Dear midlife woman,
Re: Your libido, or lack thereof
First, let me say: Welcome to this Judgment-Free Space.
As women, we’re not used to finding spaces where we aren’t being judged for something: our appearance, our tolerance, our tidiness, our emotions, our hair. Sometimes we move through the opinions of others feeling like a wounded tuna in shark-infested waters.
Libido is a tough one, wound up as it is with notions of aging, desirability, sexuality… normalcy.
In our youth, we were judged for libido: too much (slut) or too little (tease, frigid b***h). Then our sexuality got all wound up with reproduction for a while (from “pregnant again?” to “When are you going to have children, tick tock!”) Then we land at middle age, and for many of us, suddenly the only “roll in the sack” we want is the last cinnamon roll at the bottom of the bakery bag.
Why? Well, for one, sex hurts, thanks to menopausal vaginal dryness. Our bodies have changed, and suddenly we’re not a milkshake bringing boys to the yard so much as a jiggle and wobble that make Spanx in summer seem like an OK idea. We’re singularly stressed out: Our parents are aging and may need more care. We probably occupy several positions of responsibility at work and elsewhere. Estrogen depletion is dampening our happy hormones and elevating the stress ones, and the only “f” words we’re able to get behind are “fight,” “flight,” and “food.”
If you don’t want sex, and you’re OK with that, then roll on, sister – no judgment here. No one should shame or guilt you into trying to fix something that isn’t actually broken.
This article is for women who don’t want sex, but they want to want sex.
What causes low libido in women in midlife? In addition to the issues mentioned above, the lessening of testosterone as we age may play a role. In midlife, our ovaries gradually reduce their production of sex hormones, including about half the (admittedly small) amount of testosterone floating around in our bodies. While the decline in testosterone doesn’t seem to affect some women’s sex drive, for others, it is a factor in an already complex system.
Other complexities include the discomfort of menopause symptoms many of us experience: the hot flashes and night sweats, the concerns over body odor, irregular and often heavy periods, interrupted sleep, not to mention digestive upsets about which, well, enough said, really.
To feel desire, many of us need to feel desirable, and that’s just not happening right now. How do I stoke the once-fiery furnace?
Physician and sex therapist, Dr. Madeleine Castellanos, says one way to revive your drive is to remember satisfying sexual encounters from your past. Try to relive every detail (heck, why not embellish?), every touch, every sight, sound, and smell. Fantasize. Read a sexy book. This retrains your brain, says Dr. Castellanos, to regard sex as pleasurable, not as an obligation or source of guilt.
Dr. Lori Brotto, professor of obstetrics and gynecology, registered psychologist, and author of Better Sex through Mindfulness, says she came to the idea of using mindfulness to awaken latent sexuality when working with women who felt disconnected from their bodies. They “report being heavily distracted or being plagued with judgments about their response, being worried about how sex is going to go, being concerned about a partner’s response to them.” Instead of letting their libido drown in all that mental noise, she encourages women to do something arousing, like use a vibrator or fantasize, then pay attention to their body’s sensations and reactions. Once a woman knows how her body feels when aroused, she can start to “import” those feelings into sexual situations. It’s important, Dr. Brotto says, for women to understand that “desire is something that is under their control.”
Getting help from a qualified professional can be a powerful way to take back control of your sexuality. Find one who has professional credentials from AASECT or similar.
And alongside brain training, there are lots of other possibilities to consider:
Role-playing, vibrators, sexy books to share – think of this as an opportunity to explore your sexuality. What turns you on? Whether they engage your body or your brain or both, sexual aides can be a fun way to jumpstart your engine.
Fatty fish might just help you get your dopamine back with all those oh oh oh O3s, plus red wine, dark chocolate, nuts, eggs, apples, and more might help you revive that flagging libido.
Exercise gives us more energy and certainly more self-confidence about that body we’re preparing to share – you know, naked. Stop smoking and sit up straight to improve blood flow and reduce desire-killing stress. Limit alcohol which can depress your central nervous system, interrupting the messaging from brain to sexy bits. Stress less, if you can. Stress messes with sleep, which in turn can derail your libido in a hurry.
This hormone is produced by the adrenal glands and partly by the ovaries and is a precursor hormone to testosterone and estrogen. DHEA levels peak in our bodies in our mid-20s, then decline. Research is still being done on the effectiveness of DHEA in osteoporosis, depression, and vaginal atrophy as well as on the libido, but the Mayo Clinic recommends you avoid this hormone until more is known. As a hormone, it comes with all the hormonal risks, including certain cancers, and it can potentially interact with a host of medications. Always always always consult with your doctor before adding new medications and supplements to your regimen.
The “female Viagra” has returned, as unpronounceable as ever. This drug, taken daily, may have a modest positive effect on women who suffer from hypoactive sexual desire disorder. It targets the brain, the theory goes, by boosting the excitatory chemicals (dopamine and norepinephrine) and dampening the inhibitory ones (serotonin). Again, consult with a doctor before taking.
Evoking female sexual desire is a complicated process involving the right balance of hormones but also may require an emotional attachment, a feeling of safety (or a frisson of danger, for some), time, communication, the right touch… such a complex response is likely to need more than one solution when things go awry.
Your body is your own, and whether you choose to share it or not is entirely your decision. But if you do choose to be sexually intimate, be patient with yourself. Be open with your partner(s). Explore without shame or guilt. Approach your encounters with few expectations, but know that you’re entitled to pleasure and fun.