because they’re going to be out there dating and meeting people that they wind up not wanting to stick with, and they can pass them along. That’s what happened to me.” (Sharon was introduced to her second husband through a friend who’d dated him first.)
There’s no age limit on meeting new friends and lovers. There are rich opportunities through activity groups, alternative living communities, and more where older individuals are finding friendship and companionship. And people perimenopause are enjoying short-term or casual relationships perhaps more than they have in the past.
One dilemma, according to MaryJane, is that many older individuals were raised in cultures that did not encourage them to ask for what they need or be comfortable talking about sex or sexuality. This becomes a battle of habit and conditioning.
5. Consider The Opinion of Those Around You, But Live Your Own Life
After Sharon got divorced, she had to navigate dating with her teenage daughter in the house. She made the mistake of talking about moving for one potential partner without considering how it would affect her daughter. Here’s her advice for others navigating kids and dating: “I think it’s about being sensitive to what is going on with them. I missed it because my own needs were so central.”
It’s okay for your needs to be central; just be sensitive about how your own life changes affect those closest to you.
6. Be Proud
If you’ve gotten this far in the article, this issue is important to you, so let me leave you with one more thought. However you embrace this stage of life, you can set the example for future generations. You get to be a role model for younger folks like me on what it means to be vibrant and beautiful in the midst of life’s inevitable changes.
Here’s MaryJane: “There is a renaissance in terms of the sexuality of older women in the media right now. We’re seeing a lot of the women with dark gray or white hair — classic beauties — reassert themselves as very strong women at the end of their life. And they’re doing it from a sense of being alone or not having a partner, but their sexuality is very clear and very consistent in the images and in what they’re saying and what is coming forward from them.”
Case in point: about life at 59, author Gail Konop writes, “Contrary to the menopause myth, I am experiencing the sexiest, most vibrant, most intellectually and professionally fertile time of my life. Liberated from waiting for the next stage or event or person to define or save me, I am the leader of my own pod.”
Join Us for a Live Conversation
Join Rebellious Magazine for a Facebook Live interview about menopause. Columnist Jera Brown will be talking to Omisade Burney-Scott, creator of the Black Girls’ Guide to Surviving Menopause Podcast, Heather Corinna, author of WHAT FRESH HELL IS THIS? Perimenopause, Menopause, Other Indignities, and You, coming in 2021, and Karen Yates, biofield tuner and host of Wild & Sublime. We’ll discuss perimenopause, sex, sexuality, relationships and identity changes that happen when aging.
Send questions for Omisade, Heather, and Karen to firstname.lastname@example.org, and tune in Tuesday, September 29 at 7 pm on Rebellious Magazine’s Facebook page.