In a now-infamous essay in Salon, writer Anne Lamott described the libidos of women past the age of fifty: “None of them would care if they ever got laid again, even when they are in good marriages. They do it because the man wants to. They do it because it makes the men like them more, and feel close for a while, but mostly women love it because they get to check it off their to-do lists. It means they get a pass for a week or two, or a month.” She continued. “It’s not on the women’s bucket lists. I’m sorry to have to tell you this.”
For weeks after the piece was published, Lamott received impassioned feedback from both men and women. Some were pissed off at her portrayal. Others agreed with her. Many of the comments fell somewhere in between. They were interesting not just for their diversity of opinions but how they illuminated the complexity of the subject. Hot sex in the golden years — is it real life, or is it just fantasy?
When the Sex Light Goes Dark
Confronted with the changes of the peri- and post-menopausal years, it’s not surprising that many women close up shop on their sex lives. The onslaught of symptoms can feel truly unsexy. Diminishing levels of sex hormones like estrogen (responsible not only for maintaining the juiciness and sensitivity of our delicate nether regions but also helping to keep our moods stable, our sleep refreshing and our brains sharp) and testosterone (associated with firing up the love engine and keeping it running hot) — all can add up to the sense that we’re desperately trying to get things going while lacking some essential parts.
While in the days of yore our randy libidos might have commanded us to tear off our clothes and leap into the fray, now they’ve shrunk down to barely discernible whimpers. Our once lush and fleshly florals have morphed into fragile desert wallflowers. That horny hunger we took for granted all those years (and maybe didn’t fully appreciate) has done packed up and skipped town.
Added to this already f’d up scenario is the reality that if a woman has no interest in sex, the DSM-V (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition) saddles her with the dubious diagnosis of “female sexual arousal disorder” without offering much in the way of aid. Conventional treatments often medicalize the situation with antidepressants like SSRIs, but these drugs can make it more difficult or even impossible to climax. Then again, on some of these meds you might not even care if you ever have sex again.
Hormone therapy can help some people but it’s no panacea and not right for everyone. The drug Bremelanotide, prescribed for lack of libido, has shown some positive results but can also increase blood pressure and has a statistically high incidence of causing nausea (not sexy) and hyper-pigmentation. Lubricants and creams can soothe and plump dry tissues, but what can moisten a crispy-dry desert of desire?
While many women feel less enamored of sex, they aren’t ready to give up on it completely, but “The Change,” as the menopause is often called, is still a dirty little secret few feel comfortable talking about. There’s shame involved in all this biological betrayal. There’s the getting older, with all of its attendant annoyances, embarrassments, and encumbrances. There are the doubts about desirability.
In a recent New York Times opinion piece, Dr. Jen Gunther, author of The Menopause Manifesto, describes how for generations “a woman’s worth was measured by her reproductive ability and by extension her femininity, as defined by a narrow, misogynistic standard. Women have had to fight to learn the facts about menopause, to take up arms for their health and their sanity. Speaking up about the concerns of a female body as it ages should be considered normal, not brave.”
Heather Corinna, a nonbinary writer and sex educator whose book What Fresh Hell is This: Perimenopause, Menopause, Other Indignities, and You, takes this harsh reality even further. “Menopause can be very isolating,” Corinna says, “and all the more so when you’re not cisgender. It’s stress piled on stress.”
I Want to Want It
For many menopausal women, their diminished desire is the worst symptom of all. Madeleine, a 58-year-old consultant in Massachusetts, encapsulates this conundrum: “It’s a weird feeling to be physically attracted to my husband,” she says, “who is very good-looking and wonderful, and yet to not want sex anymore. I want to want sex! We haven’t had intercourse in two years. He is patient and experiencing his own drop in libido at age 63, so our relationship is not stressed by this, but we both agree we do not want our sex life to be over!”
Sarah Ratliff, a NYC writer now living in Puerto Rico, received a hysterectomy at age 34 and went into early menopause, a period spanning ten years which she describes as “nothing short of hell.” While the hot flashes, breast pain, migraines and other symptoms eventually eased, one side effect stuck around: the pronounced lack of libido.
