We asked DIVA readers how their sex lives have changed in the lifetime of their long-term relationships
BY JANE CZYZSELSKA
“At the start of our relationship I guess it was like any other newly formed partnership: passionate. The usual ‘at-it-like-rabbits’ any chance we could get. That was then. The last time we had sex was 12 years ago. We’ve been together for 25 years. I am starting to get a little frustrated and I’m not sure how to handle it.” That’s 49-year-old Tonya, a lesbian actuary from Essex, talking about how her sex life has changed in the course of her relationship with her partner, Esther, 52.
Then there’s Louisa, 35 and her partner Amanda, also 35, who have been together for 10 years. Says Louisa: “My sex drive has always been very high, so anytime Amanda gives me a sign, I take my chance. Her sex drive goes up and down with her health issues so unfortunately we have to deal with this. I’ve joined a gym to release my excess energy. I feel I can’t tell her that I miss our early days because she physically can’t give me what I’m expecting from her. It would be disastrous for her confidence and so selfish of me. We used to have sex every day for months and now we just Netflix and chill, like a couple of millennials, havingsex about once a month.”
Enter Carmen, a 55-year-old employment lawyer, who’s been with her partner Rose for 14 years. She tells DIVA: “Sex doesn’t happen as frequently as it did, but that’s OK. What I have with her now is the safest, most harmonious relationship I’ve ever had and that’s what I want. Neither of us feel the same rush of excitement or rip-off-your-clothes urge we used to so we just make it happen a few times a year, make it special – do it somewhere new, try something different – and I keep my libido happy by masturbating in between times if she’s not in the mood.”
Finally there’s Liz, 52, who’s been with her civil partner Em, 47, for seven years who reflects that with each decade of life comes a new relationship to sex. “I have always attached sexual desire with a significant other, not necessarily a long-term relationship but they have to mean a lot to me; sex with random strangers doesn’t do it for me so I tend to have deep and intimate relationships, however long or short they might be. This style of intimacy hasn’t really changed but since my 40s my desire to have sex has reduced. This is related to my hormonal and body changes. It’s hard to describe exactly but it’s to do with energy levels and time racing by. It was very different in my 30s, which I think was a peak time for me. Because this relationship happened later in my life, it did hit my downward curve in a way, though initially it was very intense and highly sexual. But because we are matched on so many levels, emotionally, politically, aesthetically, when we have ‘dry’ periods it doesn’t seem to be too big a deal; we talk and laugh about it but try not to ignore the fact that it doesn’t happen that often.”
Four different women with four different approaches to and feelings about the way the sex part of their relationship has changed, perhaps along with other aspects, some of which may have improved. For Tonya and Louisa, there’s a sense of loss and anxiety about the changes in their sexual connection; for Carmen and Liz an acceptance of the change and a renewed approach to sex and its place in their relationships.
A 2017 study by the Kinsey Institute for research in Sex, Reproduction and Gender found that people under 30 typically have sex twice a week, and for those in their 30s, it’s 1.6 times weekly. Those aged 40 to 50 have sex an average of less than once a week.Research into sexuality among those over the age of 50 is largely ignored. Research into lesbians over 50 even more so. However, a Kinsey Institute report from 2010 found that although sexual frequency did decrease in women as we age, almost a quarter of partnered women over 70 had sex more than four times a week. These figures don’t say whether the partnered women were lesbian, bisexual or heterosexual, but to measure the value of sex by its frequency seems to be playing into a normative, patriarchal narrative.
We need to watch out for these kinds of narratives, advises queer relationship psychotherapist Amanda Middleton who says: “It is common for couples to see sexuality in the ‘desire’ model of sexuality. This desire model is playing out when one or both people in the relationship say they can’t or don’t conjure up any horny, ‘let me rip your clothes off’ thoughts. We often think that desire is like a spark. We are going about our day and bam, we feel horny and want to have sex. This is the model shown to us in movies, television shows and where ever notions of romance and sex are perpetuated. This model has been critiqued for being patriarchal and fitting more closely with a testosterone-based body than on oestrogen-based one.
