Older women and sexuality ... are we still just talking lube?

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Publication Date: 
Tue, 2012-07-17

By Lyba Spring

Lee figured she was getting so many yeast infections because she hadn’t had sex in so long. No amount of over-the-counter medication seemed to touch it. The funny thing was that she wasn’t even using lubricant, which used to provoke yeast infections when she was younger. No, with this guy, getting wet wasn’t an issue. So when the doctor asked her if she had ever had an HIV test, she laughed right in her face. As it turned out, the guy she was dating sometimes used cocaine on weekends. And, yes, even though he was in his 50s, he had shared needles.

Lee made assumptions about her partner. These are the same (or similar) assumptions younger people make about their partners, or for that matter, the assumptions society makes about older women’s sexual lives. The difference is that younger people have more access to information about their sexuality.

During my 30-year stint as a sexual health educator working for a public health unit, older women were not considered a “target population.” However, recent statistics indicating an increase in sexually transmitted infections (STIs) amongst seniors should encourage public health units to pay attention. Educators spend a lot of time talking with adolescents and young adults about the need for communication to promote healthy sexuality and prevent risks. Older people may never have learned or practised these skills. That makes older women vulnerable. But aside from the clear and present danger of STIs, looking at the broad picture of older women’s sexuality, it is clear to me that there are other issues to address.

Like younger women who are aware that women’s sexual pleasure is front and centre (in magazines at least), older women and their male counterparts may listen to the messages from the pharmaceutical industry offering solutions to their aging sexual systems. And as women become debilitated, they may lose control of their sexual selves toward the end of their lives (see sidebar). 

Typing “older women and sex” into a Google search yields 139,000,000 results in 0.22 seconds, most of which are porn sites. Well, I guess older women are still in the game. But even the few articles with tips for older women do not offer much more than “communicate with your partner” and “use lube.”  

However, we cannot assume that older women have regular sex partners.  A Google search for “dating sites for seniors Canada” yields 1,890,000 results in 0.32 seconds.

Research from 1999 to the present confirms what we already know: sexual activity persists well into the senior years. Libido in women is maintained until quite late in the aging process. The Journal of American Geriatrics reported in a 2011 article that self-rated successful aging, quality of life and sexual satisfaction appear to be stable in the face of declines in physical health, some cognitive abilities, and sexual activity and function from age 60 to 89.

But, the message to communicate with each other and use lube doesn’t help with the disabilities of aging like arthritis or body image issues like mastectomy. The stereotypical menopausal woman with her thinning and possibly atrophied vaginal walls, diminished lubrication and less frequent orgasm cries out, at least according to the pharmaceutical companies, for medical intervention. In a 2008 article in Geriatrics and Aging, after explaining female sexual arousal and response, the authors move straight to the hormone solution to rectify low libido. After devoting a few pages to testosterone therapy, they allow two short paragraphs to an alternative vision: that there might be psychosocial issues that play a larger role in defining the female sexual response; and that serum and androgen levels do not necessarily correlate with the degree of sexual interest or arousal.

The medicalization of female sexual dysfunction has pharmaceutical companies seeking the elusive magic bullet equivalent to those little blue pills for men.  However, an alternate perspective on so-called “female sexual dysfunction” by the grassroots New View Campaign indicates that the pharmaceutical companies seem to have missed something crucial: the psychosexual issues.

Newly single older women may be coming out of long-term relationships because of death or divorce. Those who are fortunate enough to find a new love may very well prove the old maxim that female sexuality is situational. A woman who was in a loveless relationship, with the lack of desire and lubrication that went along with it, may find herself—with a new partner—as frisky as a girl and awash in vaginal juices. She may throw away the lube and the Replens, but forget to reach for the condom, if her new partner is male.

Here’s the rub.

According to the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC), STIs are on the rise for people in their 40s and 50s. In an article that appeared in the January 2010 issue of the journal Sexually Transmitted Diseases, four researchers reported that the rates at which these STIs were increasing between 1997 to 2007 in Canada were higher among the middle-aged—those between 40 and 59—than among those 15 to 29.