The Body

Emma Rawlins

Editor:  The Body

The Death of Desire


“I have outlasted all desire,
My dreams and I have grown apart;
My grief alone is left entire,
The gleamings of an empty heart.”

― Alexander Pushkin

For most of us sexual desire is something that arrives in our lives when we are teenagers, waxes and wanes throughout our adult life and then dissipates, as we get older.  Women are often coy when it comes to talking about or admitting to sexual desire, as if that will somehow label them as a slut.  Desire does however form a very important part of relationships, whether it is the frenzied sort associated with a new partner, or the deep and intimate version that develops with a long-term partner.  Indeed, keeping desire alive is an important and valuable part of maintaining relationships over the years.  Desire is necessary to sustain physical intimacy, which forms the bedrock of a strong emotional connection.

What then happens when that desire leaves us?  How does it affect our relationships and how does it leave us feeling in a world where we are constantly made to feel that continuing to desire and be desired are part of what defines us as women.

I spoke to two women who have experienced a loss of desire, about the impact that it has had on their lives.  They were both keen to have their voices heard as they feel that in general it is a topic that is not discussed enough and something that we are not fully prepared for as we grow older.

Helen who is in her fifties had her first, and somewhat muted feelings of sexual desire with men. Her early experience with boyfriends left her feeling that something was lacking. Relationships with ‘older’ men provided more excitement, especially when it was with someone in authority and there was an element of secrecy involved. However, it was not until she had a relationship with her first girlfriend that she truly felt absolute desire. ‘I could feel lust for a guy but it would be very short lived. I only really experienced desire once I started having relationships with women’. For Helen, desire is more than just lust. It is a mixture of sexual attraction and being drawn to a person. It is a connection when you look into someone’s eyes. You want to be important to that person – you want to matter to them. You like the way they walk, the way they look at something, the clothes they wear, the way they look at you. You can desire someone from afar, but that is really just fantasy. You can love someone but not desire them, that is the basis for a platonic relationship. You can desire someone but not love then, but that will not endure.


 Helen says that desire has been an important part of her relationships in the past ‘But now that I don’t feel desire it is difficult to remember. I know it must have been important but I just don’t feel it now, and I don’t miss it’. I started this conversation by talking about loss –  but for her she is very clear that loss of sexual desire is not a loss. The only person it might be a loss for is the other person in the relationship. For Helen it represents a release and an emergence out the other side. ‘It is not a loss, it is a gain. For me, because I am not in a relationship any more it does not feel like a loss and it feels quite empowering’. 














For many women the loss of sexual desire is very tied up with ageing and can be particularly associated with the menopause. It can be really hard for people in relationships because their partner may struggle to deal with the loss of desire and the waning of a sexual relationship. Also, some people will feel the loss very acutely and they will do anything they can to get it back. Helen says that for her ‘I feel a lack of time and that feels like a loss. And as the ageing thing continues I will be able to do less – now that feels like a loss. Sex drive – nothing. Now if I were with someone it would potentially be a massive problem. Actually I feel a huge sense of relief that I am no longer in a relationship and  don’t have to think about it any more’.










For Helen it was something that happened quite suddenly along with the menopause, her periods stopped and her sexual desire faded away very quickly. This obviously starts to cause problems in your relationship because the other person thinks that you don’t love
them any more, and they start to get sexually frustrated. ‘It reached the point where I would dread going to bed because all I wanted to do was to go to sleep.’


When sexual desire first starts to go, the obvious thing is to try and takes steps to remedy the immediate problems.  Got a dry vagina then get some lube.  Not feeling in the mood, try some soft lighting and gentle music. Your partner may use some tried and tested techniques to turn you on.  For Helen, none of this made any difference. ‘Just putting lube on made me feel worse, it just made me feel completely incompetent and it did not bring back the desire.  I was just lying there with lube on and felt like I was in a porn film. It was so difficult.’

For women going through the menopause their body is naturally and biologically shutting down the mechanisms for making babies.  This can be associated with another huge sense of loss for those women that have not, for whatever reason, been able to have children but would like to have done so.  It is the point of no return and the final acceptance that they will never have a baby of their own.  Society dictates to us that women should continue to look and feel young for as long as possible, and that includes looking and feeling sexy.  There are very few messages about it being OK to stop feeling desire and not wanting to have sex any more.

Helen has friends who are women together in a relationship who are the same age as each other and going through the experience together.  They don’t feel any pressure to continue feeling desire and are quite content to be able to enjoy a close physical relationship with a much reduced level of sexuality.  They can enjoy cuddles without the concern at the back of their mind that it is going to inevitably lead to sex. The desire without the lust. In a heterosexual couple the man may well carry on feeling sexual desire for ever and a lot of women probably pretend that everything is alright. Helen wonders if ‘maybe it is easier with a guy as you can ‘get it over with’ quite quickly.’





 







All I can say is that it really has gone. I remember feeling sexually on edge most of my adult life.  It feels liberating – but that is only because I am liberating myself and there is no one else suffering from it. I feel that I can let my head and my body do what it is naturally designed to do – and let it go. For me it is definitely not a loss.  But I think that some women would definitely see it as a loss and the end of everything and a decline into their dotage.  I can get my endorphin rush in other ways.


