Caregiving is a Major Roadblock to Women’s Sexual Freedom

I am a fan of Tara Parker-Pope’s Well column in the New York Times, but when I saw today’s headline, “Why a Woman’s Sex Life Declines After Menopause (Hint: Sometimes It’s Her Partner),” I cringed. I was afraid this was going to be another column pathologizing a group of people for not having the right amount of sex. I would like to categorically state that there is no correct amount of sex to want, no specifically healthy amount of sexual desire to experience. Then I remembered a recent experience of my own – I’ll tell you about it another time – and felt sympathetic. Writers don’t control their headlines and sometimes they don’t even control edits to their articles. So, I read on, and I’m glad I did. 

It’s an article about a new research analysis addressing questions about why women in their fifties and older often – but not always – experience less sexual desire, sexual intimacy, and sexual happiness than they did when they were younger. The headline hint is reductive, but I think the editor was shying away from using the word “vaginal,” as in “Hint: It isn’t all about vaginal dryness.”)
Parker-Pope is up front about the limitations of the research on which she’s reporting. It’s focused almost entirely on cisgender women in heterosexual relationships or who identify as heterosexual. But since she reported that up front, at least we can we can learn something about that relatively large proportion of women-identified people.

Happily, the researchers focus on a complex web of factors that limit these women’s desire for and enjoyment of sex. Loss of a partner because of death or divorce was one the single most common reason given by women for their lack of sexual interaction. Unhappily, this is magnified by an unexplored reason: namely cultural stereotypes that define women of a certain age as undesirable and asexual. Women in menopause who are experiencing a reduction in their own libidos or finding that their partners want less sex with them might chalk it up to “just the way things are” without realizing that things don’t have to be that way. This “just the way things are” status is not a function of nature but rather a function of an ageist culture. We need to change that culture if we care about older women’s sexual freedom. (Hint: Some folks are already hard at work on this.)

Perhaps most interesting for me was the degree to which caregiving responsibilities and the attending exhaustion were a major factor influencing women’s reduced desire for sex. Think about it. A 55-year-old woman in the United States today is likely to have a preadolescent or adolescent child, as well as aging parents who need help. Between those two sets of caregiving responsibilities and the paid employment she’s likely managing, by the time her day is done she’s pretty wiped out. If she or her partner has a medical condition like depression, heart disease, or other chronic illness, then those are additional factors affecting sexual opportunity and desire. Put these things together, and vaginal dryness is the least difficult of her problems to solve. 

I’ll leave you with a happy note: the researchers did uncover data about women in their fifties and older who are having a great time sexually, and explored that data as well. Some women reported finding new partners and having fun sexually while others reported having less sex than they used to, but that the sex they were having was very satisfying. This could well because of the confidence and experience that come with age rather than being in spite of age. Now there’s a hopeful thought!

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