It’s 7pm on a Tuesday evening and I’m logging onto my last Zoom call of the day. I’ve told my husband and teenagers that dinner will have to wait as I’ll be working for the next hour, and technically I will be, as I’m doing some research. However, I have to confess I’m also intrigued on a personal level, as this webinar, run by Sophie Benge, a 54-year old sexual energy guide, promises to help me tune into my ‘vibrant sexuality’.
Over the next hour, along with a dozen or so other midlife women, I find myself getting reaquainted with female sexual anatomy, learn how to use visualisation techinques to ‘develop and nurture my sexual energy’ and embrace my ‘inate feminine power to boost radiance, magnetism and confidence’.
A few days later I’m on the phone to Ruth Ramsay, a 46-year old former striptease artist turned sex educator and intimacy coach from Buckinghamshire. Ruth tells me that she enjoys an exciting and fulfilling sex life with her husband Nev, 57, but that many couples come to her for help because midlife is the time they lose their way with intimacy and physical pleasure, and they don’t know how to find their way back. Women in particular can struggle because of physical changes that happen from the early forties onwards with the onset of peri-menopause, added to which are the stresses and strains of everyday life, managing careers, a home and family life.
Since launching Postcards From Midlife, the podcast I co-host with fellow magazine editor, Lorraine Candy, in 2020,we have been overwhelmed by the response from our female midlife listeners. It’s here that they pick up on the conversations we have with our celebrity and expert midlife guests, such as Davina McCall, Philippa Perry, Kate Garraway and Elizabeth Hurley, about what it means to be a midlife woman now.
We are, after all, Generation X, the women who grew up with far more freedoms and opportunities than our mothers could have dreamed of. We openly discussed with our girlfriends the sex features we read in magazines such as more!, Cosmopolitan, Elle and Marie Clarie. And now we’ve hit midlife, a time when the women who went before us became invisible in society, perceived as grey, sexless and only there to serve those around them. Well I can tell you, Gen X isn’t having any of that.
We want to feel as desirable as 45-year old Kate Winslet during hot first-date sex in Mare of Easttown, confident in her body regardless of a muffin top. We want some of 52-year old JLo’s scintillating sex appeal playing a pole dancer in the film Hustlers. And we also want to keep improving our erotic lives just like the couples on the soon-to-be-50 Gwyneth Paltrow’s Netflix show, Sex, Love & Goop.
In a recent survey we conducted of our midlife listeners, 41% of women said they wanted to have more sex, 39% are having sex at least once a week and 36% are masturbating at least once a week too. The main obstacles to having more sex, they told us, are the symptoms of peri-menopause, which for many women can cause low libido, vaginal atrophy, brain fog, anxiety and a lack of confidence.
If you are over 40, you can’t have failed to tune in to the changing narrative around menopause that’s been getting louder and louder over the last few years. There have been a raft of books, websites and social media accounts dedicated to discussing, educating and helping women get the support and help they need through this life stage. Davina McCall’s Channel 4 documentary, Sex, Myths and the Menopause also lifted the lid on the devastating impact it can have for some women’s sex lives, and revealed the shocking statistic that only 11% of peri-menopausal women are on Hormone Replacement Therapy, which can swiftly and safely restore hormonal balance and give women their lives - and libidos - back. Many GPs admit they just don’t know enough about menopause to prescribe HRT, which given half of the population is going to go through it, is, frankly, staggering. Far too many prescribe antidepressants instead, despite this being against NICE guidelines.
One of our Facebook group members, Laura, a 51 year old marketing manager from the midlands, spent the best part of her forties trying to convince her GP that she needed HRT, listing her debilitating symptoms, including the loss of her libido. ‘I really thought I was going mad, I had to put my career on hold, I had no sex drive and I felt like my life was falling apart,’ she says. ‘My GP refused to give me HRT and offered antidepressants instead, which I didn’t want to take as I’ve never previously had any mental health issues and I knew what I needed was to get my hormones back.’
