It’s the cornerstone of a healthy, happy relationship, though most people don’t really talk about it. And as you age, your sex life is bound to change too. The things that worried you in your 30s are vastly different to what bothers you in your 50s or 60s.
But anyone can have a fulfilling sex life, regardless of how old they are, the experts say. Sure, your sex life changes through the decades but there are things you can do to accommodate these changes.
Young and older people deal with different challenges when it comes to sex and their sexual experiences are also different, says Dr Elmari Mulder Craig, a sexologist and couples’ counsellor from Pretoria. There are so many things that change over the years – your hormones, your body, your emotions and the circumstances dictated by your life stage.
During their 30s and 40s couples are often focused on childrearing and they need to be aware how this can affect their intimacy.
The older people get, the more comfortable they generally become with their bodies and sexuality, Dr Craig says. “You have more experience and wisdom and you and your partner probably have more time to spend on each other and your sex life,” she adds.
But this is also when most women enter perimenopause, during which their oestrogen levels start dropping.
Men experience andropause, when their testosterone levels decrease. People in this age group often also suffer from empty-nest syndrome when their children leave home.
“Couples often discover they’ve lost touch with each other once the kids have left home,” Craig says. “That’s why it’s so important for couples to focus on their relationship as the priority relationship, so they don’t suddenly discover it’s just the two of them now and they don’t know each other anymore.”
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After age 60 or 70, many people find their sexual function isn’t what it used to be and they may even start avoiding sex.
“For some, their ageing bodies become a problem. Illness may impact their body image or performance during sex becomes a challenge,” Craig says. But she’s quick to add, “If you can climb two sets of stairs, you’re still healthy enough to enjoy sex.”
YOU spoke to people of different ages to find out how they experience sex and asked experts about common challenges and useful tips for every age group.
IN YOUR 20s
“I recently divorced. Before I got married, I was in a good place in my sex life, but in my marriage I didn’t enjoy it. My ex-husband and I drifted away from each other early in our marriage, to the extent that I never orgasmed.
“I was also on a high dose of antidepressants – partly because of my unhappy marriage – which also affected my libido. I’m in a better place now and I enjoy sex without feeling that I’m being forced to do it.
“I also have the freedom to discover myself sexually. For the first time in my life, I’m putting my sexual wellbeing above that of my partner, though it’s important to me that they enjoy it too.”
A common challenge
People in their 20s often don’t know enough about sex or what they can do to improve it, says Marilet Kotzé, a sex therapist from Bloemfontein.
IN YOUR 30s
“I feel if your marriage is going well, sex is a minor detail. I have a baby and I work full-time. At this point in my life, it’s hard to prioritise sex. I sometimes feel pressure from my husband to have sex and I know he expects it more than I’m offering.
“Now and again, we’ll spend time together, have some wine and have sex – but that’s all about him. I simply don’t have the need. I believe it’ll improve with time.”
A common challenge
If couples don’t make a point of planning alone time, the relationship can quickly become all about the kids, warns Dr Elmari Mulder Craig, a sexologist from Pretoria.
“It’s hard if you’re constantly in the mom role and suddenly you must change into this sensual woman,” she says.
Accept offers to babysit your kids and make time to be alone with your partner so you can focus on each other, Craig advises.
She also says couples need to get creative and plan for sex. “Anticipation can be just as stimulating as spontaneity.”
IN YOUR 40s
“If there’s no sex in your relationship, the eyes start wandering. You must communicate what you want. After all these years I’m still discovering my sexuality. Now I’m teaching my partner what I like.
“Still, there are aspects I’m unsure about. My sex life is also routine now – we do the same thing every time and it’s not necessarily what I want, but I’m trying to spice it up.
“Sometimes I’ll send him a picture of myself when I’ve dolled myself up. Sometimes I also use flattering language, or I’ll organise something romantic.”
A common challenge
Like people in their 30s, those in their 40s experience a lot of stress, anxiety and depression – which can all affect the libido. These days, there are more people in their 40s who have young children.