“I felt a range of emotions, “ she says, “with guilt topping the list. I won’t lie, at first it put an incredible strain on my marriage. When my husband and I got married, we agreed not to let anything or anyone come between us, which now included menopause. It had nothing to do with how I feel about him. I’m as much in love with my husband today as I was 25 years ago when we met.”
While successfully treating chronic back pain with cannabis, Ratliff was surprised to notice that certain strains of weed piqued her sexual desire. It was like finding a precious vein of green gold in a place she didn’t expect. “What I’ve figured out,” she says, “is that I still have a libido; now it just takes a different route to tap into it. And it’s been amazing to discover this.”
Green Sex Goddess
My own experience with menopause and its sexual fallout felt like plummeting through the stages of grief. It’s as if I had been living in a penthouse apartment where for years I enjoyed every flavor of delicious sensual morsel, only to suddenly find myself crashing through subsequent floors, each one a little less posh and sexy, ultimately landing in a windowless, pleasureless dungeon from which there was no apparent escape.
At first, I stubbornly denied that menopause was happening to me and carried on like before. No way was I going to let this so-called “change” keep me from enjoying what had always been a consistent and essential source of pleasure. I would rise above, I told myself. Mind over body. But nothing was working like it used to, including my brain. In theory I wanted to feel good, but found that my body could care less, and in fact seemed to be at war against the idea, all my various parts turning against me. I longed for the freewheeling playfulness of the past, the ease and fun and exploration, but I was ultimately forced to reckon with what I could no longer ignore. My fresh-faced days of blithely taking a tumble were over, and with this realization came a vast sadness. What I didn’t understand yet was that my pleasure quotient was still available to me, just in a different form.
Ashley Manta, an award-winning sex coach, author of The CBD Solution: Sex: How Cannabis, CBD, and Other Plant Allies Can Improve Your Everyday Life, and self-described CannaSexual®, teaches women how to invite cannabis into the bedroom in order to transform their sexual experiences. The idea of a weed-infused flinging open of the boudoir door can be especially tantalizing for women who are down for anything after a long spell of nothing. Manta advocates that everyone claim their right to the full spectrum of pleasure, regardless of age, sexual orientation or gender identity, and she insists that cannabis is a powerful ally in this regard.
“Cannabis can help manage some of the physiological manifestations of menopause, including insomnia, pain, and even hot flashes and night sweats,” says Manta. “A balanced and supported endocannabinoid system helps regulate the body while also being helpful with the emotional aspects of menopause by combating irritability and anxiety, allowing the consumer to feel more calm and present.”
The Science of Canna-Sexy
Why is cannabis such a powerful tool not only for relieving anxiety, relaxing us and decreasing pain, but also supercharging our libidos and cranking up the volume on our sensitivity and arousal? The science is not fully understood. Few studies have been conducted that definitively point to a distinct biological mechanism, though it’s thought to be associated with the endocannabinoid, opioid, and serotonin systems and the regulation of pleasure and reward pathways.
One 2017 study by scientists from the Czech Republic found that cannabis activated the part of the brain associated with erotic stimuli. Also in 2017, a review in Current Sexual Heath Reports found that cannabis has a bidirectional or biphasic effect on sexual functioning – in small doses cannabis was shown to increase sensitivity and arousal, while in larger doses has the opposite, negative result.
A more recent review of female study participants echoed this finding, as did a broad 2020 survey of animal and human studies titled “Effects of Cannabinoids on Female Sexual Function.” The take-away from all of these studies is that less is more when it comes to dosage for sexual enhancement, but further research is needed.
The Joy of Sex & Cannabis
Gone are the days when in order to light your own fire (with a little help from Mary Jane), you had to know somebody who knew somebody who had a cousin (and back then, the choices were a bit slim, and didn’t all get you where you wanted to go). Now there are so many products and cannabis varietals on the legal market to choose from, it’s overwhelming for new users to know where to begin.
Manta recommends that unseasoned “cannasexuals” start out with a topical meant for this purpose, either a CBD-only variety or one with THC in the mix. While there is no scientific evidence that cannabinoids can penetrate deeply into vaginal tissues and increase sensitivity or arousal, anecdotal reports abound, as do products in the form of cannabis-infused oils, lubes, and creams. Think of the sensual act of massaging and lubricating as an amuse bouche, enticing the palate for the feast to come.
