Wondering whether your sex drive will plummet as your age increases? New research published in JAMA Internal Medicine showed that how you perceive sex could play a bigger role than chronology.
In the study, researchers examined the sexual beliefs and activity of 605 women age 40 to 65 for eight years. Women who deemed sex important were three times as likely to remain sexually active than women who did not, findings showed–even into older age and regardless of physiological shifts blamed for libido loss, such as menopause. Researchers also noted that vaginal stimulation wasn’t required for participants’ sexual satisfaction, and intimacy may take a higher priority later in life.
This research isn’t the first to debunk the commonly held myth that sex drive dwindles with age or to reveal the female sex drive as powerful, given sex-positive attitudes. Even so, headlines touting the findings, that female sex drive doesn’t have to wane over time, have surprised many.
Sexual Wellness News discussed the findings and what they mean in a larger social context with Chauntelle Tibbals, PhD, a Los Angeles-based sociologist who specializes in gender, sexualities, new media and popular culture. Here’s what the renowned expert had to say:
SWN: What social and cultural factors contribute to a woman’s sexual desires as she ages?
Dr. Tibbals: Though the intensity of these messages certainly varies generationally and with social class (among many other things), women are basically told their entire lives they shouldn’t be having sex…or, that they should be having sex in very specific ways – and only then, maybe, is enjoying it okay.
Socio-cultural messages related to gender and sexualities such as these are hugely significant factors contributing to whether or not women desire sex as they age. Because if, as the study determined, women’s sexual desire is tied to whether or not they value sex… well, how could a lifetime of messages telling women to deemphasize and/or refrain from sex not be a factor influencing desire throughout the entire life course?
SWN: What does this study reflect about our culture’s beliefs about female sexuality?
Dr. Tibbals: I think the fact that, in 2014, researchers must spell out “women don’t always need to have vaginal sex to remain sexually active” is mind-boggling, but also very telling. In spite of the apparent liberalizations we’ve made as a society regarding sex, the fact that researchers still need to frame their findings in these terms points to how narrow our views regarding sexual behavior actually are.
Another similar “framing” issues has to do with equating sexual discomforts that may come from an aging body with losing interest in sex. This is like saying an aging athlete no longer has interest in their sport, which is ridiculous. The fact that, in 2014, these distinctions still have to be pointed out further points to our narrow attitudes about sex, especially women’s sexualities.
SWN: How does our culture’s obsession with youth and “anti-aging” commercialism influence female sexual desire?
Dr. Tibbals: This is something I talk about at length in my forthcoming book, You Study What? As a culture, we glorify youth at every turn–beauty, sexuality, creativity, mental acuity, athleticism, you name it. In terms of sexualities and commercial media, we only ever really see one very narrow age bracket of (young) women presented as desirable. And women aren’t really ever shown desiring anything…well, at least not anything sexually. Thus, what we end up with are mass media messages telling us that women are desirable only, and only when they are young.
One can only be bombarded by such messages, which are themselves a significant dimension of our wider socio-cultural fabric, for so long before they start to have a negative impact on both sexual desire and feelings of sexual desirability.
SWN: What other myths are prevalent about female sexuality during midlife?
Dr. Tibbals: I think the main myth regarding women’s sexualities is that, as we’re discussing, they’re nonexistent. But I also think the idea that sexuality is fixed is another myth that becomes extremely onerous during mid-life and beyond. As humans, in many arenas, we seem to fall into patterns and identities early on in youth. We then hold on to those patterns and identities, even with sexuality, throughout the duration of our lives. I think the “myth” that identities, including sexual identities, are fixed has an especially negative impact on women during mid-life.
SWN: In addition to having any medical issues addressed, what practical steps can a woman with low-libido during mid-life take to empower herself sexually?
Dr. Tibbals: It’s my view that education and communication are key. Communication with one’s partner(s) is essential in any relationship. This may seem obvious, but open communication is challenging, both in terms of your own feelings and needs and those of whomever you’re communicating with. Communication takes work, but it’s empowering, and it’s worth it.
Further, as a lifelong learner myself, I cannot stress the importance of education enough. Education in general is important, but it’s especially important in terms of mid-life sexuality. As we age, we change – physically, mentally, emotionally, and socially. Learning about sexuality within this context of change is both empowering and so important.
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