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New ways to think about sex
- By Matthew Solan, Executive Editor, Harvard Men's Health Watch
An enjoyable sexual relationship can happen without traditional intercourse.
People’s bodies change over time. Probably nowhere is this most telling than with their sex lives.
For men, sexual drive can slow as hormone production naturally drops, and it’s common to experience erectile dysfunction or health issues that can interfere with sexual performance.
Women can have their own physical barriers to sex, such as vaginal dryness and lower libido after menopause. All of these issues can make conventional sex problematic and stressful for both parties.
"Even though older adults go through physical changes, they often expect their sex life to stay the way it was decades earlier, and that is just not always realistic," says Dr. Sharon Bober, director of the Sexual Health Program at Harvard-affiliated Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. "Still, there are many ways to continue a strong, healthy sexual relationship without always relying on regular intercourse. Couples should see this new phase of their sex lives as an opportunity to explore different and exciting ways to satisfy each other."
The first step older couples should take is to re-examine their definition of "sex." "Don’t give in to the idea of a so-called normal sex life being narrowly defined," says Dr. Bober. "Sex refers to a broad spectrum, and there are many places you can land."
Examine what sex now means to you and your partner. This could mean changing how you pleasure each other, routines you follow, and frequency — as well as making compromises about expectations. "Don’t assume there is only one way to have a sexual relationship," says Dr. Bober. "It doesn’t have to be all or nothing."
Your relationship status also can shape this new idea of sex. For instance, some couples may enjoy a connection based more on companionship, where the emphasis is on emotional bonding and spending quality time together and less on the physical side.
Language of love
As with most aspects of a strong relationship, communication is vital. "The more you avoid talking about your sex lives, the bigger the issues become," says Dr. Bober.
Of course, talking about sex isn’t always easy, but most partners are open and willing to discuss and share if given a chance. "Often partners aren’t sure how to begin the conversation, so it never happens," she says. There are many ways to initiate a sex dialogue. Here are some suggestions:
Seek permission. Begin the conversation positively. For instance, say something like "I want to find ways to reconnect that feel good for both of us" or "Our sex life has been on my mind and I have been wondering if I could share some of my thoughts. Is it okay to talk about it?"
By asking for permission, you can broach the topic without intimidating your partner. "This initial conversation is not about making demands, but about finding ways to explore mutual goals," says Dr. Bober.
Invite a response. Make it clear you want to hear your partner’s feelings too. For example, say, "I’ve been wondering how you feel about our sex life. What has sex been like for you?" Inviting partners to participate can prevent them from feeling defensive and shows you care about their experience and input, says Dr. Bober.
Express what you both want. Talk about what you both hope to gain from this new sexual relationship, such as more excitement, greater closeness, or even reconnection. "Sharing your needs and expectations helps your partner express theirs, so you both can come to some kind of mutual understanding," says Dr. Bober.
Different ways to satisfy
Once you’ve had these talks, then you both can look for different ways to approach your new sex life.
Dr. Bober says a good place to begin is with "outercourse." Here, the attention and energy are directed toward foreplay and manual stimulation with your partner, like massages, hugging, petting, kissing, or just snuggling naked in bed.
"The emphasis is on intimacy and closeness without any big expectations of intercourse," says Dr. Bober. "This can take the pressure off both partners and eliminate some of the stress and anxiety of having regular sex. It also shows that you can interact with your partner in various satisfying ways."
Penetration is not always needed to achieve pleasure or orgasm for both people. Instead, try sexual aids like vibrators as well as manual stimulation, masturbation, and oral sex.
As you explore ways to stay intimate, be mindful that every couple is unique.
"A sexual relationship is defined by the two people in it and nobody else," says Dr. Bober. "Focus on what matters to you and your partner. Your sex lives may have changed, but together you can discover what’s best for each other and your relationship."Image: © fizkes/Getty Images
About the Author
Matthew Solan, Executive Editor, Harvard Men's Health Watch
As a service to our readers, Harvard Health Publishing provides access to our library of archived content. Please note the date of last review or update on all articles.
No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician.
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Sexuality in Midlife and Beyond
The physical transformations the body undergoes with age have a major influence on sexuality. This Special Health Report, Sexuality in Midlife and Beyond, will take you through the stages of sexual response and explain how aging affects each. You’ll also learn how chronic illnesses, common medications, and emotional issues can influence your sexual capabilities. Finally, you’ll find a detailed discussion of various medical treatments, counseling, and self-help techniques to address the most common types of sexual problems.
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