First, some perspective: If we menstruate, it is likely that about half our lives will happen post-menopause. Long time, right?
Of course this interval will vary depending on our overall health, genetics (our age at menopause is likely to be similar to our mothers’ and grandmothers’), and many other factors. But the average female lifespan in the US is around 81 years old, and the average age at menopause is 51. That’s 30 or so years. If you’re over 30, think of everything that happened in your life until that age, and consider that your post-menopausal time can be even more replete with learning, personal growth, and, yes, deeply fulfilling sexual intimacy.
In the West, the narrative around menopause is often concerned with the physical challenges that arise with lower estrogen levels (more on that in a minute) and also, tragically, the process of becoming “invisible”. Historically, patriarchy holds that female-bodied people are only relevant when we’re fertile, “juicy”, and conform to a narrow definition of beauty that obsessively venerates youth. When we stop fitting in the “hot young thing” box, we may feel like much of our value is lost – including our sensuality.
Not so fast. Contrary to societal storytelling about menopause, this is a time in a person’s life that can be incredibly vital and filled with pleasure and great sex. You know yourself, you have actively lived in a way that you know what you love, what you want, and what feels good to your body. This is the time of the crone – not the warty old hag the Puritans feared, but the powerful, wise, revered, and honored elder who is deeply in bed with life, who knows her power, her pleasure, and her passion and infuses them into all she does.
The physical challenges are real, of course! When the crone isn’t dispensing wisdom or taking grateful lovers to bed, she might quietly bemoan her hot flashes. But before we get into the scientific particulars of sex after menopause, let’s celebrate the power of the end of the monthly cycle – a momentous occasion in a person’s life, often accompanied by a deep change in perspective and roles, when many say that they feel more empowered and unburdened by societal pressures than ever before. The crone doesn’t need a broom to fly.
Menopause, Libido and Desire
Now that we’ve hyped menopause for all that it signifies, let’s transition to some of the potential changes that may alter the way you relate with your body.
Post-menopausal people often report diminished libido, along with hot flashes, increased prevalence of painful sex, and loss of natural lubrication. Decreasing estrogen is the cause of all these changes. And it’s not overstating the case to say that hormones rule humans. Regardless of how old we are, or whether we have XX or XY chromosomes (or any other combination for that matter!), our hormone levels impact a tremendous number of our mental and physical processes. We can’t reasonably expect that everything will stay exactly the same in the absence of one of our most significant hormonal influences.
During our reproductive years, our ovaries pumped out estrogen every menstrual cycle right before we ovulated. And to understand how to address some menopausal bumps in the road, it helps to know what estrogen was doing for us in the first place.
- Keeping up the blood flow. Estrogen dilates your blood vessels, and increased blood flow to your vagina helps it stay healthy and lubricated.
- Raising your libido. Many reproductive-age women have an increased interest in sex right around the time they ovulate — when their estrogen levels are highest.
- Keeping the pH low. Estrogen tells your vagina to secrete glycogen, which feeds beneficial bacteria. These lactobacillus bacteria make lactic acid, which keeps the pH low and protects the vagina from microbes that can cause yeast infections and BV. (Note: These aren’t the same lactobacillus you find in yogurt, but they are very closely related.)
- Protecting the urinary tract. Estrogen receptors are spread throughout the vagina, bladder, urethra and pelvic floor. Up to 70% of women with urinary incontinence experience its onset at menopause. Estrogen also helps protect women from urinary tract infections.
So in addition to impacting whether we want to have sex, lower estrogen levels can contribute to several other ways that sex might not seem like an appealing prospect. It’s hard to get enthusiastic about sexual intimacy if we know it’ll hurt.
But keep in mind – this is a “pause”. It needn’t be a stop. And a fulfilling sex life can be a powerful tool in a crone’s magic kit – keeping us connected to our vibrant, vital innermost selves, whether we’re alone or with a partner.
Sex, Pleasure and Resiliency
Pleasure is good for the soul. It also builds resilience, supports immunity, and keeps us connected with these amazing bodies that house us through so many phases and changes. And pleasure can even be an act of rebellion against the destructive messages that tell us we ought to dry up and blow away on the wind – a defiant “I’m still here!”
Even apart from the mental and emotional benefits of pleasure, sexual intimacy post-menopause has physical effects. Arousal brings juicy blood flow to the vaginal tissues that are prone to thinning and atrophy in the absence of estrogen. And clitoral stimulation, sexual fantasy, and penetration keep vaginal skin healthy, improve its elasticity and natural lubrication, and can boost levels of androgens and other hormones. You don’t even need a partner to enjoy these benefits! A fulfilling masturbation practice grounds us, centers us, and keeps us connected with our core selves, alongside the demonstrable benefits to our changing bodies.
It is likely that what worked for us in bed pre-menopause may need to be re-examined now. We will probably need to be patient with ourselves, and allow more time to become fully aroused than we used to. Experiment with extending foreplay into full-body sensual massage and gentle oral and manual stimulation, and be sure to take all the time you need. Pelvic floor exercises are great for everyone – consult with a doctor, physical therapist, or sexological bodyworker to develop a pelvic rehabilitation plan.
When it comes to tools, a good lubricant is an essential support – anytime, and especially during and after menopause. And plant allies like CBD, when used as a topical arousal oil or suppository, can help support that all-important bloodflow and diminish the discomfort that may stop us before we get started.
It is very possible that this time can be the beginning of our own personal pleasure Renaissance. Post-menopause, many elders report feeling more free, more patient with themselves, and less concerned with what the world thinks of them than ever before. If we extend that grace to our changing bodies, we’re cultivating not only sensual pleasure, but our very souls and essential selves, throughout this remarkable transition – and what could be the most powerful and revolutionary thirty years of our lives.
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