Helen, like Jeanette below, feels that the most important thing in a couple is intimacy.  And she also acknowledges that men can have problems too as they get older – it is not one sided it is just different.  If a couple can continue to maintain a physical intimacy it can be very important.   Still being able to cuddle and touch and stroke if you still love that person and still want to be with them.  There needs to be a lot of love and understanding for that to continue amidst all the physical changes that might be going on.


Jeanette who is in her seventies was happy to talk to me because she feels that womens’ sexual desire is an area that just isn’t discussed enough. In particular women don’t talk about it with each other.

Jeanette has always had strong sexual feelings and remembers that ever since she was 2 or 3 she enjoyed masturbating.  ‘My parents were very good and they used to say ‘you can’t do it in the dining room darling, you’ll have to go upstairs and do it in the bedroom, that’s the right place for it’.’

For her, desire, as opposed to a feeling of sexuality, is wanting to do it with someone else. The first time she felt desire was when she first started having boyfriends. Although even then it was not just a physical attraction. ‘The most important thing is do I find them interesting and are they fun to talk to.  I didn’t always find my partners attractive the first time I met them.’   In all her relationships she gradually got to know and like the men.  ‘Often it was not until I realised that they found me attractive, and desired me, that I felt the desire myself.  It is them fancying me that switches me on.  Although it wouldn’t work with someone who was really unattractive.’  Jeanette remembers her first boyfriend and how the feeling of being desired by someone else, awaked a feeling of desire in herself.  ‘My first boyfriend danced with me at a school party, he and I just danced, I didn’t find him particularly attractive when I danced with him but I remembered him when he wrote me a letter, and that excited me you know the idea of some bloke really fancying me enough to write a special letter and put it in the post, so I responded.’














Jeanette has been with her current partner for a number of decades now.  She says that they have always had a completely brilliant sexual relationship and this has been a very important part of their overall relationship.  She feels lucky as he has been the most amazing partner.  When she went through the menopause he was utterly sympathetic the whole way through.  Unlike Helen, Jeanette did not notice any difference at all in her level of sexual desire through the menopause. Nevertheless, as she progressed through her fifties the noticed that she was slightly less inclined to want sex but it wasn’t a significant difference.  This was slightly more noticeable in her sixties and more so now she is in her seventies.  ‘It has just been a slow downhill trend’.

Jeanette says ‘I have always treasured my sexual relationship and didn’t want to be without it so I decided that for as long as I possibly could I would go on doing it, if my partner wanted to.  By doing this I could continue to experience intimacy with him and its been an emotional experience rather than a physical experience.’   There have been some physical problems, not least of all the vaginal dryness that is associated with ageing in women and the associated pain when having penetrative intercourse.  Jeanette had some initial reluctance to use the HRT pessaries as she was not sure about using HRT, not keen on putting things up her vagina, or on the daily disposal of the plastic involved.  She does now use them and all the problems with dryness have been eliminated which has helped considerably.

For Jeanette it is the ongoing physical closeness of sex that is so important, so even though she does not experience a strong sexual desire, she still has a strong desire to have a close physical relationship with her partner.  ‘Because the intimacy is so important that even if I haven’t got the physical urge I still want the intimacy involved with it.  Also to give him what he needs.  I definitely think that relationships are nurtured by that physical contact.’

She also knows that if for any reason she were no longer with her current partner, she would most definitely not be looking for a new sexual relationship.    ‘I absolutely know that if my partner popped his clogs now I wouldn’t be looking for another bloke.  I would still be friendly to men – get chatting with them but I could very happily live without sex in my life now.  I can believe that I could fall in love with someone else and then maybe have a go, but I find it very hard to believe that it would be the same.’

Jeanette also has a message for men who’s partners may be experiencing a loss of sexual desire.  She feels that a lot of men don’t persevere enough or just want to cut straight to the chase.  Foreplay is incredibly important, really taking time to find out what the woman needs and wants, and for the man to take pleasure in that. The woman also has a role to play here, even at times when she is not experiencing strong sexual desire she can engage in the physical experience with her partner and enjoy the closeness and intimacy that can bring to them both.  

I felt honoured that these two women agreed to talk so frankly to me about their loss of sexual desire.  It is our hope that by sharing conversations like these we can help the subject to become less of a taboo.  To enable women friends to discuss it with each other and to enable women to have frank and honest conversations with their partners and to possibly to find new ways of being with their sexual relationships.




For Helen it was something that happened quite suddenly along with the menopause, her periods stopped and her sexual desire faded away very quickly. This obviously starts to cause problems in your relationship because the other person thinks that you don’t love
them any more, and they start to get sexually frustrated. ‘It reached the point where I would dread going to bed because all I wanted to do was to go to sleep.’​


The onus is ​on the woman to go out and do something, take tablets, make it happen.  Put on a maids outfit, spice up your sex life.  I don’t want to have sex.  I think there is so much pressure on women. 

It feels liberating – but that is only because I am liberating myself and there is no one else suffering from it. I feel that I can let my head and my body do what it is naturally designed to do – and let it go.
 
I have always treasured my sexual relationship and didn’t want to be without it so I decided that for as long as I possible could I would go on doing it and its been an emotional experience rather than a physical experience.