The mystery of the missing midlife libido

By Niki Bezzant

The secrets of female desire are right up there, mystery-wise, with the whereabouts of Amelia Earhart. There are lots of reasons we might not feel like or enjoy sex, and everyone’s experience is different. For some of us, loss of desire is not a problem. But for others, it can feel like a real loss. It’s complicated, to say the least.

Generally speaking, sex drive wanes as we age, for both men and women. However, there’s evidence women are two to three times more likely to experience this, from their late forties onwards. It can affect women of all ages, though. A large study from 2008 found around 40 per cent of women reported some form of sexual dysfunction.

Mystery 1: Why don’t I feel sexy anymore?

No offence to our male counterparts, but, unlike them, what it takes for a woman to get off is far more complicated than it is for a man. Men tend to follow a pretty straightforward track from arousal to orgasm, and – erectile dysfunction aside – there’s not much that can throw that off course. For women, though, there are many things that can derail the desire train.

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So-called psychosocial factors are important – our brains can really get in the way. Is the rubbish out? Did I send that work email? Are the kids going to walk in on us? The many thoughts and worries of a busy woman can easily distract us from enjoying intimacy.

So can emotional and relationship issues; we tend to need to feel close and cherished in order to feel connected and sexy. When we don’t – and it can easily happen in busy and long-term relationships – getting turned on is not, as it can be for men, as easy as flicking a switch.

Solving this one can be about aligning the stars. Start by getting your partner on board (see Mystery 3). Relationship experts often talk about pre-arranged “date nights” which, while they sound cheesy and unromantic, might prove a practical solution.

You can sort out the logistics in advance and carve out time to enjoy being together. You might find you enjoy the anticipation, and this, too, can boost desire. It’ll depend, though, on the relationship itself being in good shape; if there are underlying issues, you might want to take a step back and deal with these first.

Physiological factors can also be at play. Some pretty un-fun things start happening to women in midlife, driven by hormonal changes. As our oestrogen and testosterone (yes, we have this too) wane, sex drive can go south.

Hormonal changes also cause other symptoms which might impact how up for sexy times we are: hot flushes, sleeplessness, night sweats and mood issues definitely don’t help. Dealing with these can go a long way towards getting sex back on track.

Mystery 2: Why does sex suddenly hurt?

Hormonal changes can also have a painful impact on our genitals. As per the rest of our bodies, we have oestrogen receptors in our vagina, vulva, pelvic floor, bladder and urethra. When oestrogen levels fall, the tissues in these areas become weaker, thinner and drier.

Pair that with a waning of natural lubrication (thanks oestrogen) and sex can become uncomfortable or even painful. This can all start happening years before menopause; if you’re in your forties and it sounds familiar, it’s worth checking out.

It’s important to know you don’t have to just put up with this. There are simple, proven solutions. They range from vaginal moisturisers and lubricants through to vaginal oestrogen cream, testosterone patches and full hormone replacement therapy (HRT). Treatments will be different for every woman, so start by talking to your doctor.

Mystery 3: Why is this so hard to talk about?

“Talk to your doctor” is easy advice to give; it’s harder to actually do. Women tend to be reticent to talk about problems with their sex lives, and doctors can be reticent to ask. I’ve been told by female medical specialists that, tragically, male doctors are sometimes uncomfortable with women’s health issues, so will stay away from these topics. But if we don’t go there, we could be missing out on simple treatments that could make a big difference.

Be brave and bring it up. Likewise, talking to our partners is a big part of the puzzle. If they don’t understand what’s going on with you, it can lead to resentment and feelings of rejection, which in turn leads to less intimacy. Talking – however difficult – could really help.

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