Eventually, Laura saw a GP who did prescribe HRT, a combination of the oestrogen and progesterone hormones that fluctuate and decline during a woman’s forties and early fifties causing up to 40 known symptoms. She then managed to see a menopause specialist, who also prescribed testosterone, and within two months her libido was back with a bang. ‘I went from having no sex in seven years to feeling as though my body was urging me to have it’, she says. ‘I’ve got a new found confidence now and I love my body. I just feel really sad that I spent all those years being ashamed of it.’
During our conversation, Laura also reflects on the fact that her relationship sadly fell apart during this time, in no small part, she says, due to her lack of desire to have sex. Something she thinks might not have happened if she’d been given HRT sooner. She is now happily dating and has bought herself a number of new sex toys so that she can fully enjoy her revitalisted sexuality, joining the 57% of women in our survey who said they own at least one sex aid.
According to Sophie Benge, menopause can often be the trigger for a midlife awakening. ‘Menopause is a staging post,’ she says, ‘a time of reflection because of the drop in hormones that powered the way we thought and operated for so many years. No longer being powered by the same fuel can make us think differently.’ Rather than being indifferent to sex — that tired but popular misconception about midlife women - Benge says that with the right knowledge, women, including herself, can reach their sexual peak in mid-to late life and then have wondrous love lives.
‘I was 44, divorced and had been through a series of unsatisfactory relationships when I burst into tears one day because I felt that my body was telling me that I hadn’t enjoyed sex like I could have,’ says Benge. After attending a women’s sexuality workshop, she then had a series of one-to-one sessions with a sexual healing and intimacy teacher, which she says helped her to reframe desire by tuning into her body and stepping out of the self-critical chatter in her mind.
‘We need to let our body lead the way, rather than thinking about it too much and we will start to feel sexier,’ she says. Indeed, creating a healthy relationship with our changing bodies, feeling the force of our feminine and sexual energy along with the power of touch are key components of the courses that Benge herself now offers. She encourages participants to look at their bodies without judgment, to tell themselves they are beautiful in the mirror and to touch themselves and see how they respond. Believe me, you’ll be surprised by how sensual and intimate mindfully stroking just your thighs and hips for five minutes can be.
Regular touch and intimacy drives down cortisol and other stress hormones. In our midlife sex survey, 75% of respondents said that intimacy with a partner was the most important part of having sex, over and above orgasm, with only 33% coming during intercourse. Orgasms are important to them too though, and 77% said they happily go so solo to achieve those through regular masturbation. And what wondrous things orgasms are, filling our bodies with the feel-good hormone, oxytocin, resetting the nervous system and flushing out adrenaline as well as sending blood flow to the vagina, especially important for preventing atrophy - a thinning and drying of the vaginal walls - that can affect some women in midlife. When you put it like that, given our longer life expectancy, who on earth would want to live for another forty years without those benefits, free to all?
Certainly not Ruth Ramsay, who says that if and when her libido changes in peri-menopause, or she feels any signs of atrophy she will be making an appointment with her GP straight away. ‘You have to take active ownership of your sex life,’ Ramsay explains. ‘You have to make the time and investment because only you can light the flame inside of yourself.’
Given the overwhelming demands on time-poor women in midlife, this isn’t necessarily the news some want to hear, but Ramsay goes on: ‘So often we hand over our sexual sovererignty, allowing a partner to always take the lead or saying to oursevles “I’ll do it later, when I lose weight, when the kids are older, when I’m less busy at work”.’ But that way a flat-lining sex life lies; the less we have sex, the less we will want to do it. But the good news is the opposite is true as well: the more we have it, the more we will want it.
For Ramsay, education around anatomy and desire is often the missing link for her clients, even older, sexually experienced midlifers. ‘You’d be surprised how little both women and men know about the structure of the clitoris,’ she says. ‘Having this knowledge can greatly enhance sexual pleasure.’ Likewise spending time thinking about our turn ons and turn offs, or our ‘sexual accelerators and brakes’, is important too. In Ramsay’s coaching sessions, she provides workbooks for her male and female clients to list these and create their own erotic user manuals, helping to open up communication between partners to feel safe and confident sharing their desires, fantasies and what feels good.
