- A woman’s interest in sex and how often she has it tends to decline more during midlife than men’s.
- A new study suggests the biggest factor for women's decreased sexual interest might be exhaustion.
- Alhough important, it isn’t just menopause and hormones that undermine women’s sex lives.
Research shows that, on average, a woman’s interest in sex and the frequency with which she has it tends to decline more during midlife than men’s. Sometimes this fading of desire accompanies a decline in sexual satisfaction, especially if the reason for the dying flame is due to unresolved relationship dynamics that plague the relationship. In other instances, sexual intimacy doesn’t necessarily correlate with less relationship satisfaction, but women might still experience it as something that feels “missing.”
The reasons for declining desire among women in midlife have been studied extensively. Survey data has identified a wide range of biological, psychological, and sociocultural factors. For example, hormonal changes associated with menopause are often blamed, along with the related weight gain, mood changes, and sleep disturbances that often impact a woman’s perceived sexual attractiveness, an especially pernicious trend in a culture that values youth and beauty for women.
In addition, midlife tends to bring on a wave of responsibilities for women that seemingly collide all at once. The burden of caring for children as well as older parents while simultaneously managing a career can feel overwhelming.
The question is, how do we tease apart the myriad of causes so that we know which ones to first address? How do we untangle all the factors? Where do we begin when it comes to improving women’s sex lives?
A new study published in the Journal of Sex Research provides an interesting clue. The authors analyzed data from the British National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles, which included 2133 female participants. In addition, the researchers layered in qualitative data gathered from interviews with some of the actual women from the study.
What is the main thing that leads to a decline in sexual interest in women in midlife?
The answer is both unsurprising and yet profound, and it comes down to one thing; exhaustion.
In a world where women are forced to assume an inordinate number of potential roles–mother, wife, daughter, “career woman,” school parent volunteer, house cleaner, grocery shopper, errand runner, birthday party and after-school activity planner–it’s not shocking that women’s desire for sex diminishes. A diminishment is especially so when research shows that despite their growing careers, heterosexual women still typically do more emotional and household labor than their husbands.
Where do we go from here? We need to acknowledge that though important, it isn’t just menopause and hormones undermining women’s sex lives. It’s that they’re tired. Really tired.
Here are some ideas for how to solve this issue.
- Encourage women to “let it go.” This means acknowledging that one’s house does not have to be perfectly clean and organized and that your school-aged children and adult partner can meet more of their needs than you likely are giving them credit for. Take a page from the movie Bad Moms and embrace imperfection.
- Encourage the partners of women in relationships to assume more responsibility. This is true for the dishes and laundry and all the emotional labor that goes into running a household. Your partner should help plan activities and anticipate important events.
- Encourage women to engage in self-care. This means doing things that introduce pleasure and positive emotions into their lives. Research by Barbara Fredrickson shows that positive emotions build ego resilience, making us better able to handle the challenges of everyday life. Women shouldn't think of pleasure as a “treat.” It’s a vital ingredient to mental health.
- Encourage women to employ help. If possible, lean on family and friends to lend support, to either decrease the load or offer emotional support. If you can afford to, hire help. There is no shame in outsourcing what women can outsource.
It’s important to recognize that we all deserve to be happy and sexually fulfilled, whatever that may look like for a person, individually. Taking active steps to prevent exhaustion might be the most important thing a woman and her partner can do to foster an active, healthy sex life.
Facebook image: StockPhotoDirectors/Shutterstock
Fredrickson, B. L. (2013). Positive Emotions Broaden and Build. In Advances in Experimental Social Psychology (Vol. 47, pp. 1-53). Cambridge, MA: Academic Press.
Wellings, K., Gibson, L., Lewis, R., Datta, J., Macdowall, W., & Mitchell, K. (2023). “We’re Just Tired”: Influences on Sexual Activity Among Male-Partnered Women in Midlife; A Mixed Method Study. The Journal of Sex Research, 1-14.