fbpx A Journey With Sex After 40
A woman cheers with blue hearts over her head against a red background.
A woman cheers with blue hearts over her head against a red background.

A Journey With Sex After 40

How aging and relationships to sex may change over time.
Danielle Holland
Written by

Danielle Marie Holland

My grandmother looked me in the eyes and said, "There is no sex after 40." I was young enough that I had not experienced my first kiss yet, let alone sex, but old enough that the statement registered as grave and sad. Over the years, as I steadily climbed toward 40, I often thought back to this moment. How many women have closed the sex chapter of their life by middle age? Perhaps for many of a certain generation, my grandmother's comment might have been true.

But for myself and many of my girlfriends, passing 40 has ushered in a stage of what has been, so far, the hottest sex of our lives. Regardless of who, if anyone, we are choosing to share beds with, our relationship to sex has revealed itself to be much more rewarding than sex from any preceding decade.

In his "Guide to Getting It On," Paul Joannides writes: "People have always believed that a woman's sex drive goes down when she enters menopause. Yet researchers have discovered that when a menopausal woman gets into a new relationship, she can be as horny as many 20-somethings."

Sex education has changed

In my 40s, I see how easy it is to fall into the trap of thinking "not much has changed" over the past few decades. Yet much has changed surrounding sex education and our conversations discussing sex. As we age, we are interrogating our own understandings of gender, gender roles, sex and shame in its myriad forms. We have seen a need for massive shifts in our most intimate spaces. Many people are unlearning stigmas and embarrassment around sex that came from a lack of education.

Prior to the wave of "enthusiastic consensual sex only," how many of us spent years being talked, pressured or worn down into saying "yes" to sex we didn't want? Giving in may have been the path of least resistance or easier than the fight that would have come from saying no, or the result of years of being conditioned to cater to a man's pleasure, or due to not wanting to be deprived of resources or affection—take your pick.

Women have long endured sex centered around the penis (with sex as penetration), reinforcing the orgasm gap and the idea that sex is just one thing. As I've gotten older, I've had more time to dismantle the falsehoods of piecemeal sexual education. In the book "Essential Labor," Angela Garbes explains that with sex "there is no script, no formula, and no defining act. Just you, your partner, and all the things that make your bodies feel good. You can define sex however you want."

Emily Nagoski, a sex educator in Massachusetts and the author of "Come As You Are: The Surprising New Science That Will Transform Your Sex Life," studies the cultural stories that surround our sex lives. Nagoski said a lesbian woman has recalibrated everything she knows about "what counts as a sex-related stimulus because what counts as sex-related for her has never matched the cultural narrative." Straight women have spent a lifetime being exposed to "heteronormative messages about what sexuality is" and have been pressed into "conforming with the culturally constructed aspirational cishet normative ideal."

Reclaiming your body

Many of us passing over the threshold of 40 are done with holding on to tired ideas. We no longer care what society thinks we should look like or how we should act. At 40, we are asking: How are we attractive to ourselves? What turns us on? What do we like?

Kate Clausen, 42, is a creative professional on the East Coast who has experienced the conflict in taking up greater space with one's physical body. She came to a turning point after turning 40.

"I decided to not think about how I looked in a mirror and just feel how I feel in my body, which is good, which is loving myself," Clausen said.

This acceptance has rewarded her with the best pleasure (and the most incredible orgasms) of her life. "To love yourself, to love every part of yourself," is a form of freedom, Clausen said.

I see myself at 40, along with many others, loving myself by having fundamentally greater awareness and ownership of my desires, needs, wants and boundaries. What this creates and demands is that when choosing partnered sex, you center on collaboration. We are choosing to come together in an act of collaborative pleasure. It's a type of sex that stems from mutual and shared desire.

"We live in a world where people are exposed, sometimes at a young age, to images of bodies that have been manipulated, even images of genitals that have been manipulated," Nagoski said. We have been sold an image of the body that is untrue and have been made to think we aren't healthy and beautiful precisely as we are.

"Porn has terrible effects on what young women are supposed to look like, particularly during sex," said Leslie Bell, a psychotherapist in Berkeley, California, and the author of "Hard to Get: Twenty-Something Women and the Paradox of Sexual Freedom."

"There's this idea that someone is going to be evaluating your appearance not only outside of the bedroom, which was true before, but also during sex, that your body has to look a certain way then," she said.

Past 40, many of us have moved beyond this inclination and pressure to feel shame because of the ways our bodies naturally look. We are unlearning these falsehoods. At 40, I have a postpartum body. My belly is rounder and softer. My breasts are heavier, less perky. Yet never once have I stopped mid-orgasm to engage in an act of self-hate or to mutter a phrase of self-diminishment. Pleasure is power. With each orgasm, I take up all the space in the room—I am loud, I am demanding, I am as powerful as I will ever be.