As our health changes, so does sex, from the way we like it to how we do it.
Who we are now isn’t who we will be in the future. Whether it’s learning to be with partners who are aging themselves or navigating around various health issues, these alterations in intimacy can be beneficial and encourage growth with our ourselves and with our lovers.
There are obvious physical changes. As people with a vagina age, the vagina shortens and becomes narrower. The walls of the vagina also become thinner and a bit stiffer. Less vaginal lubrication is another possible side effect of aging. For someone with a penis, erectile dysfunction, or a difference in firmness during an erection, may be present.
Of course, these are just the most common generalizations, but it’s not the complete story — sex can still go strong, at all ages.
I talked to various couples and individuals for Healthline about their sex lives. Here’s how challenging, positive, and self-satisfying sex can be in your 20s, 30s, 40s, and all the way to the 70s and beyond.
Chelsea, a 25-year-old queer cis woman, says sex has definitely changed and shifted throughout her 20s. Being the youngest girl in a “very Southern religious black family,” she grew up with sex being taboo.
In college, Chelsea was able to explore her queer identity. After graduation, her sex life has shifted even further from the idea that it was taboo. “I feel much more affirmed in my identity,” she says. “My sex life at this moment feels focused on freedom, pleasure, and confidence.”
After her first serious relationship ended, she began to experiment with polyamory. This is when someone is romantically involved with more than one person at the same time.
“I’ve come back to exploring kink and exploring this side of myself with other queer people,” she says. Chelsea also notes it’s been very freeing to eradicate her old views of sex, which only included having sex with cisgender men.
When I asked Chelsea about common problems in her sex life, she answers, “I don’t think we create enough of a safe place for people to discuss how some of us process trauma through hypersexuality without stigma or shame.”
As a single person, she now makes the effort to be honest and intentional with herself, to figure out why she’s having sex and what she wants from the action.
“Communication is really important to me, and not just sex talk. The whole gamut of it,” Chelsea explains.
Moreover, small nonsexual acts of adoration are important to Chelsea. She goes on to say that she looks for partners who pay attention to her whole body.
“Hold my tummy, kiss the cellulite on my thighs, don’t shy away from my body hair, etc. Learn my erogenous zones outside of my breasts and my vagina,” she says.
Andrew, 34, and Donora, 35, are a married couple who describe their relationship like a “wildfire, intense and sweeping and hot, as if we are taken over by it — out of control in the best ways.”
When it comes to potential problems with intimacy, Andrew says barriers haven’t been an issue in their relationship. He explains they feel “so secure with one another,” and because of this, sexual chemistry comes naturally.
When asked about the importance of intimacy and closeness in a relationship, Andrew says, “Before her, I didn’t know what intimacy was. Not at all. She taught me to really open up. She taught me to kiss!”
Donora mentions the dating app Tinder and how she thinks it’s “contributed to the downfall of deep intimacy that comes out of spontaneous encounters that develop into something more.”
She goes on to say, “Everything is so codified now, and a big part of what we’ve been about is to interrogate and ultimately destroy that idea in becoming new creations to and with one another.”
For the couple, the idea of love languages is very important. Andrew knows Donora’s love language is “words of affirmation,” so he makes sure to focus on that and make sure she feels appreciated.
As for Andrew, “We’ve more of less concluded that Andrew’s love language is touch,” Donora says. “I try to do as much as possible and touch him in ways that make him feel appreciated.”
Love languages aren’t just for couples. They include friends as well as the relationship to yourself. The five categories include:
- words of affirmation
- acts of service
- receiving gifts
- quality time
- physical touch
While all of these are important, people usually relate to one or two the strongest. It’s beneficial to chat with your partner, and with yourself, about which one you resonate with the most in order to work on a long-lasting and intimate relationship.
Donora and Andrew have clearly found a way to be monogamous and sexually successful together through communication and understanding.
“We are very willing to be open and accepting to anything and everything about each other, and I think that’s most important,” Donora says. “Dan Savage said that in a long-term, monogamous relationship, ‘You have to be whores for each other,’ and I’m in total agreement with that.”
Layla* is polyamorous and lives with chronic health conditions. She’s in a full-time relationship with a married couple. She finds sex has definitely changed throughout her life, noting, “I’ve only just turned 40, but it feels so different to my teens, 20s, or 30s. I feel like I know my body much better.”
Since she grew up before the internet, Layla had no idea polyamorous relationships existed. “I always felt like monogamy shut down my sexual side because I couldn’t flirt or date. I internalized so much shame that I must be an awful person who was shallow and overly sexual and deserved to be alone.”
However, once she met her boyfriend, the two of them clicked immediately, and she was introduced to his wife. She didn’t know she was bisexual and had her first time experimenting with a threesome. The three fell in love soon after.
“It’s a lottery win level of luck it’s worked out for nearly four years and is a forever thing for us all,” she explains.
