What Women Over 40 With Amazing Sex Lives Have In Common
When it comes to midlife and sexuality, what are the stories that need to be challenged if we want to be among the sexually woke? Inasmuch as these stories are causing harm or are not true, what might be a healthier way to view the same situation?
As an example, let me tell you how this worked for me. In my early-40s, life felt like I was on a conveyor belt going in one direction and largely out of my control. I was driven by a list of things I was supposed to do. Financial planners told me how much money I needed to earn and save to live to 95, to send my kids to an average of six years of private college, and to keep my invented life looking perfect from the outside. We predicted the rise and fall of the stock market for the next 50 years. Every morning, I got up and did what I was supposed to do. I made lots of money, won lots of awards, and made things seem amazing on Facebook.
My then-husband and I had complex wills, life insurance policies, disability policies, and every other imaginable tool to create the illusion that we had this life figured out and under control. I knew the precise date I was going to retire, as well as the date we were going to sell our home. I knew the dates our kids would get married, how much their weddings would cost, when I would become a grandparent, and the date each of us would probably die. Nothing was unknown.
If the goal of all this planning and attempting to manipulate the future was to provide a sense of safety and security, why did the idea of getting old fill me with dread? Why did following this nicely mapped-out path feel like I was being buried in an early grave? The fact was I had nothing to look forward to. There was nothing exciting or surprising to anticipate. Life had been wrapped carefully and stuffed into a box. Looking into the future felt like looking down a long, dark, narrowing tunnel. It was a death march.
At that same time, I was struggling with getting older. I was getting crow's feet. Gray hairs became too many to pluck out. My sex drive was nonexistent. Women much younger than me were enjoying leadership roles and accolades and were prominently featured in the media. I could feel myself slowly being pushed out of the picture of what matters.
The real reason women's sex lives decline over time.
After hearing Ben Zander talk about his book The Art of Possibility in 2010, the wall of that tunnel started to be a little more opaque. A little light started to come in. If there was light on the other side of those tunnel walls, what was out there? I read Zander's book, and my curiosity started to rise. Within a few months, I was devouring a book every week and attending every seminar I could find on the subject of personal growth and spirituality. As my self-invented tunnel started to crumble, the future began to look quite different: an open field of possibility, openness, emptiness—a blank canvas ready for me to paint.
The degree to which this changed my life cannot be overstated, and all I did was change my perspective. Nothing "out there" changed. The only thing that changed was my ability to see it. I woke up.
Here's an observation from 20 years as a gynecologist and 52 years as a woman. When you feel trapped in a box, you don't want to have sex. Truly making love is generative, free, expressive, and creative. It's a dance that takes place in an open field, not a dark tunnel. Love cannot be confined within walls. Trying to do so makes it die.
This observation points to one of the key findings of my research and perhaps the most important "secret." It's not aging that causes our sex lives to decline. It's the feeling, conscious or subconscious, that we are trapped.
This is why women of all ages invariably have a spike in libido when they start a new relationship and why having a deep spiritual understanding (of something bigger than ourselves) is associated with a better sex life. The truth is we are not and never were trapped. We put ourselves in a prison but forget we hold the key. Outside those walls is a world of infinite possibility.
The sexual freedom that can come with age.
As I talked with the sexually woke, this theme came up over and over again. These women did not complain about aging; rather, they appreciated their newfound wisdom and freedom and universally described this as the best time of their lives. Surprisingly to me, many women shared similar images and metaphors to describe their own awakening. In Robin's words:
"The idea of the fullness in life when we are younger is paradoxical because we tend to think of fullness related to success, achievement, money, and status. Then we find the futility when we get to menopause—the futility of trying to hold it all together. The first half of my life, I felt like I was building a very solid structure. That gave me some comfort. But then we literally start to see our bodies fall apart and realize that it's all falling apart really. That solid structure was not based on anything real. My new house got old, my perfect kids grew up and didn't do what the plan dictated, and my marriage fell apart. For me, the acceptance of that and letting go of the fantasy of solidity really let me enter the fullness of life. With the solidity of the walls I had created, I had no access to other possibilities. I was pretty delusional that life was solid. After my divorce, I was free—finally free to have that fullness of life and be available to meet someone I could be my full self with as my full sexual being. I'm 55, and life has never been better. As for sex, I'm only just beginning to find out where I can go with that. There's no road map, no walls. I can go wherever I want. It's beautiful."
