If you were a high school or college girl in the ‘70s, Our Bodies, Ourselves was one of most amazing books ever. One part mysterious, one part frightening, and all parts informative, the book brought a feminist perspective to an unknown world. Sadly, the organization that published the book in the early ‘70s and nine editions thereafter has announced that no more updates would be forthcoming. Yet, we still have a few things to learn about our midlife bodies and ourselves.
As Dr. Dorree Lynn says, when it comes to aging and sex, we are our own pioneers. Midlife women are getting in on! While it’s hard to find comprehensive data on women in the 40-70-year-old age bracket, we did find that nearly 60% of women aged 60 and older are sexually active, according to a study published in the Annals of Family Medicine. And, 60% of women in the 45-54 age group were having sex at least once a week. Which is fantastic, because the same study references a strong link between a healthy sex life and higher quality of life as people age.
However, we’re not always getting it on safely. The incidence of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs, including HIV/AIDS, climbed by 20% from 2015 and 2016 among U.S. people over age 45. STDs among the over-40 crowd are climbing in Canada, too. And, 13% of U.S. women over age 50 have trichomoniasis, a parasite—ewwwww!—with symptoms that can mimic those of pelvic inflammatory disease. More alarming, women over age 50 worldwide are getting HIV at a growing rate.
The good news, of course, is that STDs generally can be treated. Better yet, STDs can be prevented—but, clearly, we’re not very good at that part. A 2012 University of Florida study of U.S. women age 50 and over found that participants were aware of STD risks and the importance of using condoms—but didn’t necessarily ask their partners to use them. Similarly, a Canadian study found that 66% of women aged 40-59 who’d had three or more sexual partners in the past year didn’t bother to use protection the last time they had sex. A separate study reported even higher numbers of middle-aged risk-takers.
One reason, of course, is that pregnancy isn’t much of concern after a certain point. Also, if you’ve been out of the sex pool for, say, 30 years, you might assume that STDs are for the young. You’d be extremely wrong.
Another reason condom use can be a challenge is that men and women alike don’t necessarily like using them. When the “O” means “ouch,” as it does for many midlife women, the thought of using a condom just sounds…impossible. Yet, the conditions that make sex painful also make us more vulnerable to infections. The solution? As we explained here, you can find many ways to make sex more comfortable.
Digression: Here an important sex product you should know about. It was created by Grace and Frankie on the Netflix show of the same name, starring Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda. Check it out:
Doctors might be part of the problem, too. The University of Florida study cited above found that women weren’t always comfortable asking their general practitioners for advice—and their doctors weren’t volunteering the information. Some participants reported that male doctors in their age group—age 50 and up—seemed uncomfortable with the idea that a middle-aged woman was actually having sex.
However, getting physically comfortable and having information won’t help with a trickier issue:
negotiating the action. In the University of Florida study, many women didn’t practice safe sex because either they didn’t want to cause an argument with a condom-resistant man or they feared losing the relationship altogether. (To which we say: “Bye, Felicia!” to that man. He’s so not worth it.) We’d like to see women excel at “Your condoms or mine?”
These days, the Google can point you to all kinds of solid intel about sex and women’s bodies, which is one reason the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective is putting Our Bodies, Ourselves to rest. If you’re feeling nostalgic, you can find the very first edition online, as published in Courier font and pamphlet form. We’re glad it’s there, but we’re sorry that its eloquent corrections of misinformation continue to be so relevant today.
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Credit where credit is eternally due: Ice Cube on Friday, the ‘90s TV show.