I'm digging around on the Internet for free porn. It's the middle of the afternoon, my 14-year-daughter is in school and my husband is out walking the dog. I'm desperate to learn something about myself: Do I get aroused when I watch an erotic film?
I land on two clips: a lesbian massage scene, and then, a typical jackhammer sex-a-thon between a man and a woman. When the two ten-minute videos are done, I sit with myself and ask: Am I turned on?
I'm not surprised the answer is "not particularly." Yet a year ago, the answer would have been a wet yes instead of a dry no. I might even have masturbated while watching, or suggested to my husband we have some afternoon delight. The porn test, as I now fondly think of it, was part of a hormone clinic questionnaire designed to determine if a person is suffering from Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder (HSDD). I pretty sure my symptoms are called menopause, which might very well look like HSDD on a checklist but unlike a disorder, is actually a biological passage no different than puberty.
Let's face it: Sex motives change. In my teens it was about learning to self-pleasure. In my twenties, sex was about being horny all the time. In my thirties, sex was about working my husband's and my desires around those of our children. In my forties sex was about sexploration: everything from tantra to girl-on-girl to sex toys and kink. And now, at 51, sex seems to be about quasi-celibacy.
Like a houseguest (a ravenously horny one in my forties) my libido seems to have vacated the premises about a year ago along with my menstrual cycle. There were signs, sure: In recent years as my periods became irregular, so did my desire and arousal levels, spiking from insatiability to "don't you dare touch me" downswings. But now, there is no swinging from hot to frigid. There is just this kind of peaceful disinterest. Yes, I admit to not only not having a sex drive, but also being entirely copacetic without one.
And I'm not alone in this libido nose-dive post fertility years. One sixty-year-old woman confesses in an article at Generation Fabulous, about her symptoms in her fifties after weaning off Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT).
"I was moody. I was not in the mood EVER and I didn't care one bit. This happened slowly over a period of about 6 months or so. Intercourse itself was painful if he wasn't very careful. I had no desire to orgasm and no desire to be touched. I also got no thrill of any description from having sex or foreplay or even kissing. I had sex for him and for no other reason. Then I didn't have sex because I just didn't want to and didn't think I should have to. I quit."
Despite relative equanimity about my own plunging sex drive, the Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder checklist from my hormone clinic binder made me cringe. By answering "no" to many of these questions, the questionnaire labeled me disordered. And yet, asexual activists have pointed out that the DSM has labeled asexuality the same way homosexuality was once recognized--as a disease to be cured. Questions like these on my hormone clinic checklist ask a person to define their wellness through the lens of sexuality:
-- Are you able to feel aroused when you see an erotic film; read a sexy book; anticipate lovemaking with your partner, masturbate?
-- Do you ever have sexual dreams?
-- How would you rate your libido, on a scale of one to ten, where 1 is non-existent (you never have any sexual thoughts, dreams, feelings) and 10 is superb.
-- How would you rate your libido now, as opposed to one year ago? Five years ago? Ten years ago?
-- When you are engaged in a sexual encounter, so you feel aroused? Do you lubricate adequately? Do you feel fullness/throbbing in your genitals?
-- Are you able to experience orgasm? If so, are there any changes in orgasm from previously?
-- Do you experience pain with sex?
Granted, most doctors will say these symptoms are not a problem unless they distress the person experiencing them. So monks and nuns, for instance, are not likely to walk into a hormone clinic for symptom relief when their sex drive stalls in midlife.
So, who walks into these clinics? Mostly women juggling the changes of menopause with the needs or demands of the men in their lives. As the hormone clinic material says, "Some women say that their partners have the problems and that they don't mind the sexual changes they are experiencing. Are you investigating treatment because these changes are of concern to you or because of your partner's complaints?"
