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Dear Therapist: I Miss Having Sex

Dear Therapist: I Miss Having Sex
Dear Therapist: I Miss Having Sex


Dear Therapist,

I’m 70, nine years a widow, financially stable, no children, no parents. I have family and friends, near and far. I live alone. I used to love sex, but menopause brought on physical changes that inhibited me. Four years of topical estrogen have, my doctor says, fixed the problem. I went through an initial period of really enjoying the novelty of asexuality (my goodness, the time it frees up!), but that’s changed. I miss sex.

Last night at dinner, my niece said, “You’re buff!” While I have no illusions that time has not passed—this buff isn’t the same as it was when I was a competitive athlete—I feel certain there’s someone who would be as happy to have a physical relationship as I would be. But how to figure out who?

The trouble is, I don’t know if I will again be able to enjoy intercourse. If I can physically enjoy it, it was my favorite part of sex, and I would target my search that way. If I can’t enjoy intercourse, I’m experienced in other options, and might well prefer another female as a lover.

I don’t want to be a purse or a nurse, and I don’t require a relationship to enjoy physical intimacy. I’m looking not for a partner, but for a playmate. I hear about hookup culture with the younger crowd … Could I just ask the 30-something rock-and-roll drummer flirting with me in the sauna at the gym if he would do me a favor?

I bet I’m not the only senior widow wishing she knew how to handle this. Can you help?

Dear Reader,

You’re right that you’re not the only senior—widowed or otherwise—wondering how to navigate her sexual desire. Part of the challenge has to do with the way our culture views “older” sex. Many people assume that those past middle age no longer care about sex, and if senior sex is acknowledged at all, it’s generally thought of as either funny or cringey. Of course, bodies change over time and medical realities come into play for both men and women (erectile dysfunction, vaginal atrophy, mobility issues, various illnesses), but studies show that many older adults are still sexually active. The majority of respondents to one poll of 65-to-80-year-olds said that they are interested in sex and that sex is important to their quality of life.

Moreover, touch is important for well-being throughout our lifetime. Touch can lower blood pressure and stress levels, and boost moods and immune systems. There’s even a commonly used term for when someone is not getting enough touch: skin hunger.

Still, misconceptions about sexual desire in older adults result in people talking about it only in the privacy of a therapy room, in a letter to an advice columnist, or, more commonly, nowhere and to nobody. Therapy clients have told me that after their partner died, they felt they could talk about everything they missed about their partner and all that they grieved for—the emotional and spiritual intimacy of partnership—but not the physical loss and longing. Yet they missed the intimate physicality of their spouse just as much. With decades of life left, they wondered, what were they supposed to do with these cravings they saw as taboo? Well-meaning friends suggested that they take up hobbies, get a dog or cat, and stay socially connected, but nobody gave them guidance on how they could get their physical needs met.

Isolated in this way, many widows like you experience what has been called “sexual bereavement”—the loss of sexual intimacy when they’re predeceased. In a survey of older women in the United States, a sizable majority reported that they anticipated missing sex with their partner if their partner were to die, and would want to bring it up in conversations with their friends—and a higher percentage yet would want friends to mention it first. Even so, more than half of participants reported that they wouldn’t think to ask a widowed friend about that aspect of their loss.

I provide this context to emphasize that your question is common and your needs are valid—as is any way in which you feel comfortable pursuing them.

So let’s think about how to get your needs met. It sounds like your ideal situation would be having a “friend with benefits.” (This noncommittal arrangement can mean different things to different people, and as a result, this would need to be explicitly defined between you and your “playmate.” More on that later.) There are many places where you could potentially meet this person. You could join a dating site for widows and widowers or one for older singles—most of which have an option to indicate what you’re looking for, ranging from “marriage” to “not sure” to “nothing serious” to “hookups.” You can go to MeetUp.org and meet new people while doing activities you enjoy—some are specifically for singles and certain age groups. You can take dance lessons (where, presumably, you’ll meet dance partners who could turn into something more), join a tennis or golf group (as a former competitive athlete, you might appreciate a setting where you’ll be able to find more active singles), or take up a hobby or new interest that exposes you to people outside your immediate circle.

There are also travel groups and cruises for mature singles, which tend to be very social. And if at some point you want to make a change in your living arrangements, you might consider a vibrant retirement community where, contrary to cultural assumptions, many people find casual sexual partners. Finally, let your friends know that you’d like some companionship—and they can interpret that however they choose. This way, as they encounter other singles, they’ll have you on their mind for an introduction. You might also reach out to old friends or former lovers who are single, even if they live in a different city (perhaps that’s preferable?), and go pay a visit.

Of course, your partner could be any age (and, as you say, any gender), and you’re already wondering if there might be interest from the 30-something drummer at your gym. You can absolutely ask him, but remember that he’s not just “doing you a favor”—if he’s interested, you’d be doing one for him too. Asking from a place of confidence and self-worth matters, because it will enhance your experience.

The key with anyone you choose is to be honest in advance about what the relationship is and is not. Whether you’re writing a profile for a dating app or meeting someone out in the world, you should explain up front that you’re looking for satisfying sex without long-term partnership. You should tell the person before your clothes come off that it’s been a while since you’ve had sex and you need to go slowly to see how it feels, and that you’re open to exploring other avenues besides intercourse. The point is, you’ll want to communicate your sexual needs and preferences as well as your emotional ones.

Remember, too, that no matter who you’re with, it’s very important to practice safe sex, and to hold your boundaries around safety if your partner isn’t on board. Many older adults who are now divorced or widowed aren’t up to speed on safe-sex practices; aren’t tested for sexually transmitted diseases as routinely as younger adults by their doctors (again, cultural misperceptions contribute to this); aren’t thinking as much about safe sex, because they associate it mostly with pregnancy, which is no longer relevant; and are more susceptible to contracting diseases, including STDs, because their immune system weakens with age. You can look online for videos to educate yourself on safe sex for seniors. You can also keep yourself safe by meeting new people in public places, letting a trusted friend know where you are, and having sexual experiences (at least initially) at a hotel or somewhere other than your home or your partner’s.

Many people find later-in-life sex to be incredibly liberating and even transformative. They tend to be more open to owning their desires, more willing to ask for what they want, less worried about the laughable moments in a sexual encounter, more curious to experiment and try something new, less self-conscious about their bodies and less judgmental of others, and more inclined to focus on fun and pleasure without the pressures of work and family that can affect a sense of playfulness in earlier life stages. This could be an exhilarating journey of self-discovery, and you sound more than ready for the adventure.

Dear Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental-health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. By submitting a letter, you are agreeing to let The Atlantic use it—in part or in full—and we may edit it for length and/or clarity.


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