Sex goes downhill for women after the menopause, scientists discover

Why sex gets worse in middle-age: Study of 4,000 post-menopausal women reveals a sickly partner, low libido and erection problems are the biggest bedroom barriers

  • Over three quarters were sexually inactive, even if they had a loving partner
  • Some blamed the menopause specifically, citing night sweats and hot flushes
  • Just 3% of the women reported having regular sex and being sexually satisfied 

Bad news for women going through the menopause, new research suggests sex gets worse after ‘the change’.

A study of more than 4,000 post-menopausal women found over three quarters were sexually inactive, even if they had a loving partner.

Caring for an ill spouse, lack of libido and erectile dysfunction were found to be the biggest bedroom barriers.

Some specifically blamed the menopause, with night sweats, hot flushes and changes to their body shape putting them off getting intimate.

In fact, just three per cent of the women reported having regular sex and being satisfied between the sheets, the study found. 

A study of 4,000 post-menopausal women found three quarters were sexually inactive (stock)

The research was carried out by the University of Sussex and led by Dr Helena Harder, a research fellow at Sussex Health Outcomes Research and Education in Cancer.

Dr Stephanie Faubion, medical director of the The North American Menopause Society, who was not involved in the study, said: ‘Sexual health challenges are common in women as they age.

‘And partner factors play a prominent role in women’s sexual activity and satisfaction, including the lack of a partner, sexual dysfunction of a partner, poor physical health of a partner and relationship issues.

‘In addition, menopause-related problems such as vaginal dryness and pain with sex have been identified as problems affecting sexual function, yet few women seek treatment for these issues, despite the availability of effective therapies.’ 

Numerous past studies have suggested both sexual satisfaction and a desire for intimacy decline after the menopause.

‘The change’ causes a woman’s hormone levels to fluctuate, which can trigger everything from vaginal dryness to insomnia and ‘vasomotor symptoms’ (VMS).

VMS occur when the blood vessels constrict or dilate, leading to night sweats and hot flushes.

Low self-esteem, mood swings and relationship breakdowns may also make post-menopausal women less inclined to be intimate, the researchers wrote in The Journal of The North American Menopause Society.

However, studies have also shown staying sexually active into old age helps people feel ‘young again’, ‘attractive’ and ‘desirable’. 

The researchers felt there is limited information about sex and ageing ‘from the perspective of older women’. 

They therefore analysed comments on sex that were collected during the UK Collaborative Trial of Ovarian Cancer Screening. 

Around half of the 185,693 postmenopausal women, aged 50-to-74, were sexually active when the screening started in 2001.

Over the four years the screening ran, the participants’ sexual frequency, pleasure and comfort all declined. 

Of the more than 185,000 women who were analysed initially, 4,418 were randomly selected for a follow-up after they made ‘free-text comments’ in the screening’s questionnaire. 

Out of these more than 4,400 women, 2,883 (65 per cent) had an ‘intimate partner’.

However, the majority (77 per cent) were sexually inactive, with just 995 having regular intercourse.

Those who were not having sex largely blamed their single status (44 per cent).

Most of these singletons were widowed (29 per cent) and claimed to find it difficult to meet men, or lost interest, after their spouse died. 

One 72-year-old said: ‘I have been a widow for 17 years. My husband was my childhood sweetheart, there will never be anyone else.’

Some women claimed they were sexually inactive due to a separation or divorce (4.2 per cent).

One participant, 50, said: ‘There is no sexual activity in my life at present because I do not have a partner.

‘I feel my role in life at present is to bring up my 12-year old son, relationships come second.’

But many of the women were satisfied with their single status. 

A 51-year-old said: ‘I have been on my own for 18 years, therefore without sex. I don’t miss sex, I don’t think about it, and I am quite content.’

However, others found it much harder to cope being alone.

A 64-year-old said: ‘I have found it very difficult to meet a man since I have been divorced. This does make me sad as I would love a good friend.’ 


Menopause is defined as the changes a woman goes through just before and after she stops her periods and is no longer able to get pregnant naturally. 

Some women go through this time with few, if any, symptoms, around 60 percent experience symptoms resulting in behavioral changes and one in four will suffer severely. 

Common symptoms include hot flushes, night sweats, vaginal dryness leading to discomfort during sex, disrupted sleep, decreased sex drive, problems with memory and concentration and mood swings.

Menopause happens when your ovaries stop producing as much of the hormone oestrogen and no longer release an egg each month.

In the UK, the average age for a woman to reach the menopause is 51, according to the NHS.

Many of the women (27 per cent) with partners were not having sex due to their other half’s poor health.

One woman, 73, said: ‘My husband has Parkinson’s disease and TB of the vertebrae. 

‘At the age of 77 he also has dementia and is in hospital at this present time due to a fall.’

Other women (13 per cent) blamed their partners’ erectile dysfunction for their lacking sex life.

A 57-year-old participant said: ‘My husband has a very stressful job and when we make love he has a problem with keeping his erection long enough to satisfy us both.’ 

For 360 (12 per cent) of the women, menopausal symptoms, like reduced libido and difficulty climaxing, put them off sex.

One woman, 55, said: ‘Since the menopause, an extremely important part of my life, intercourse, is ruined. 

‘This is because of vaginal dryness and spasm, reduction in physical desire (but not mental), and huge reduction in gaining orgasm and in intensity of orgasm’. 

Medication was blamed in 204 (seven per cent) cases, which some of the men were reluctant to discuss. 

A 68-year-old woman said: ‘My husband is taking tablets which may or may not make him impotent. 

‘At 75 he thinks it’s not necessary to discuss that with his GP, I disagree.’ 

Despite many of the participants’ partners struggling to achieve an erection, some couples found other ways to pleasure each other.

A 62-year-old woman said: ‘My husband has heart problems so we don’t have sex a lot. 

‘We satisfy each other in other ways which is fine with me.’ 

Physical health aside, poor mental wellbeing also affected many of the participants’ sex lives.

Conditions such as depression and anxiety, as well as bereavement and alcoholism, were an issue for 166 (5.8 per cent). 

Psychological concerns were also mentioned by 44 (1.5 per cent) of the participants.

A 57-year-old said: ‘I had breast cancer and feel less feminine with the scars and deformity.’ 

And relationship issues were blamed for many of the sexually-inactive women’s lack of intimacy.

A 58-year-old woman said: ‘Married over 36 years, going through another “sticky patch”. 

‘No third party involved by either side, but arguments put me off sex.’

And around nine per cent (257) of the woman simply saw celibacy as a normal part of ageing.

However, not all allowed their celibacy to affect how close they were to their other half.

A 72-year-old woman said: ‘He is 82 and has lapses of memory. 

‘We have had a very good relationship in the past. What is required now is tolerance, understanding and compassion.’ 

Overall, just three per cent of the women claimed to enjoy sex and be satisfied with the level of intimacy they were having. 

The researchers stress, however, 98 per cent of the participants were white and therefore the results many not reflect the experiences of other racial groups. 

The study also only included women who were motivated enough to fill out the free-text comments section during the ovarian screening, they added. 

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