Being polyamorous in her 40s has also helped Layla come out of her bubble. “I feel less tense about how I should look. My body is more flexible, and I can orgasm much more easily now that I’m less tight but more toned from practice, if that makes sense!”
But with myalgic encephalomyelitis (also called chronic fatigue syndrome), a rare condition that can make daily tasks impossible, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Layla is often too fatigued to be sexual. “I can be stuck in bed for six weeks unable to do anything,” she explains.
But her and her partners have found resolutions. “My girlfriend often lies in bed beside me while I hold her and she masturbates with a vibrator, or my boyfriend and girlfriend sext me when they are having sex at home (I live separately to them) and include me, telling me what they want to do when I’m well enough again.”
Living with a chronic condition is no easy feat. A complication of feelings, emotions, and lack of physical desire can make sex seem overwhelming and close to impossible. Layla finds quality time very important in her triad, and when they all spend time together, she feels the most appreciated.
“We also send lots of sex blogs and texts about sexual things in those periods as a way to discuss what we will do next so there is still a sexual atmosphere but no pressure,” she says.
Layla has also grown to understand the legalities of polyamorous relationships from her experience. “It’s made me really think about the future. There’s no real way to legally enshrine a poly relationship,” she says. “My partners are married to each other, and my boyfriend, who is very practical and unflappable, has offered to be my ‘in case of emergency’ person since I’m estranged from family.”
Having her health considered is a reminder that while they aren’t legally married, she’s still a crucial part of their marriage.
For someone living with a chronic condition, Layla requires communication and understanding. Even though she may not be able to act on sex when ill, she talks to one of her partners about how they can compromise and communicate through her health concerns.
Jenna*, 65, hasn’t been able to have penetration since it gradually became very painful, then impossible. She’s been with her partner for 35 years.
“That kind of sex is over, and it’s been a long time now, but not quite sure when was the last time we were able to have intercourse. I don’t know if it will ever come back. I have talked with gynecologists about it and have tried a variety of things. I now use an Estring ring, slow-release estrogen, over three months at a time. It helps with dryness, but does not help the pain like I hoped it might,” Jenna explains.
But Jenna and her partner have experimented with other ways of having sex.
Jenna relies on her vibrator. She doesn’t mind it, as she finds sex with her toy to be quite wonderful. “I have multiple orgasms, and it is often hard to turn off. I love the sensation and like to feel myself climb up to that ultimate state in many variations in a session,” she says. “Sometimes my partner holds me while I’m in the process and that is nice, but I’m fine alone as well.”
I also spoke to Anna*, 62, a trans woman, and Tanya*, 70, who have been together for five years. The couple have also had their share of issues with sex. Anna struggles with low libido, and Tanya struggles with vaginal dryness.
But the couple state this doesn’t dampen their sex life.
“With age comes physical pain, but I feel that pain escape me when I have sex with my partner,” Anna explains.
Both women have arthritis but have found that in their later life, sex has become easier. “It’s not about performing anymore like when I was young,” Tanya says. “With Anna, I am able to simply be, to orgasm, to have a wonderfully intimate experience. It’s really lovely.”
“I transitioned before I met Tanya,” Anna says, “and for so long I felt unsafe in my body. I felt scared. My relationship with Tanya is full of nurturing. I feel so safe in my companionship with her.”
- thinner vaginal lining
- less lubrication
- weaker vaginal elasticity and muscle tone
- longer arousal time
Adapting to these changes, as Anna and Tanya have found, is a matter of communication. “Communication is what bound us in the beginning. We still check in on one another during sex, but we mostly know each other’s body’s by now,” Anna says. “Sex is still exciting.”
It’s often considered taboo to think of older people participating in sex, which contributes to negative approaches and feelings toward intercourse for older people. However, this is largely untrue and almost humorous to think about: When was sex just limited to people in their 20 and 30s anyway?
In a 2012 study, two-thirds of female participants, including those who were as old as 80 years old, said they were satisfied with their sex lives. In fact, researchers found sex does get better with age — 67 percent of participants had an orgasm “most of the time” during sex in comparison to the younger participants.
Change can be enlightening. We can learn more of ourselves and of one another as time goes on. With aging comes adapting and accommodating to partners, physical health, mental health, and various other effects that can contribute to an alteration in intimacy.
Diet, exercise, communication, and trust are all various ways to keep your love, and your sex life, alive throughout the decades. Keep in mind that self-pleasure and self-love should be at the center of your motivation, no matter your age.
As we grow with our partners and ourselves, we learn to discover and appreciate our bodies more. Through the decades, we shift, we experiment, we orgasm, and we find new ways to love.
*Names changed at the request of the interviewees. Interviewing of Donora and Andrew conducted by Carrie Murphy.
S. Nicole Lane is a sex and women’s health journalist based in Chicago. Her writing has appeared in Playboy, Rewire News, HelloFlo, Broadly, Metro UK, and other corners of the internet. She’s also a practicing visual artist who works with new media, assemblage, and latex. Follow her on Twitter.