A simple understanding of sexual response, and how it can change as we age can also be an epiphany for her clients. For midlife women, says Ramsay, our desire is responsive, so we have to be in or create an erotic situation in order to feel sexy and aroused. Men however can be aroused spontaneously, ready for action in an instant. No wonder there can often be a mismatch, so it’s important to communicate with a partner and set a date for sex, and ensure there are going to be no ‘brakes’ only ‘accelertors’ at that time. ‘For example,’ says Ramsay, ‘a couple might think “let’s have a sexy evening”, they might have a bath, she might put on some sexy lingerie but if she starts thinking that the dishwasher still hasn’t been loaded, that’s a brake that will put a damper on the evening. So I often tell my male clients, if you want some hot sex with your wife, cleaning the kitchen and taking the bin out could be more productive than buying chocolates and flowers!’
Of course it’s not just women who can experience a change in libido in midlife. Men might find that they no longer have as firm an erection, or can’t sustain sex for as long as they used to. Ramsay urges men to not feel any shame about this, and instead reframe what desire means for them now. The most important thing for any couple to have great sex, is communication: being able to talk confidently and comfortably about newly discovered or reawakened desires and fantasies.
For other clients, Ramsay helps them to explore desires they may have suppressed since their teenage years. However sexually liberated we as Generation X think we have always been, it’s worth remembering that lesbian and gay marriage wasn’t legal when we were teenagers, and coming out wasn’t as accepted as it is today. ‘One client in her 40s wanted to explore her sexual identity, because although she knew she was attracted to women in her teens, she felt she had to “put that in a box and lock it away”,’ says Ramsay. ‘Now in midlife she feels ready to open that box and explore new sexual possiblities.’
Helping women find their turn ons and accelerators, whether they are single, bicurious or in a hetro or same-sex relationship is a growing market of erotica. If the Postcards From Midlife in box is anything to go by, these brands are certainly aiming at the forty plus demographic. We’ve been tuning in to audio erotica on the Dipsea Stories app, intrigued by the new dual vibrators from Smile Makers and are relieved to know that buying lube no longer needs to be a discreet foray into Boots, thanks to websites like Cult Beauty where you can order an organic lube or arousal serum at the same time as your lippy and mascara.
From the hundreds of midlife women we’ve talked to on the podcast and our Facebook Group,
midlife is no longer a quiet period of transition into older age. We are jacking in our careers and starting again, we’re seeking out new friends and adventures, we’re dancing until dawn and we want more and better sex. Nothing less will do.
For more details of sex webinars and workshops go to ruthramsay.com; Sophiebenge.com
Listen to Postcardsfrommidlife on your podcast provider or postcardsfrommidlife.com
5 ways to get reignite your sex life
Help is at hand for you to take charge of your sexual sovereignty
Get playful: don’t own a sex toy or haven’t updated in a long while? There are lots of new hi-tech, discreet and aesthetically-pleasing gadgets to get things going in the bedroom, either solo or with a partner. Check out Jodivine.com, an online store founded by former nurse Samatha Evans selling a great selection of skin-safe vibrators and lubricants. If you don’t know where to start, call the advice line on 01892 888284 for a confidential chat.
Make the time to reconnect: book the grandparents to babysit and escape for a night to spend time rediscovering what it was that attracted you to your partner in the first place, before life got in the way. Thyme in the Cotswolds is a beautiful environment in which to fully relax and their Botanical Bothy Signature Ritual for couples focuses on breathwork and pressure points to ease your mind and invigorate your senses. Thyme.co.uk
Watch and learn: Frolicme.com is a website created by Anna Richards who wanted to create high-end erotica and ethical adult entertainment, focussing on female pleasure.
Girls’ night out: check your cinema listings in June and book Good Luck To You Leo Grande, in which Emma Thompson gives a remarkable performance as a sexually frustrated former school teacher who goes in search of her first orgasm in her sixties.