For a more pronounced effect, try vaping or smoking flowers. Do a little internet sleuthing and you’ll come up with a whole slew of highly recommended strains with names like Love Potion #1, Purple Panty Dropper, and Voodoo, all with notoriously nasty (in a good way) reputations. My go-to strain is an old school cultivar called Purple Kush. It gives me the perfect sexy mix of floaty, tingly body sensations, coupled with a let’s-get-this-party-started euphoria. Understandably, my husband is Purple Kush’s second biggest fan.
The main thing to remember when adding cannabis to your coupling is to start slow. Too much and you could end up crashed out on the couch before you even get your knickers off. For some women, cannabis can cause extra dryness of the mucous membranes, including the one place where you definitely don’t want that happening. An extra splash of lube should fix you right up.
Cannabis & the New Sexual Liberation
Ashley Manta says that cannabis can transform how peri- and post-menopausal women and nonbinary people feel about the changes in their bodies that come with aging. When used intentionally, this green goddess can help create space for new perspectives, like “reframing the patriarchal, ageist ideals of beauty that are all too common in our culture,” says Manta.
“We get to choose to detox our minds from unrealistic, media-fed standards and instead prioritize time with people who make us feel safe, comfortable, and celebrated. I think the ways cannabis positively impacts pleasure can help remind us that our sexuality doesn’t have an expiration date. Although it may shift over time, it is always ours, and we can find infinite ways of accessing it.”
Heather Corinna cautions against the assumption that cannabis will work its magic for everyone. “If it makes you more anxious, no way, obviously,” says Corinna. “If you can’t keep a job and use it, nope. If it doesn’t play nice with your neurology or other medications or you just don’t like how it feels, et cetera, et cetera.
“But for those for whom cannabis is a good fit, by all means, use it. Something that can make us feel more relaxed in our bodies — muscularly, neurologically, emotionally — can potentially help us get out of crummy, self-stigmatizing head-spaces. It can help us feel able to, say, move freely in our bodies instead of feeling self-conscious, to stay open to exploring new things sexually at a time when we might otherwise feel too scared.”
Ready to Frolic
For me, cannabis allows me to slow down and pay more attention to the sensations I am experiencing, while heightening and enhancing them. Without cannabis, I’m just going through the motions — not exactly to score brownie points with my husband, as Anne Lamott would argue, although I’m not as thoroughly in the love zone as I would like to be. With cannabis, the rest of the world slips away and I enter a sparkly champagne bubble. My skin becomes ultra-sensitive, with all of my nerve endings springing to attention and ready to frolic.
My husband certainly notices the difference. He practically runs over to hold the vaporizer for me. Not only does cannabis give me back that freewheeling let’s-go spirit, but it also leaves me with a profound appreciation for shared moments of pleasure, connection, and peacefulness. It’s a plant-spirit medicine many of us could use a little more of, especially now.
Sarah Ratliff agrees. “I think the biggest aphrodisiac for me in this post-menopause stage is no longer being in control,” she says. “When I’m high, I totally relinquish control, which is so freeing.”
Lately, the ever-growing-and-learning Ashley Manta has been rereading Dr. Peggy Kleinplatz’ groundbreaking new book, Magnificent Sex. Says Manta: “After doing 15 years of research with thousands of couples who identify as having had extraordinary sex, Kleinplatz distills the common themes into eight primary components. None of them include orgasm, position, or particular skills. It’s things like presence, embodiment, vulnerability, empathic communication … components that are accessible to all people of all ages if they take the time to practice them. Cannabis can help with all of these things! So grab some flower, pick up this book, and relearn everything you think you know about desire!”
I’ve now got four new books in the queue about juicy sex in the later years, and a nice little stash of Purple Kush. Fasten your seat belt, husband.
Melinda Misuraca is a Project CBD contributing writer with a past life as an old-school cannabis farmer specializing in CBD-rich cultivars. Her articles have appeared in High Times, Alternet, and several other publications.
Hero image by Melati Citrawireja.
Copyright, Project CBD. May not be reprinted without permission.