I remember the day: I was in 11th grade, sitting in my school library devouring Our Bodies, Ourselves, puzzling over a paragraph alleging that a woman’s sex drive could be stronger in her 50s than at age 17. Since I was 17, and so sex-crazed—I often stopped by my boyfriend’s basement apartment for sex before AP Calculus—the thought was laughable. Well, I’m 55 years old, twice divorced, and just off a year of five simultaneous boyfriends. I’m thrilled to report that, for me, the book was correct. I now enjoy sex even more in my 50s than I did as a younger woman.
There are more women over the age of 50 in the U.S. today than at any other point in history, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. By 2030, 1.2 billion women will be menopausal, grappling with seismic physical, emotional, and sociological changes. We don’t talk much about aging and female sexuality. But the fact is, many women enjoy sex more fully—and have more intense orgasms—when they reach midlife.
That’s not to insinuate all women over 50 want sex, nor are all women over 50 having sex. In fact, one-third of women in their 50s haven’t done it in a year. Fifty percent of women in their 60s haven’t either. As I approached my second divorce at age 49, I had not enjoyed sex in years—a sharp contrast to my robust sex life as a younger woman. Despite a troubled marriage, I’d never had affairs. Marital sex had turned into an obligation at best, and at its worst, a tool for rejection at the hands of a husband who I felt no longer cared for me. I happily vowed to never have sex again. Then a gorgeous younger man flirted with me at an airport, and suddenly my sex drive roared back to life, proving aging and female sexuality can actually go together fabulously. A wide range of women report the freedom from unwanted pregnancy, coupled with an increase in self-confidence, can translate into a profoundly liberating sense of sexual self-determination. This can mean zero sex, nonstop sex, or highly predictable, deeply satisfying sex with a long-term partner.
Turns out there is a vast spectrum of what’s “normal” when it comes to sexual activity as we get older. I spoke with a variety of women about sex after menopause, and three things seem to affect women’s carnal joy the most: how we feel about ourselves, who we are having sex with, and whether we free our mind to accept that “sex” can mean activities besides traditional male-female intercourse.
Take Rhonda*, a 59-year-old social worker. She’s been married for 33 years and is the mother of six children. The same youthful lankiness that got her teased in elementary school has served her well over time, and as she says, “Black don’t crack”—meaning that both from a distance and close-up, her skin looks far younger than 59. “Last week I got hit on by a 25-year-old,” she says. “Black men are more overt with [their] sexual interest, and even though I have kids older than he was, I enjoyed the attention.”
The frequency and importance of sex in her life, however, has diminished. “When I was younger and had hormones, I was more sexual. Today I need to focus on sex to enjoy it. I have dry eyes, a dry vagina, dry everything. If my husband passed away, I wouldn’t go out looking for anyone else to have sex with.” Nonetheless, she makes sure the long-married couple makes love every Sunday morning. “It’s more than I want, and less than he does. But when I married him, I took a vow to not have sex with anyone else—and I took a vow to have sex with him, and to enjoy this part of our life,” she says.
Michéle Taipale, a 60-year-old executive coach in California, has had a markedly different sexual arc. She’s now happily married to her third husband, a life partner she intentionally chose in her mid-50s following years of self-exploration that earned her an expansive sense of self-confidence and sexual swagger. “I’ve shed all the sexual baggage I carried in my 30s,” she says. “It’s sexy to be able to say yes—and no—to pleasure without feeling my ego is at risk.”
She is one of those lucky women whose orgasms increase in intensity with age. “When I was younger, I had a few orgasms at a time. Now it’s more like five to six in every session,” she says. “I have longer, more full-bodied, increasingly bigger orgasms now. They are often downright spiritual.” She experiences sexual synesthesia, with orgasms in different colors, followed by a profound sense of well-being and love that often brings her to tears. “I’m more confident, forthright, and comfortable in my body at this age,” she says.
Many women report reclaiming their sexuality following menopause, even when facing the aftermath of sexual assault, biological changes due to childbirth, and surgeries such as mastectomies and hysterectomies. Jade*, a 53-year-old esthetician in a large Midwestern city, was sexually assaulted at 32 and had a hysterectomy at 37. PTSD and hormonal changes shut down her sexuality for almost a decade.
“To avoid assault flashbacks during intercourse, I struggled so hard to stay in the moment that I couldn’t enjoy the moment,” she says. “Even masturbation with a penetrating vibrator was traumatic.”
It wasn’t until Jade shared the assault with her ob-gyn, began journaling about the experience, and went on an estrogen patch that healing came. “And then it was like the sexual Olympics,” she laughs.
Now married for over 10 years, both she and her husband take prescription hormones for medical conditions. They long ago settled into a routine of infrequent sex every other month or so. During quarantine, she started a Topless Tuesday tradition to spark their sex life. “Sure, I miss young, sensual, spontaneous, lube-free sex,” Jade says. “But the assault taught me that sex is not love. I get love from my husband every day, and that’s what I value most in a partner.”
And then there is Sasha*. As a shy, brainy, gangly blonde pursuing a Ph.D. at an Ivy League university in her 20s and 30s, she had myriad disappointing erotic encounters. Before immigrating to the United States, she’d spent her earliest years in Bulgaria. The Eastern European and American ’80s cultural messages she absorbed were all about the importance of being desirable to men.
“In my early years, sex wasn’t about my pleasure. It was exciting and novel to be wanted sexually by different men, and to wonder what sex meant in terms of leading to a serious relationship,” she says. “All my fantasies were about kissing and weddings. I never once wanted to get fucked.”
She married one of these partners and had two children. She also became a professor at a Texas university, a best-selling author, and a popular lecturer. After years of her being faithful, sex with her husband began to feel platonic. A drunken kiss with a colleague awakened her raging libido.
“I love my husband and find him attractive. But I get aroused by variety. I actually think long-term monogamy is more challenging for women than men, because we tend to be turned on by pursuit, seduction, and emotional attention—all of which can fall by the wayside after decades in a relationship.”
As she approached her 50th birthday, she negotiated an open marriage with her husband and began having consensual affairs while traveling on the lecture circuit. “I’m transparent about wanting sex, and my vibe is confident, easy-going, and adventurous,” she says. She discovered a female colleague had the same thrill-seeking taste, and they began working in tandem, unearthing an exhilarating power to seduce men. “There is literally no man alive who will turn down the prospect of a threesome,” she says, laughing.
As for myself, after my second divorce at age 49, I knew I couldn’t find my mojo again through self-help and yoga. I needed men, and I needed a lot of them. Erotic adventures with younger, appreciative male partners led me back to myself. I realized I like my own company; I appreciate the independence of going at life solo; and despite my wrinkles and cellulite, I value my sexuality in ways I couldn’t seem to as a younger woman. I also jettisoned the need to gratify men and conform to societal ideas of a “good” wife and mother. This investment in my self-esteem resulted in an emotionally healthy, monogamous relationship with one of the kindest, sexiest men I’ve ever known.
Like all the women over 50 I’ve talked with who treasure our sex lives, for me, the principal change in growing older is straightforward—an acknowledgement of inner self-worth, and the ability to gracefully, joyfully embrace our merits as aging, erotic, empowered women. As Michéle puts it, “Today, when someone tells me I’m beautiful and sexy, my answer is simple: Yes, I am.”
*Name and identifying personal details have been changed.
Leslie Morgan Steiner is a Harvard- and Wharton-educated writer who has written four books and delivered two TED Talks exploring the complexity of modern American womanhood. Her latest memoir (The Naked Truth, Simon & Schuster, May 2019) explores femininity, aging, and sexuality after age 50. Visit her via her website, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn and Twitter.