Assisted Loving: Alcohol and libido

By Ginger Manley | Posted: Tuesday July 10, 2012

Dear Ginger,

I'm in my late sixties and in pretty good health, but I almost never have any interest in or desire for sex. Would drinking two or three glasses of wine every evening help me out?

Maxine


Dear Maxine,

Some people say the theme song for seniors should be “You’ve lost that loving feeling”—remember the song of that name by the Righteous Brothers that was the number one hit in 1964? Who of us back then ever thought it would apply to us on down the road? Sadly, there comes a point for many of us when our hormones taper off enough that they no longer act as spark plugs in our sexual engine and then we must use our brains to decide when and if to be sexually involved.

Hormones running wild are what keep our species going. Hormones make teenagers have thoughts about sexuality about every fifteen seconds, and the same hormones drive most adults in their twenties and thirties to make strong relationship connections and start families. Drive and arousal are intertwined for most young people, and the body gives us clear signals—erections and urgency for men, vaginal swelling and moisture for women—that we are primed and ready for sex.

Somewhere in the forties hormones begin to change for most women. By the time a woman is in her early fifties she is probably in menopause, meaning she has not had a menstrual period for at least a year and her reproductive capacity is at an end. These reproductive changes may be welcome for many women, but the other changes—decreased vaginal wetness and less sex hunger, sometimes commonly called horniness or lust, can be confusing losses.

For men, the hormonal change is slower and less abrupt, but eventually all men also have a decrease in testosterone. If it has not already happened somewhere in his life, many men in their forties and fifties will have an occasional episode of not being able to get or keep an erection, and often this is a terrifying experience. The movie, MASH, which came out in 1970, has a classic scene depicting this event. Captain “Painless” Waldoski describes to his buddy, Dr. Hawkeye Pierce, that “(S)he wanted to in the worst way but it was me. I just couldn't.” “Painless”’ colleagues rally, creating a funeral for his dead sex life, which eventually returns to life.

In her book, Naked at our Age, Joan Price describes a woman in a workshop who says, “I want my sweet tooth back.” (p. 27) Price responds, “Changes in our desire and arousal patterns are normal, and though they’re disconcerting, they don’t have to impact our relationship negatively or make us retreat from sex.” Price further differentiates between drive, arousal, and sensations, asking, “Are you not feeling desire…does sex not interest or appeal to you anymore? Or are the changes in arousal and sensation just making it more challenging to get physically stimulated enough to feel sexual pleasure?”(p. 28)

These are important questions for each person over fifty to answer. Let’s look at them one by one, starting with the last one. Almost all sensations diminish with age. We need more seasonings in our food to enhance their taste; we have more difficulty determining differences in cold and hot temperatures; our sense of smell may change so that we don’t notice odors so well; our eyesight and hearing need help. The same is true of sexual sensations.

Direct sexual stimulation is crucial for arousal to occur at this age. Because of the diminished capacity to feel sensations, we need much more intense and maybe prolonged stimulation to achieve the same feelings we could get with almost no help earlier in life. Some people in their seventies and eighties have remarked that they first bought vibrators forty or more years ago as an enhancement to their young-life pleasure. They are glad they have not tossed these implements, which are no longer optional, but now essential to receiving strong enough sensations to get fully aroused. While discussion of such devices has not been a part of everyday conversations for many people, it is a sure sign of cultural change that later this summer a new movie, Hysteria, will be playing in our neighborhood theaters. Hysteria is the story of modern vibrators, which came to the forefront in the early twentieth century.

Most folks find desire and drive interchangeable for the first half of life, but this state changes in the second half, when drive diminishes. Desire then becomes less of an urge and more of a want, something we notice more in the head and heart than in the genitals. Price says, and I concur, “In order to desire it, do it—and the desire will kick in once you become physiologically aroused.” Laughing, playing, kissing, caressing, stimulating yourself (or guiding a partner to do so)—none of these require you be in the mood in order to do them, and guess what, all of these fuel interest and desire.

Shakespeare got it partly right when he wrote about drinking, “It provokes the desire but it takes away the performance.” Alcohol does not provoke desire. It may calm anxiety and it certainly leads to disinhibition, especially after several drinks, but it does nothing but put desire to sleep. In addition, alcohol numbs sensations. So, Maxine, if you have one 5-ounce glass of wine (the maximum amount recommended for anyone over 60), enjoyed slowly and with food, that is okay, but three glasses will throttle the desire and take away the performance.

There is one more piece to this, Maxine. You don’t say whether or not you are in a relationship, so please take this as general information. In a study done in 2010, 80% of older women said they had found themselves awash in unexpected sexual feelings when they happened into a relationship with someone new. If you’re with a long-time mate and are bored, I’m not suggesting you leave and find another, but I think this research confirms what most of us already believe about the grass seeming greener. This is why reading fantasy and erotic books, like the current best-seller, Fifty Shades of Grey, can have a potent impact on reviving long-repressed sexual feelings at any age.

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