If you watch the sex-enhancement ads on TV - and who can avoid them - you may believe that everyone over fifty is a sex fiend. The stars of the ads are gray-haired guys with devilish smiles, and beside them are midlife women with telltale looks of contentment on their faces. It looks like a pretty hot bunch, these mature maters.
Reality check: One in three menopausal women has a low sex drive, according to findings of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine (other studies say it's more like 43 percent). As for guys, an estimated 30 million men have experienced erectile dysfunction. Treatment options are rather limited: To date, there is no FDA-approved drug like Viagra to treat women's hypoactive sex drives. And while men have Viagra, no pill can entirely unlock the complex interplay of body and mind, culture and family that comprises desire. But all is certainly not lost: New research shows a satisfying sex life is largely under your control. Consider these medication-free solutions to keep things hopping physically and romantically.
Police the Past
Carol Ford, a 54-year-old realtor in North Carolina, was never crazy about sex. When her husband of 31 years died, she was not unhappy that this particular wifely duty was at an end. Sex was not something she was good at or wanted to do. And yet, she still wanted a romantic partner.
It turns out that Carol's upbringing had a lot to do with her mindset. Growing up in the 1960s in the South, she was taught to fear sex-viewing it as the path to pregnancy or a bad reputation.
Eavesdropping once, she heard her grandmother tell her mother that menopause was a relief because she didn't have to have sex anymore. "It's so unseemly for older folks to make love," Carol recalls her saying. These attitudes and misconceptions were passed down to Carol, right along with the family's Havilland china. Family isn't the only influence on us either. Sex partners can also ice the fires of desire, say experts: Betrayal or lack of skill in the bedroom can create a history of disappointment.
But it's possible to transcend the past, and doing so begins with examining your own libido legacy and discovering what's really true for you. Is old anger still showing up as passive-aggressive withdrawal from sex? Are you so self-critical that you avoid intimacy because it makes you anxious? Sessions with a therapist or your own emotional detective work can help unlock the mystery. Carol, for example, learned to come to terms with her old fears. "I admitted," she says, "that there was now little risk of me becoming the high-school slut." She also read up on menopause and found that many women enjoy sex more in the post-childbearing years. With the average female lifespan now close to 80, she could have 25 years or more to enjoy intimacy. And, as much as she loved her former husband, she realized that inexperience in the early years of marriage, followed by partner fatigue (the same old, same old) had turned her off. She was ready to move on, and this decision alone put her on a path to a more passionate life.
Psych Yourself Into a Sexier Mindset
In one compelling experiment conducted at Tulane University, women who described themselves as unable to reach orgasm were hooked up to a biofeedback machine that measures sexual response. The women were shown an erotic film. Researchers interrupted after 30 seconds to tell them - falsely - that their vaginal blood flow had increased. Surprisingly, they then truly became aroused.
The takeaway is that expectations are more powerful than anyone can imagine. If you believe in your own desire, the neurochemical wiring of the brain can turn your wish into a biological command. In other words, cultivating a more sensual self-image will get your body to respond. Often (especially for women), the early tip-offs that they're feeling desire are vague: They may feel their body stirring, but it's easy to dismiss these sexual urges. Don't. It is important, actually, to fan these little flames so that mental arousal and physical response are linked, a process called Cognitive Physiological Feedback Loop. Hold onto a spark of desire through a busy day. Visualize excitement. Get accustomed to a passionate frame of mind. To help, start a diary in which you record your turn-ons, no matter how small. Let yourself enjoy an X-rated daydream. Wear that slinky underwear that's been hiding in the back of your bureau. Hang around upbeat people who are always saying you're a catch and fun to be with. Surround yourself with positive affirmations of your sexuality, and slowly but surely, a racier reality will follow.
Rev Your Body for Romance
While your mind is certainly the springboard of sexual urges, that doesn't mean you shouldn't get the rest of your body humming right along with it. Study after study show that people over 50 who "take care of themselves" are always at the top of the list in terms of attractiveness. And one major way to do this is to stay active-hit the gym for a half hour a few times a week, go for a walk every evening, or take those ballroom dancing lessons you've already wanted to try. By keeping fit, your energy and hormone levels improve, and it will also boost your body image. In fact, doing these activities with a date can be much more sexually stimulating than a sedentary candlelit dinner for two. Consider working up a sweat on your next rendezvous if you want it to lead to some lusty encounters later.
Play Down Performance
It's inevitable: Our bodies change over the years. Erections become less reliable, and reaching climax more elusive-and it's all too easy to let these new challenges throw a wrench in your sex life. The problem, though, isn't so much the physical changes 50-plus people undergo; all too often it's the performance anxiety that accompanies them. A man with erection difficulties or a woman who no longer reaches her peak easily may avoid sex entirely to avoid the embarrassment, frustration, or disappointment. But unless you're willing to throw in the towel for rest of your life (and who wants to do that?), getting over your angst and learning to take these changes in stride is crucial. Oftentimes, 50-plus people's knee-jerk reaction in these situations is to compare themselves to a certain ideal, whether that's the couples they see on TV or what their sex life used to be like when they were younger. Instead, think of it this way: You probably don't play sports now the way you did in high school, either. But undoubtedly you have a better understanding of the game, and that's also true of sex. Aren't you warmer, wiser, more open, accepting and interesting? Those happen to be the qualities that turn people on. Enjoy the advantages of being an experienced, empathetic lover.
And if things in bed aren't going quite as smoothly as planned, rather than silently willing things to improve, consider cutting the tension with "You know, things aren't quite working on my end, and it's totally not you, but would you mind if we took a break/tried something else?" Remember, the person you're with may also be nervous, so reassuring him or her not to take this stumbling point personally will keep it from undermining the mood.
The bottom line is, men and women who are happier with their sexuality tend to be happier people, psychologists say. But happiness is not anything like what you see in the ads or movies. More often than not, people veer from the script. And the best thing about aging is that it frees you from stereotypes and allows you to enjoy what you enjoy.
Judsen Culbreth is the author of Boomers' Guide to Online Dating.
Mature dating is complex enough, but when you add children to the mix, it can grow even more complicated.