Well, yeah of course it's because my partner complains. There is this persistent grating background sound in my household generated by my husband grumbling at the sobering reality of his suddenly sexually neutral wife. A friend of mine, whose wife went through menopause five years ago, calls himself a "sexual refugee." (There could be a whole new support-group industry for these sexually disenfranchised men, or at the very least a cultural reframe to the French mistress solution or even the second, younger, harem wife.)
And yet, even as my man surely feels frustrated by the new arid sexual climate, I feel free for the first time in my life from the hormone-driven mood swings of my menstrual cycle and liberated from the "drive" to have sex. I don't feel like I am pathological because frankly the sex urge is a biological imperative to procreate and menopause is nature's punctuation mark, a full stop period on making babies.
Just because I am not driven to have sex, does not mean I cannot choose it--though yes, I choose it far less often and for very different reasons than when I was more hormonally influenced. Now I choose from a desire for play versus release, or for the afterglow camaraderie versus the orgasm. Some post-menopausal women might choose sex for a sense of intimacy, if connection is not created in other shared pastimes or conversations. Or as the woman who "quit sex" after quitting HRT writes, "If he told me tomorrow that he didn't want intercourse ever again, I'd be fine with that. What I would really miss though, would be the touching, the stroking and the kissing. I love a good hug with a loving kiss. Still today, the sex is for him, the rest is for me. This works." I call this choice-driven sex which I talked at length about in this recent video interview show, Coffee With Chloe.
When desire disappears, choice becomes imperative if we are to navigate menopause without feeling we have somehow lost out, or are dysfunctional. In a recent lively sex discussion at an online women's midlife blogger group, 63-year old Jo Heroux wrote: "There is something to be said for everything in its time. Sexual energy...is not really meant to last forever. It's meant to encourage reproduction of the species. We use it to cement relationships and connect with each other and so feel if it changes, it's less. It's not. It's different."
My post-menopause sex life and drive is different, not broken. If I believed not being horny was a disorder, I might run out to the hormone clinic for a testosterone booster. Or take the soon-to-be-FDA-approved female libido pill. In fact, I'd treat menopause like a disease instead of a rite of passage.
And yet, it's challenging if not wearying to go against the cultural norm. The hormone clinic I walked into a year ago handed me a binder full of information. Most of it just depressed me because the underlying and implicit agreement of all the material in this binder was that my aging body is a problem and I need to fix it by giving it hormones that take it back to a younger stage. Because of course, the dominant value in our culture is youthfulness. Not necessarily well being, or even health, but simply maintaining the illusion of youth with the next age-defying treatment.
Perhaps the biggest fear we women have, besides of course sexually-disappointing our mates, is that un-medicated menopause means embracing rather than denying we are getting older and will one day become an "old woman." There is simply no place in our Western culture, for that to be a revered and celebrated destination.
One of my favorite champions of a new "sacred feminine" paradigm is Julie Daley, who writes in her Unabashedly Female blog:
"Women's power in the patriarchy is youth, physical beauty, a sexy toned body, the ability to become more like a man than a woman, so how we act and what we do will move us up the ladder of what this culture deems is successful. But in an entirely different way, we women are powerful beings, especially as we age. Not powerful in the patriarchal paradigm, but powerful in the sense that we are more authentic, more real, more truthful and more beautiful. And, powerful as the crone. The wise woman, the woman that embodies crone energy. The crone is the woman who no longer sees herself only in relation to others, but as a woman unto herself, a woman who stands alone in the center of her own beingness, in the center of her own truth, and from this center relates to the people in her life from what is real for her."
Well, I'm standing here alone in the center of my unwelcome, largely unpopular truth: I am okay that my sex drive is missing in action and that my sex life is changing. Instead of decrying the loss of my hormone-driven sexuality, I am curious and filled with the wonderment of discovery: This is a new terrain, this borderland of cronedom and I am walking toward it instead of running from it. And just maybe, in getting older I am also getting freer to be myself without apology and with a tender loving self-acceptance that did not exist in my youth. Just maybe too, I am beginning to see that wisdom is sexy and that honoring my own truth is real beauty.