unhappy man in bed with woman

When sex problems meet the stage of life, men and women are often out of synch. Sex problems can develop at any age, but most women suffer their most challenging difficulties before age 30, while most men experience theirs after age 50. This means that many couples are sexually out of synch, with her issues causing conflict early in life and his causing strife later.

Of course, like all generalizations, these observations have their limits. It’s quite possible for young men or older women to develop significant sex problems. But usually, it’s the other way around. Those who gain perspective on this are more likely to feel prepared—and enjoy sex throughout life.

Sex Problems of Younger Lovers

Many young men suffer sex problems: performance anxiety and worries about penis size, premature ejaculation, trouble ejaculating, and occasionally erection impairment. But young men’s two biggest issues—anxiety about penis size and premature ejaculation (PE)—can usually be resolved fairly quickly with information, or in the case of PE, self-help, for example, my e-booklet, The Cure for Premature Ejaculation.

But young women’s sexual concerns tend to be more complicated. Girls grow up wanting to explore their sexuality, but they hear mixed messages. If they feel timid or turn down boys’ approaches, they’re “prudes” or “ice maidens.” But if they appear overly eager, they’re “easy,” ”tramps,” or “sluts.”

Young women are brought up to value attractiveness and desirability, but with so much emphasis on appearing desirable, they may not feel much space to experience their own desire.

Young women also feel understandably anxious about pregnancy risk.

And when young women experiment with partner sex, they typically play with young men who know little, if anything, about women’s sexuality, specifically the importance of the clitoris to women’s erotic satisfaction.

Most young men (and many older men) think that intercourse is the key to women’s pleasure and orgasm. Most women enjoy the special closeness of doing the deed. But only 25 percent of women are consistently orgasmic from just intercourse. To have orgasms, most need gentle, sustained clitoral caresses. As a result of many young men’s ignorance, many young women don’t get the stimulation they need and have difficulty with orgasm. But when young women have orgasm difficulties, they often mistakenly blame themselves and think they’re somehow defective.

It takes time, often years, for young women to become comfortable with their sexuality. The process usually involves becoming assertive with men about the erotic pace they prefer (usually slower with more kissing, cuddling, and mutual whole-body massage), and the sexual moves that allow them to become sufficiently lubricated and aroused to have orgasms (extended gentle hand jobs and cunnilingus).

By age 30 or so, as they become more experienced in life and sex, most women make peace (more or less) with their sexuality. Most become more comfortable with what turns them on and allows them to come—possibly vaginal intercourse alone, but probably intercourse combined with direct clitoral stimulation by hand, tongue, or vibrator.

Sex Problems of Older Lovers

As women enter their forties, they start to become menopausal. This creates two new problems—vaginal dryness and vaginal atrophy, thinning of the vaginal wall, both of which may make intercourse uncomfortable and sometimes impossible. Dryness can develop at any age, but it becomes more prevalent after 40. Vaginal tissue thinning generally becomes an issue after 55. Fortunately, sexual lubricants relieve most dryness and they help protect against atrophy-related irritation during intercourse. Another approach is sex without intercourse—hand jobs, oral, vibrators, and/or perhaps some kink.

In addition, older women face another challenge—demographics. On average, women live longer than men. As they age, many must contend with widowhood, men with erectile dysfunction (ED) who believe (incorrectly) that they’re sexually washed up, and the fact that older single men often pursue younger women. As a result, older women struggle with shrinking partner sex opportunities.

As challenging as older women’s sexual dilemmas can be, older men’s issues tend to be more daunting. After age 50, the nervous system becomes less easily excited. Men who were constantly horny during their twenties often find they have trouble feeling aroused. This is a big reason why many middle-aged and older men view pornography—to reassure themselves that they can still become aroused.

In addition, by age 65, most men develop at least some ED. The cause is often medical, including diabetes, obesity, and heart disease. These conditions reduce blood flow into the penis and cause erection impairment—balky erection starting around 45 to 50 and later, mild ED that often becomes more severe. And when older men raise erections, they’re neither as full nor as firm as they used to be—and may wilt in the middle of things, often for no apparent reason. Erection drugs may help, but maybe not. At best, these changes feel disconcerting. At worst, men decide they’re no longer sexually functional, often to the chagrin of their partners.

In addition, many older men continue to suffer premature ejaculation. PE is not just a young man’s problem. From one-quarter to one-third of adult men of all ages have poor ejaculatory control. But many older men experience resurgent PE just as their erections start to falter. A key cause of PE is stress, for example, the stress of developing erection difficulties. (The program discussed in my e-booklet mentioned above works for men of all ages.)

Older men’s sexual changes can be unnerving. After decades of taking their libidos and sexual function for granted, after 50 or so, neither is automatic anymore. This can be confusing and frustrating, making some men “retire” from partner sex.

Fortunately, men can adjust to elder sex by switching from intercourse-based lovemaking to sex without intercourse. If you’re not having intercourse, there’s no need for erections.

Older men don’t need erections to have marvelous orgasms. That’s right, in an erotic context (candle-light, music, an alluring lover), with sufficient stimulation (hand jobs, fellatio, and toys), men with iffy erections or even completely flaccid penises can still have satisfying orgasms.

Sex without intercourse requires adjustments. Most lovers have spent decades with intercourse central to their lovemaking. But older couples who remain sexual usually evolve away from it toward the other marvelous ways to be sexual.

The Best Sex of Your Life

For couples with decent relationships, the stage of life with the fewest sex problems usually occurs during the thirties and forties. By this stage, most women have transcended the sexual issues that plague young women, and most men have not yet had to confront older men’s sexual concerns.

But no sexual issue in either gender at any age precludes great sex. Just as people can develop sex problems at any age, people can also cope and enjoy marvelous lovemaking at any age. How? By understanding what to expect throughout the lifespan, and making the usually simple adjustment that preserves great sex.

Finally, at any stage of life, if you have sex problems that don’t resolve with information and self-help, professional sex therapy usually helps. To find a sex therapist near you, visit the American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors, and Therapists, the Society for Sex Therapy and Research, or the American Board of Sexology.

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