All of a sudden you have some space. You can finally ask those questions like, "What am I really here to do?" With that space to reflect, you can integrate yourself, pull all those pieces together, and really show up. People might call it a midlife crisis, saying, "Oh, she went nuts, left her husband, and moved to France." But I don't think that's what it is. It's an awakening. More like, "Oh, I've only been half here all this time." When you've cut off your sexual being and then find it, it's like you've been walking around without one arm then realizing that you have both. "Wow! Look at all these things I can do now with two arms!" Alexa shares another beautiful metaphor:
"I think of my sexuality as a sea snail, the kind with the coiled shell. For most of my life, my sexuality had lived inside a shell. For one thing, it's not safe to be gay, so I hid. But now when I feel safe and happy, the snail will venture out of her shell and start to venture across the ocean floor and explore this unknown new world. I used to think the shell was a prison, but it's really just a place to be safe if there's real harm around. When I feel safe, there's a door that I can venture out of and go as far as I want.<br><br>I'm 61, and I was thinking about women my age whose sexuality has gone out like the tide or at least they think it has. Then I started thinking about spaciousness, to live in the spaciousness of the unknown, of possibility. Inside the shell can feel safer, but I think an existence with spaciousness is what we are hopefully evolving into. There's this 'letting go of certainty' aspect in sexuality that mirrors letting go into the spiritual life. For me, I think that's how those two come together. There's a huge element of letting go around the time of menopause. The reality of our finite life can be very freeing. There's a letting go of needing to be a certain way, the way that conforms to being young. Instead of framing that as loss, to me it's letting go of a whole lot of baggage and realizing your shell has a door. It's freedom."
I was amazed at how frequently words like freedom and liberation were used by the sexually woke in relation to midlife. This certainly wasn't what I was taught! Freedom came in many forms: freedom from limiting beliefs, freedom from fear of pregnancy, and even freedom to make more noise or be more spontaneous without family in the house. Christine adds:
"Sex is so liberating now. I am past the baby stage. There's no more waiting for a period to either get here or not and no more worrying about getting pregnant. I know what I like, and we are comfortable with each other. His body knows my body; it 'listens,' and it's learned when to move left or right, keep going, stop, or try something else. Although we talk openly about sex, sometimes he just knows exactly what to do by the way my body is responding. It's like we are in our 20s again but better because we've both learned so much and look forward to just being together."
As Caitlin describes:
"It seems to me there are two possibilities. One is that you are still in a fog of years of youthful, idiotic, and delusional thinking, not really understanding things. On the other hand, now with some years and experience under your belt, you have a certain strength, clarity, and wisdom. I am starting to understand things. In the old days, they would have called me a crone. The wise old woman that the village would go to for advice. But maybe I can be a sexy crone. I feel better than ever. I don't care so much what other people think. I am free to be myself. I can make love with my husband, and I am all here."
Excerpted and adapted with permission from Sexually Woke: Awaken the Secrets to Our Best Sex Lives in Midlife and Beyond by Susan Hardwick-Smith, M.D., available now.
Susan Hardwick-Smith, MD, is an award-winning, board-certified obstetrics and gynecology physician dedicated to empowering women to feel fully alive – sexually, relationally, and spiritually. She is the founder of Complete Midlife Wellness Center and author of Sexually Woke. She received her medical degree from Baylor College of Medicine and completed her residency at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston.