Sex & Relationships

Sex Through the Years: The Fascinating Ways Desire Changes Through a Lifetime

As people change, their sexual interests and desires can change as well, a process that should be embraced, not fought.

Your body is full of surprises.

I don’t mean yhe hilarious sounds it makes at inopportune moments or the series of yawns you can’t stifle at staff meetings. There are other little evolutions happening all the time -- the horrible wonder of the first loose tooth; the weird, unbidden hairs that erupt during puberty; and the day you notice one of them has turned gray.

There are other evolutions that go on within us all the time, in our interests, our desires and the company we keep. As kids we love Twinkies; as adults we gravitate toward martinis. We may keep a baseline of certain friends, beliefs and loves, but most things about us evolve.

So why wouldn’t our sexuality evolve as well?

It may have already happened to you in smaller or larger ways: you might become more or less amorous at different times; your desires and interests get more or less varied, athletic or kinky; or you become more or less generous with your sexual favors. Some people, to their surprise, might develop an interest in someone from the same or the opposite sex.

Psychologist Lisa Diamond’s book Sexual Fluidity details the mutable sexuality of women, some of whom find their sexual orientation is not fixed but changes based on a variety of things, including a love of the person, not the parts. If you and your friends have ever discussed experimenting with BDSM, shifting from a player’s mentality to a monogamous one (or vice versa) or any number of variations, you’ve experienced the idea that desires transform.

What we’re talking about here is the natural evolution of our sexual natures, changes that can upend our personal narrative in discomfitting ways. When something as intimate as your sexual identity changes -- going from, “I’m a horny young man” to “I’m an older guy with a low sex drive,” or “I’m a conventional married lady” to “I’m a wild cougar” -- it can knock us for a loop. “What am I turning into?” can be a scary question -- or a thrilling one -- depending on how you deal with change.

Jaiya is a sexual wellness educator and the founder of New World Sex EducationWhat she calls the Five Stages of Sexuality -- resting, healing, curious, adventurous and transformative -- illuminate how changeable our sex lives are. The people she sees are often not having an easy time with sexual changes, especially men contending with age and erectile dysfunction.

“There’s definitely a resistance and a lack of education,” about sexual changes in our bodies, she says, from postpartum and menopausal changes to loss of virginity or age-related erectile dysfunction. Because sex is still such a taboo topic people often feel like something’s wrong when the only problem is perspective.

“Our definition of sex is so limited. But sex can happen in our mind, not just our bodies. It can be a look, a touch, a kiss, it doesn’t have to be a penis inside a vagina,” Jaiya says.

Thomas Ellis, a San Francisco-based clinical psychologist who specializes in health sexuality, agrees that poor education is a common problem contributing to a lack of understanding of our own sexuality.

“Let's face it,” Ellis writes in an email, “people don’t typically receive thorough sex education other than the basic human reproduction units taught in elementary school and/or high school biology class. If the instructor does branch out beyond reproduction, the information usually focuses on the negative consequences of sex: potential disease and unwanted pregnancy. Much of what people know about sexuality is based on culturally fear-based myths and stereotypes. As such, it’s understandable that many people don’t have the sexual intelligence to understand that desire, functioning, pleasure, and motivation will change and evolve over time.”

And there are changes, little sexual evolutions, despite our cultural habit of trying to keep things neatly boxed and labeled.

“You’re gay or straight, you’re young or old, you’re sexually active or you’re not,” Jaiya says of our black-and-white view of sex, which is not black and white but has huge gray areas in between those points of definition. The Kinsey Sexuality Rating Scale, which ranges from desires that are 100-percent heterosexual to 100-percent homosexual has six grades for a reason -- we’re not all one way or the other.

And time, which has a way of changing everything can sometimes change our level of interest in sex itself, sex with a specific person, any aspect of sex you can think of.

“We are setting ourselves up for failure if we expect that we will have the same desires and functioning at age 40 as we did at age 20,” writes Ellis, who is also a staff psychologist for Stanford University’s counseling services. “When people do anticipate a change, they tend to focus on the negative assumptions of aging, such as decreased desire, less frequent erections, and loss of attractiveness.” Understanding that pleasure and fulfillment are still possible despite unexpected changes are part of his role as a therapist, he says.

“We make so much of this stuff bad and wrong,” Jaiya says, and with our squeamish judgments comes a lack of information, something Jaiya experienced when she made a major transformation: becoming a mother.

“Talk about a huge shift in your sexuality! You have a little one, life becomes diapers, your body has to heal.” Her research had told her she would bleed after the pregnancy for six weeks. In real life it went on for nine and any attempts at sex were excruciatingly painful. “It was worse than giving birth,” she says.

Now if a sexologist has trouble coming up with information on something like postpartum sex, what about those who have never been exposed to any but the most conventional sexual wisdom?

Jaiya suggests making sure the alterations in your arousal aren’t biochemical -- a hormone level shift, for example. If it’s more of an emotional issue and professional help isn’t an option she suggests finding an AASECT-certified sexologist. Most sexologists have informational Web sites and blogs that can help with just about any topic.

While Thomas Ellis is a strong advocate for psychotherapy, he also believes “it’s not the only route to sexual well-being.” Besides the AASECT Web site he also recommends the Society of the Scientific Study of Sex as well as several books, including Marty Klein’s Sexual Intelligence; Jack Morin’s The Erotic Mind; Hilda Hutcherson’s What Your Mother Never Told You About Sex; Bernie Zilbergeld’s The New Male Sexuality; and Easton and Liszt’s The Ethical Slut.

Some people simply don’t want to embrace certain changes, like a lower libido that may come with age. Viagra or libido-enhancing herbs can be great, but Jaiya also advises that we “give ourselves a break when things aren’t what we think they should be and learn to enjoy the new phases,” and where you are now.

She says her partner had a huge drop in testosterone after their son was born. "He had no sex drive and I was going crazy,” she says but he enjoyed the new view it gave him of women -- he was suddenly able to see them as something more than objects of desire. Though they are back on track now the phase was an intriguing one. At the same time she had a 75-year-old man in a workshop who could no longer get erections but was having just as much fun without them. “I think we dismiss things like this,” she says. "I’m hearing from couples who are having the best sex of their lives without the ability to have erections. They’re connecting in whole new ways.”

Sometimes an alteration in sexuality even affects how people relate to their community of friends. If you’re the hypersexual party girl who suddenly becomes the reticent homebody, or if you try to talk to your friends about your new forays into BDSM, or if you are suddenly attracted to someone of the same or the opposite sex, your community might feel like they suddenly don’t know you, even though only one aspect of you has changed.

"I definitely have found that the desire to be accepted by a group is a determining factor that shapes people’s behaviors,” Ellis says. “This is true for so many areas -- not just sexuality. Think about all the factors that go into the simple act of choosing what outfit you’ll put on in the morning!” He’s got a point. Even getting dressed involves all kinds of choices about how we want to present ourselves to the world -- what we want them to see.

If a gay man suddenly finds himself attracted to or dating a member of the opposite sex “members of the gay community might feel betrayed if a comrade suddenly passes as straight and is able to take advantage of all the privileges that come with being heterosexual,” Thomas Ellis says. Or, friends who learn that you're exploring BDSM “become unnecessarily concerned for a friend’s safety and wellbeing, based on false information and negative stereotypes that are often sensationalized by the popular media.” 

Ellis says he wants people to feel empowered to make the choices that are right for them, but also to understand that their friends, family and community impact their choices and that their choices may be met with disapproval, should they choose to share their new sexual nature. Ellis might have a patient come to him, he says, who has gotten into BDSM and feels guilty about it and then realizes, through therapy, that it’s other people’s disapproval that has them feeling weird -- they themselves are fine with it.

Conversely if a person finds that a change in her sexuality is going to alienate her from friends or family she can choose not to act on that change (say, losing her virginity or leaving a marriage) in order to keep that family/community relationships intact. In our autonomous Western culture that might sound disempowering but for clients who come from cultures where family and community loyalty come before personal desires, the client needs someone to talk to who will take those cultural differences into account.

There’s also the question of “How important is this to share with your friends and family?” Ellis says. “If it’s important for you to be authentic with your friends and family let’s think through the consequences,” and consider whether everyone needs to know everything. Does grandma have to know you’re digging BDSM these days? Maybe not.

How to Effect Cultural Change around Sex

As for helping our culture evolve sexually to open up to all these issues a bit more, Jaiya feels it’s as simple as talking to each other...without judgment.

“We have to stop demonizing sex and making sex dangerous. For me it’s really about the conversation and it’s about people saying 'This is what I do,' and 'What do you think of that?' because everyone is wondering if it’s normal and everyone thinks they’re so alone," she says. "Once people know 'Oh, Sally, hasn’t had sex with her husband for two years and I haven’t had sex with my husband for two years,' then suddenly we’re not alone."

We go from confused to connected, from embarrassed to embraced. Backing off the pointless criticisms (“Slut” anyone?) allows people to talk, which makes us all more comfortable, wiser and ultimately healthier.

Self-acceptance is the main issue that people bring to Ellis regarding the changes in their sexuality. He says, “Whether their concern pertains to sexual orientation, frequency of masturbation, premarital sex, or use of pornography (to name just a few), many people come to me with a sense of internalized shame about their desires and behaviors. In these cases, I help them sort out the influences that have shaped their sexual values and beliefs. The work becomes about building a new vision of sexual health that allows the freedom to make choices that incorporate their core values with new sexual knowledge and insight. “

While there are many people who turn to professionals like Jaiya and Thomas Ellis when changes in sexuality become concerns, others embrace the changes on their own and end up reinventing themselves. Seventy-five-year-old Hattie RetroAge is a prime example of how, in her words “You never know what you’re going to do.”

Hattie divorced her husband after 25 years of marriage -- not a development she saw coming. After dating men her age for a while and not being especially happy with the results, Hattie won the Roseland Ballroom’s Over-50 Beauty Contest and found herself getting a lot of media attention.

“All of a sudden I’m a sex symbol at 52!” she says. It was after this that she decided to do some rather spectacular math.

“I said I’m just going to subtract 25 years of marriage as if it didn’t happen. Then I’m going to date men that are 35. That makes them older than me!” Behold: the birth of a cougar.

Hattie even appeared on TLC’s "Strange Sex: Cougars and Cubs," where she talks about having three dates a day. Her husband was 50 when they divorced and he remains the oldest man she’s has ever slept with. She happily talks about the fun she’s had in her cougar phase, but she’s also refreshingly truthful about its pitfalls -- you have to be honest about your negative feelings, she says, or you will never become free of them

Interestingly, having conquered cougardom, Hattie’s sexual nature is changing once again. Having tired of the buzz of activity that goes with dating younger men, she’s more focused on work, and says, “I really want that one person again and I will forego all the gratifications along the way." 

A final word of advice from Hattie on how to handle changes in sexuality: “Find actions you can take that make you cherish yourself like you’d cherish another person…for being kind, for being sweet, for being loving. Then you radiate the beauty of the being you endeavor to become.”

Liz Langley is a freelance writer in Orlando, FL.
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