No sex drive and a ‘tanking libido’: how I redefined intimacy in midlife

Talking with women my age, sex – specifically, a lack thereof – comes up frequently. One friend referred to her “tanking libido”; another sent a text that read “sex drive” followed by two thumbs-down emojis.

I relate to both, and even more to a stranger who asked me to write about “the ways we redefine intimacy”.

I’ve been with my spouse for 17 years, and our sex life has gone through periods of both abundance and scarcity. It’s a wave we ride together. Three years ago, the prescription medication I take daily dulled my sexual sensation and we embarked on the nebulous, ongoing project of redefining intimacy. My desire for physical closeness and release is still present, but neither are spontaneous or easy to reach.

Recently, wholly subsumed in Miranda July’s new novel All Fours, a brilliant (and exceptionally horny) exploration of female midlife and desire, I found myself involuntarily grinding my pelvis against the carpet I was lying on. A sign of life! July’s narrator, an unnamed 45-year-old artist on a journey of cracking open her life and body, describes an urge that “lit up new neural pathways, as if sex, the whole concept of it, was being freshly mapped”.

Yes, I thought. I want that.

I was routinely jolted out of my sensual reading experience by my children, as well as the other stuff of life that pulls me away from pleasure: Zoom meetings, laundry, chronic pain, depression, scheduling logistics, insomnia. I also wondered whether perimenopause, the biological reality of midlife, entailed the diminution of sex.

Emily Nagoski, a sex educator and author of Come Together: The Science (and Art!) of Creating Lasting Sexual Connections, gets this question a lot. Over the phone, she tells me there are no hormones or brain changes specific to midlife that affect sexuality. But cortisol, the primary stress hormone, does.

“Women in their mid-40s are under a lot of stress,” says Nagoski, referring to the high American expectations when it comes to professional success, productivity and domestic work. “When you feel like you’re being chased by a lion, that’s not a great time to be turned on.”

Estrogen levels drop in middle age, Nagoski explains, which can make vaginal tissue drier and more prone to tearing, which leads to pain. “Who wants to have sex that is painful?” she asks rhetorically. (Nagoski herself experienced these changes and found relief in hormone therapy, specifically a prescription for estradiol: “I would throw a parade for vaginal estradiol if I could.”)

This got me thinking. What kind of sex do I want to be having? Instead of attempting to drum up longing on command, can I tune into my own desire – feel and identify some of its contours and accelerators?

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In All Fours, the protagonist and her best friend, Jordi, share what “a typical fuck” in each of their marriages is like. The narrator and her husband have a weekly sex appointment and she relies heavily on fantasy to orgasm. Jordi, in contrast, describes how she and her wife wrap their legs around each other, and how “I really like my mouth to be overfilled so almost her whole hand might be in my mouth so there’s drool running down the sides of my face and we’re just, you know, humping, kind of like animals … I’ve actually thought about how ugly this must look, like two desperate cavewomen.”

This rabid, particular, ravenous vision of sex is anything but ugly to me. It’s extraordinary.

“Some people get to a place of having extraordinary sex,” says Nagoski, or “sex that doesn’t follow other people’s rules, that is authentic to their true selves, and their partner’s true selves”.

Of course, I thought, grateful for the reminder: sex can be anything we want.

If the quest for extraordinary sex seems daunting, Nagoski offers an easy place to begin.

“Find a half an hour a week to touch parts of your body – and I’m not even talking about masturbation,” she says. “Touch parts of your body with other parts of your body alone and explore those sensations and which of them your brain is interpreting as pleasurable.”

For the last couple of years, I’ve applied this practice more to how my body moves through the world. I attune to which muscles call out for movement during improvisational dance classes; how the wind, scented with lilacs, feels on a spring walk; how amazing oil feels on my body after a hot shower.

That attention to pleasure has improved my sex life. These days, sex with my spouse is less like a straight line with an endpoint, and more like a series of loops and swirls, delays and digressions. Male ejaculation once signaled the end, or the approaching end, of intercourse. Now it’s more of a comma, a pause on a longer path. Along the way, there are inordinate moments of gratification and my orgasms are deeper, feel new.

According to Nagoski, the key to great sex is simple: you have to decide that it matters. And you have to invest time in yourself and whoever you’re getting down with.

“People tell me: ‘This sounds so effortful. I want it to be easier,’” says Nagoski. “Girl, me too. But sex won’t be easier until our lives are easier.”

Still, when I think about all the time and effort I put into online bill-paying, flossing and exercising my knee joint, prioritizing my own pleasure is a no-brainer.

“One might shift again and again like this, through intimacies,” writes July, “and not outpace oldness exactly, but match its weirdness, its flagrant specificity, with one’s own.”


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