Stress, says Dr Elmari Mulder Craig, a sexologist from Pretoria, is your sex life’s biggest enemy and couples need to find ways to deal with it.
If you feel overwhelmed by stress, you need to see a therapist to learn to deal with it, Craig says. Exercise is a good stress reliever too.
Women in perimenopause need to monitor their hormone levels, use a good lubricant and should see a doctor if sex is painful.
IN YOUR 50s
“I think at my age it’s acceptable to have sex once or twice a month. I’m comfortable with my partner – we’ve been married a long time – and I don’t believe I’ll have the same self-confidence with someone else.
“I’m older now and my body looks different to when I was young. I still see myself as a sensual woman and I like being sexy and dressing nicely, so sometimes, if it doesn’t lead anywhere, it can be hard for me.
“My sex life has decreased in the past five years and there are several reasons for this. My husband had to take an antidepressant at one stage and he’s diabetic, which affects his libido.
“I know the need for sex decreases as you age but when sex does happen, I enjoy it because my husband cherishes me. That’s what I sometimes miss when it’s been a while since we’ve had sex.”
A common challenge
The physical changes associated with ageing can be difficult to deal with, says Dr Elmari Mulder Craig, a sexologist from Pretoria.
Menopause and andropause also start having an impact at this age.
Don’t just accept that a lack of libido is normal in this age group, Craig says.
If you or your partner is struggling with menopause or andropause, seek medical help.
Staying fit and keeping your muscles strong also improve stamina and sex drive.
By this age couples are in a position to get to know each other all over again.
“Couples have to make an effort to get to know each other again,” Craig says. “There’s probably old conflict that was never addressed.”
It may help to see a couples’ therapist to help you find creative ways to reconnect with each other.
IN YOUR 60s
“Sex changes as you age. In my younger days I was a womaniser and now it’s case of ‘if it happens, it happens’. I don’t have as much of a roving eye anymore and don’t feel the need to go to a strip club or have sex with the neighbour.
“As you get older, it’s also harder to perform. Of course there are pills that help with that, but it’s expensive and the side-effects, like headaches, can be terrible.
“I actually still feel 40, but my body is 64. My partner is 49 and I definitely still have the urge for sex, but at my age you don’t feel like foreplay anymore. It’s a case of getting it done.”
A common challenge
People often accept that lack of libido and erectile dysfunction are part of life at this age, but it doesn’t have to be.
“Is there a physical, emotional or psychological cause? It’s usually a combination of several factors and it’s possible to address it,” says Dr Elmari Mulder Craig, a sexologist and couples’ counsellor from Pretoria.
Erectile dysfunction can be an early indicator of a serious heart condition that may be lurking, Craig warns.
Men should have their testosterone levels checked regularly and need to keep healthy and fit.
If the performance issues are down to emotional or psychological factors, therapy may be the answer.
IN YOUR 70s
“Before my divorce, I was married for 32 years. I’ve since been in two relationships. One must make time for sex. I forget about the household chores and my to-do list and make time for sex.
“I wasn’t as shy when I was younger. I’d walk around in my underwear in front of my husband and wanted sex with the lights on. Now it’s a little different because I’m older, but I do special things that give me self-confidence. For example, I have a favourite song that turns me on.
“I feel women, and probably some men too, aren’t immediately turned on. You need to spend the week before or at least earlier in the day getting your mind in the mood for sex.”
A common challenge
People this age often accept their sex lives are over, but the yearning for intimacy never goes away, says Dr Elmari Mulder Craig, a sexologist and couples’ counsellor from Pretoria.
“Naturally, sex will be different when you’re 70 or 80. Your body has changed and your sexual functioning might not be the same,” she adds.
But as an older adult you’re probably also wiser and you know what works best for you when it comes to sex.
Focus on intimacy, sensuality and physical touch, Craig suggests.
Anyone can be intimate, even if they suffer from health problems, and will benefit from the closeness of another person.
“It’s not about penetration – it’s about sensuality. There are other ways to pleasure each other.”
*Names have been changed. Picture posed by models