With age comes wisdom—but also, a changing body. The true beauty of our human experience is the ability to grow and change, but if we’re being honest, some of those life phases can be scary and weird (just ask any kid with hormonal acne and a newfound outlook on their cute classmates during puberty).
Menopause is a life phase that people with vaginas enter as they age, typically in their 40s or 50s. In the US and the UK, the average age for a woman to reach menopause is 51. But according to the NHS, around 1 in 100 women experience menopause before 40 years of age.
You might be wondering if you will stop having sex altogether after menopause, or if menopause is painful. It doesn’t have to be, and there are many options to keep your intimate life passionate and pleasurable throughout all stages of life.
How Do I Know If I’m Menopausal?
There are two basic stages of menopause: menopause itself and perimenopause, the period of time right before. The quickness of transition varies person to person, but in perimenopause you can expect symptoms like:
- Lengthened menstrual cycles. The length of your cycle is the number of days between periods, starting with the first day of your period and ending the day before the next one begins. The average cycle length is usually between 24 and 38 days, but this can lengthen during adolescence, while breastfeeding, and during perimenopause. You may also experience heavy bleeding or irregular cycles.
- Hot flashes, night sweats, and sleep disruptions. Changes in hormonal levels can cause discomfort that makes it harder to sleep.
Related Reading: 7 Sleep Hygiene Tips For Living a Better Life
After perimenopause, you’ll move into menopause. The medical definition is marked by 12 consecutive months without a period, according to the Mayo Clinic. Symptoms of menopause are quite similar to the preceding phase, and it can affect your sex life.
The Physiology Of Sex After Menopause
You might be familiar with the stereotype of menopausal women portrayed in the media—crotchety, dried-up, and sexless after menopause. And yeah, your body is changing and this change comes with side effects, but you don’t suddenly have a vagina-less Barbie body. Sex is still a basic part of your human experience and you can still enjoy it.
However, it’s best to just come out and say it: menopause will change your sex life. There are several reasons why:
- Vaginal atrophy. During menopause your body halts estrogen production. A decrease in estrogen can lead to vaginal atrophy, which the Mayo Clinic defines as “thinning, drying and inflammation of the vaginal walls.” While that sounds scary, don’t worry, there are treatments available. But before we go further it’s important to note that vaginal atrophy doesn’t just affect your vaginal canal. It can also come with symptoms like recurring UTIs, burning when you urinate, and an urgency to urinate. In short, vaginal atrophy affects everything about your vulva, and not just the parts you use for sex. It’s normal, and you shouldn’t be embarrassed or ashamed. Most menopausal people have some of these issues!
- Pain during intercourse. The medical term for painful sex is dyspareunia, and it can be caused by many factors like STIs, cancer treatment, and a drop in estrogen levels during menopause. Both vaginal atrophy and painful sex can decrease your desire to be intimate, but they can both be treated, and it’s really important that you do. Left untreated, painful sex can eventually lead to vaginismus, which is usually more about trauma and sustained discomfort your body and brain come to expect. Vaginismus involves involuntary spasms of the pelvic floor that can make penetration impossible.
- Dryness. Dryness is another symptom of menopause and can make sex even more uncomfortable. Without proper lubrication it doesn’t matter how old you are, penetration is gonna hurt! While dryness is probably the most easily treatable of the three common physical menopausal symptoms affecting your sex life, remember it’s likely part of a larger problem. It’s best to address the painful sex and estrogen levels, the real roots of the problem.
Related Reading: Wet and Gushy - Ode to a Healthy Vagina
Getting Your Sex Life Back After Menopause
To address the issues listed above, there are a few treatment options to consider, including:
- Estrogen treatment. Talk to your doctor about estrogen and hormone therapy, which can treat the main physical side effects of menopause. But do know the risks; Self.com reports that “there’s a small risk the amped up estrogen can contribute to uterine cancer unless [paired] with the synthetic hormone progestin. But combining the two may then increase a woman's risk of breast cancer, according to The American Cancer Society.” Be sure to ask your doctor about these risks!
- Vaginal dilators. No, no, not a scary metal contraption or anything close to a speculum (those things are important but uncomfy). Vaginal dilators look a lot like plain old dildos, but they’re used throughout your day in non-sexual situations to gently ease your body back into penetration. This is especially helpful for vaginismus and painful sex because it builds vaginal muscles and shows your body it’s safe to have things inside you. This set on Amazon is $50, but there are less expensive options too. Gradually increase the size as you work back toward penetrative sex.
- Lubes and moisturizers. Vaginal lube and moisturizers are very different but accomplish similar goals: getting you wet! We’ve covered CBD oil lube options in the past that are great for pain relief, but of course, toys and latex condoms should only be used with water-based lubes. Vaginal moisturizers are designed to last longer, and the same rule about toys apply! Some also address problems with yeast and bacterial infections.
- Masturbation. Menopause affects both your physical ability to become aroused and your sex drive, or libido. Not good! Masturbation is a wonderful, safe way to overcome both problems. If sex is painful, using gentle toys for clitoral stimulation that still result in orgasm, like Filare and Carezza, gives pleasure without penetration. Masturbation also provides self-discovery with no pressure to orgasm or perform, giving you time to breathe and relax. Whether you need slow, gentle pleasure to overcome discomfort or simply take a little longer to get revved up, self-pleasure is self-satisfying.
It can be difficult to honor and love our bodies as we age. Especially with every magazine cover and advertisement hawking wrinkle creams, fad diets, and exercise trends. And yes, exercise can also make sex better but not all trends are effective: remember those weird vintage waist bands that vibrated back and forth?
But guess what? Those ads, stereotypes, and misguided portrayals don’t have a say in your life unless you let them. You make your own choices, and talking to your doctor about menopause symptoms is a strong, empowered choice. Millions of others are going through the exact same thing as you, and there’s nothing wrong with you. Your vagina isn’t broken. Heck, your sex drive isn’t broken, either! You may just need a little routine change, knowledge, and the right clitoral stimulator. After all, most people in their 50’s are empty-nesters. When the kids are away, the adults will play!