There has been intense discussion around consent recently, and these are vital conversations to have. But there is far less discussion about what comes afterwards: the actual sexual relationship.
How can we have good sex throughout our lives? And how can we learn to get what we need?
Sex therapists agree that no matter your age, we need a more expansive view of how to achieve sexual pleasure.Credit:iStock
It’s normal for the type of sex you’re having to change when life gets busy, or when you’re going through a particularly stressful period, says sex therapist Jacqueline Hellyer. A global pandemic, for example, doesn’t exactly spell Roman Holiday levels of romance.
When a couple can no longer rely on pure passion or lust, they can and should have sex for connection, or for love. “My overall approach is that you have to understand that life changes,” Hellyer says. “Sex is like food; you have to decide what you feel like at each meal.”
Sex in your twenties
The twenties are a time of exploration for young women, and of discovering what makes you feel good. But this is only half the equation. In order to develop satisfying sexual relationships, young women need to know that their desires are normal and valid, and they need the confidence and the language to convey their desires to a partner.
According to Melbourne-based psycho-sexologist Chantelle Otten, “even just knowing what your anatomy is labelled as, knowing the parts of your genitals, is something that a lot of those in their twenties (and beyond) don’t know about.” In a patriarchal society in which the needs and desires of men are prioritised, young women need to know that they are allowed to seek pleasure, and they are allowed to ask for what they want.
Young people, but particularly young men, need to be mindful of the impact of porn on their sex lives. Though porn is ubiquitous, it should be consumed in moderation, as porn creates unrealistic expectations about sex and sexual pleasure. “So many young people (impacted by porn) are psyching themselves out from having sex,” says Hellyer. “There’s a real performative approach to sex in porn, and there’s a real concern with how you look.”
According to sex therapists, young women can lay the groundwork for fulfilling and positive sexual experiences by learning how to obtain pleasure, both alone and with partners.
Sex in your thirties
The thirties can be a busy and stressful time, in which sex and sexuality is deprioritised. Women may feel overwhelmed by the pressures of work, financial commitments, and raising a young family, and their male partners may grieve the loss of the pre-parenthood sexual relationship.
Women can subsume their identities as sexual beings in favour of their identity as mothers. For some women, the challenges of trying to conceive – having sex for procreation instead of pleasure – can place great strain on their sexual relationship.
Dr Bat Sheva Marcus, sex therapist and author of Sex Points, advises couples in their thirties to schedule regular erotic and romantic time. “People feel guilty doing it,” she tells me, “but the sexual connection will sustain the relationship during this time”.
Sex in your forties
The forties is a time of shifting identity for many women, as their careers become more established, and their children grow more independent. For those in long-term relationships, the challenges of monogamy may kick in, and couples may face temptations or boredom or even infidelities. This is the time to focus on communication within the relationship, says Otten. Couples need to remember “how we want to interact with each other, and how we can find that passion again, and how we can be erotic again.”
For some, the forties may be a time of new beginnings. With divorce rates high for both men and women in their forties, many will find themselves back on the dating scene, and potentially exploring their sexuality with new partners.
Sex in your fifties
For most women, the fifties is the age of perimenopause and, eventually menopause. Marcus explains that the hormonal shift of perimenopause is as dramatic and unsettling as the hormonal changes of puberty. Women may experience sexual challenges such as vaginal dryness, or pain felt during intercourse, both of which can be treated and resolved.
Some women lose their sex drive after menopause, whilst others, liberated from pregnancy worries, feel more sexual than ever before. Sex in midlife may also be impacted by episodes of erectile dysfunction, which strikes around 50 per cent of men in their fifties.
Sexual relationships at this age require excellent communication, and, when there are physical challenges for either partner, a willingness to look beyond the narrow definition of penis-in-vagina sex. As Marcus reminds me, many older men and women go on to have active and fulfilling sex lives right into their seventies and eighties.
At every stage of life
Sex therapists agree that women and men of all ages need a more expansive view of sex and how to achieve sexual pleasure. Otten believes we should all be “pleasure oriented,” as opposed to orgasm oriented. “There are stages (in life) where we are just not vibing sex that much, which is absolutely fine,” she tells me. At these times, “we’re allowed to say, let’s have sex in other ways,” such as oral sex, mutual masturbation, or touching not culminating in intercourse.
Hellyer agrees. “I believe why people struggle is that they’re trying to fit a very broad and beautiful thing into a very limited and unsatisfying model of sex.”
Finally, sex therapists lament the issues that body image poses for people of all ages, but particularly women. Younger women frequently compare themselves to others; older women compare themselves to their younger selves. Marcus advises her clients to look back on photographs of themselves from a decade earlier, to remind themselves of how great they looked. “Don’t wait 10 years,” she reminds them, “to realise how terrific you look right now.”
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