“More usefully we can think, a la sexologist Joann Loulan, of desire as something that emerges from willingness. That is the commitment to try different behaviours, to experiment, to be playful, and ultimately to see if sexual desire emerges from this willingness. Research suggests if both partners want to have sex and consent practices are well established in the couple, then experimenting with willingness is often a successful way to nurture sparks to fly once more. However to engage with this willingness approach means we often come up against some heavy and forceful cultural scripts about sex, that sex is meant to be spontaneous, that we need to feel turned on before we engage in sexual behaviours.”
Over the lifespan of a long-term relationship, stress, work pressure and health issues are bound to arise and, says Rainbow Couch psychotherapist Ronete Cohen, these are incompatible with sex. “If your partner is overwhelmed by issues that affect their mental or physical health, it’s important to be there for them rather than just doing what you can to ‘fix’ the sexual relationship. Someone who feels unheard and uncared for isn’t going to desire sex. It’s entirely likely that even when feeling cared for, a partner won’t desire sex because of how they feel. If they feel pressured to be sexual, the relationship may suffer long-term damage due to what can turn into coercion and non-consent, however subtle and hidden. Sometimes sex ebbs and flows so it can be helpful to recognise this and accept the quieter periods as part of the relationship. It’s important to talk about it but with kindness and love, not in a blaming or shaming way and definitely not with anger.”
But what if the body that once careened to your touch changes through menopause? This is the situation that Liz found herself in with her partner Em. Over to Liz: “I find that my experience of menopause is like a kind of body-mind anarchy. I don’t recognise any of what’s happening and some days I find myself wanting to not have a body at all because it feels alien to me and its hard to feel like sex when that’s going on, but no two days are the same so my sense of being ok with things is always changing. I do worry my partner may not be fulfilled and so we do discuss it.” Like Liz, Carmen and her partner have come to agree that sometimes we just need to accept things and other times we need to spend time being sexual and there is no pattern to this. “It’s an on-going process of communicating and enjoying each other in different ways. We laugh a lot which is good.”
Carmen isn’t alone in prizing the closeness and safety she feels in her relationship with Rose. Tonya describes hers with Esther: “I suppose we’ve become too similar as people. Maybe too comfortable? I couldn’t love her any more if I tried but the spark and her ability to turn me on doesn’t seem to be there anymore. Perhaps because our relationship is so strong that’s why we don’t try anymore? Neither one of us feels threatened by others maybe moving in, hence making sure we keep each other satisfied? it’s really hard to quantify but I think lack of effort on both our parts has probably allowed this situation to develop and since we’ve allowed such a huge time lapse to develop since we last had sex it almost feels irreversible now.”
Too much safety, says sex therapist Esther Perel, can prevent the necessary feelings of risk or excitement that we need to get turned on by our partner. Amanda Middleton again: “There are loads of reasons why it happens that women in relationships with other women can create the most safe, precious and comfortable relational spaces that can exist. Indeed this is one of the things that gay and queer women do exceptionally well. I see this as a vital source of healing for women who have grown up in hetero and cis normative families and cultures and simultaneously a protective shield against the experiences of marginalisation, homophobia, biphobia and transphobia that pepper everyday life. Expanding Perel’s thinking, the cost of this healing and protection is sex lives that endure in long term relationships. To feel less safe and close with our partner would allow us to feel more turned on? But why would anyone ever want to feel less safe in a world that feels so violent towards LGBTIQ people right now? I suggest that we can create this ‘risk’ together, whilst not sacrificing our safety. Through the exploration of new territories together, such as watching porn, going to sex workshops or tantra classes, queer dance classes, visiting sex parties or sharing erotic fiction, we can see each other as the sexy individuals we once did. Allowing the unknowing between us to be the distance required for sex to emerge.”
The final word goes to Liz, who says: “Because LGBTIQ+ people are seen in a sexual context, both within our community and outside of it, there is this pressure about being always ready for sex. And sex has become commodified like most things in life. One of the best things about being my age is that these things don’t really matter as much as they used to in the sense that sex now, for me at least, has to compete with many other interesting things.”
Some names have been changed.