Did you know that orgasms can help your hair grow? It’s a fun fact, especially significant for women over the age of 40, because in midlife our hair thins as growth slows down. I know this because as a 53-year-old woman and co-presenter of the podcast Postcards from Midlife, I am now something of an expert on women in this age group. And sex, I have found out, is vital for us – emotionally, physically and culturally.
The traditional narrative that the baby boomer generation encountered and passed on to today’s generation who are now in midlife – Generation X – was that women’s sex drives declined with age, while men’s remained the same or increased. There was an assumption that as other things came to dominate our lives – caring for elderly parents, looking after teenagers, dealing with illness, trying to stay relevant at work – our sex lives, much like our physical selves, would become invisible. And of course, juggling all this does affect us – but this notion of a declining sex drive is not only patronising, but also inaccurate. In fact, 40% of midlife women we quizzed in a survey on our Facebook group said they wanted more sex. A total of 56% said they owned at least one sex toy; 65% enjoyed sexual fantasies (though 82% didn’t discuss these with their partners); more than 35% were masturbating at least once a week; and almost 37% were having sex at least once a week. So it seems we didn’t put our love lives in the loft with our vinyl collections.
Before I hosted the podcast, I worked as a magazine editor – and served as the editor-in-chief of both Cosmopolitan and Elle during the 00s; my co-host, Trish Halpin, is a former editor of Marie Clare. Between us, we really do know Generation X women inside out. Our generation came of age with Samantha Jones’s racy one-liners in Sex and the City and expert sex tips from the magazines we edited. We were vocal about our desires and libido and need for sex all through our 20s and 30s – so why would we not want that same sovereignty over our sex lives as we age? Sex matters to us.
We want more sex because we know from medical studies that intercourse is good for relieving stress and anxiety, which are classic symptoms of the perimenopause (the 10 years of fluctuating hormones before the menopause). It also contributes to keeping our sex organs healthy, helping prevent symptoms of vaginal atrophy, which is estimated to impact 80% of women during menopause – and the increased blood flow of regular orgasms promotes healthy hair, skin and sleep.
More importantly perhaps, intimacy; the ever-important communication between you and your partner is also strengthened by sex. As the family therapist Julia Samuel told us on the podcast, the quality of your relationship is the single most important predictor of the quality of your life as you age. And 75% of our listeners surveyed said intimacy was the most important aspect of sex with a partner.
Of course, many women in midlife do see a disappointing drop in libido due to a decline in the hormones oestrogen, progesterone and testosterone. We now know that hormone replacement therapy (which is much safer than we were led to believe and is recommended by Nice) relieves women of these symptoms (not to mention reducing the risk of them getting heart disease and osteoporosis). And no-risk oestrogen pessaries, which may become available without prescription, will unlock the desire of thousands of women struggling to have a sex life due to the loss of that hormone in their vagina, which can make sexual intercourse difficult.
The very fact that these treatment options are available shows how far we have come. Gen X are not squeamish when it comes to talking about sex; our sex lives are not secret, and many of us are forthright about arguing for what we need to support our blossoming midlife love lives (just watch Davina McCall’s groundbreaking Channel 4 documentary Sex, Myths and the Menopause).
This newfound understanding of the perimenopause has put us on the brink of a new sexual revolution, liberating an army of women to seek what they need to keep them healthy and happy. Women in midlife are not going to be limited by GPs’ woeful misunderstanding of our health – in 2019, over two thirds of GPs had wrongly prescribed antidepressants instead of HRT – something clearly warned against in the Nice guidelines on treating menopause.
Gen X is good at asking for what we need: we have been doing it for our whole lives so far. When I was editing Cosmo, one of my male bosses once told me to stop running features on anal sex. “No woman enjoys that, so stop writing about it,” he said.
“But I have a postbag of letters from women who tell me this is one of the things they want to experience, which is why I am writing about it,” I replied, perplexed by his logic when faced with the evidence.
“Women don’t know what they want,” he said.
How wrong he was. We want intimacy, orgasms and, yes, thicker hair.