Can great sex start at 50? Yes, according to a Tracey Cox. The internationally-bestselling author and sex expert has appeared on Oprah, CNN and The Today Show, and infused her decades of knowledge into 17 books, including Hot Sex: How to Do It, which is available in 140 countries and has been translated into over 20 languages.
Her latest book, Great Sex Starts at 50: How to Age-Proof your Libido, is a guide for anyone who’s felt challenged by changes in their sex life or desires over time, and really anyone who hopes to have awesome sex well into the future.
Tracey and I spoke recently about some of the themes in this book and her mission to help others find their way back to gratifying sex—something she herself experienced not long ago.
Stream the episode on Apple Podcasts (iPhone app), iHeartRadio, Spotify or below! Or read on for a lightly edited transcript.
“Sexless Relationships + Age-Proofing Your Libido with Tracey Cox”
a lightly edited Girl Boner Radio episode transcript
Great Sex Starts at 50. As someone who is not yet 50, that title inspires me. So I had to ask Tracey why she went she went with that title for her book.
Well, everybody has this impression that you have the best sex of your life when you’re young, in your 20s and your 30s, or, actually probably even earlier in your teens is probably when lots of people had the best sex or early 20s. And I wanted to let people know that, in fact, you can have not only good sex in the in the later part of your life but actually better sex than you had in the beginning because sex changes as you get older.
I mean, lots of things change, I think, as you get older. You get more comfortable with yourself; you know what you want.
And sex can get challenging as you get older, but there are ways to overcome pretty much all of these challenges and turn sex around and make it something even better, particularly for women.
Even so, many long-term relationships become sexless over time. She has a whole chapter dedicated to the topic. Sexlessness isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as she points out, at least not for everyone—and she’s not just talking about asexual folks.
The problem, Tracey says, is that too many people sort just let sex dwindle away, without ever really talking about it. This wasn’t something Tracey set out to cover in her latest book, until she delved into writing it.
I think the biggest shock I got when I wrote this book was how many couple friends that I know really well, who are very close, they share everything, they’ve just quietly stopped having sex, and haven’t actually had a conversation about it.
So sexless marriages are all around you, believe me. If you’re, you know, got a couple who’ve been together for a while and they’re over 50 or even younger than that, lots of couples just quietly stop having sex.
Now, there is nothing wrong with that. And sometimes, you know, there are many reasons why people stop having sex. Sometimes, you know, you’ve had loads of sex, you’ve been together since you were like, 17,18. You’ve just done it all, been there and you’re just quite happy to say, “You know what? We’ve had enough now.”
In the book, Tracey shared research findings on this topic. In 2018, a national study showed that adults in the US who reported no sexual activity all reached an all-time high. And a report from the University of Chicago showed that nearly one-quarter of adults surveyed hadn’t had sex in the previous year, including more men having no sex than women.
Tracey explores a bunch of reasons behind having less sex, including being especially busy and surrounded by technology—those darn devices always being in our hands, some folks masturbating to porn more often than sex with another person, a lifetime of what she calls “bad sex,” sexual dysfunction, depression, anxiety and more.
Regardless fo the reason and whether or not you wish for the sexless scenario to change, not talking about it can be problematic.
It’s okay to take sex off the agenda. Absolutely. You cannot not have a conversation.
People get really nervous. It’s like, “Well, I better not be too affectionate or else they’ll read something into it.” Or you know, “Maybe if I’m too affectionate to her, she might think I want sex, and that’s going to be really embarrassing.”
So, the affection stops. And if the affection stops, the relationship is over. Then you really, truly are just friends. So, it’s okay to have a sexless marriage. It’s fine. It’s not so good for you health-wise, because there are lots of benefits. But you must talk about it. You really must.
Before you go off to google the definition of a “sexless marriage,” well, don’t. You may find dated statistics that suggest that seldom having sex equals “sexless.” And those stats aren’t helpful or accurate.
Yes, it used to be that if you were a couple and you had sex less than 10 times a year you were labeled a sexless marriage… I know tons of couples in different stages of their life who have very good sex, good quality sex, you know. They won’t have it for ages and then they’ll a spectacular session that lasts for hours and hours and they are absolutely fronted to be called sexless.
They’re not sexless. They are just people who have sex, you know, once a month, because of certain, you know, reasons and maybe their libido is not that high. So, I think it’s very good that they’ve removed that definition.
And I very much promote in the book, find your normal. If you’re normal, if what makes you and your partner happy is once a year, then that’s perfect. If you’re, you know, what’s normal for you is once a day, that’s perfect. All these figures are lies, anyway. I think people lie in sex surveys all the time.
I think she has a point. I read about a study that showed that sex researchers have less sex than the average person. And I immediately thought, you know what? They’re probably only better at reporting accurate information. And some research has shown that men are more likely to round up how much sex and lovers they reportedly have while women may round these numbers down.
One thing Tracey really wanted to explore in her book was different ways to cope with sex-related changes, and provide ways to improve sex, if desired. People with vulvas, for example, may be less interested in sex with age or at various times in life because of painful penetration. But there are many ways to have great sex without vaginal penetration, and to make penetration less painful.
Feeling insecure about your body or sexual dysfunction are major factors behind drops in sex, too, which are common in people of all genders.
…not feeling great about your body, not feeling sexy anymore. And a lot of that is to do with comparing yourself again to youth: Because I don’t look young, and how I used to look, that must mean I’m not sexy.
I always say if you’re with a man who used to love sex and is over the age of 45, and just suddenly, you know, or just seems to want it less and less and less, and then just doesn’t even want to talk about it, it is invariably erection difficulties.
I mean, that was another chapter that was fascinating writing the book, the chapter about men coping with, you know, aging penises, and erection problems from just getting older and erection dysfunction are two totally different things. But it is the biggest psychological catastrophe for any man not to get an erection.
It doesn’t matter. You don’t need an erection to have great sex. “Ah, but you do.” I mean, for men, sex is putting their penis in something. They really, really can’t see it any other way. And that was really interesting to look at that. So, if your partner’s suddenly stopped having sex, it’s probably not that they’re having an affair. It’s probably that they’re having erection difficulties.
If only one person in a relationship has lost interest in sex within a monogamous relationship, Tracey says it’s important to find ways to meet the other partner’s needs. That made me think of Mismatched Libido, Matching Love that I released a few weeks ago. I loved hearing about the ways S and C and Shan and Jim learned to navigate their differing desires. If you’re looking for ideas to consider, definitely go back and listen.
Shan really exemplified this that Tracey told me. She said if you’re the person with lower desire in a relationship, keep in mind that there are other motivations for having sex.
This whole thing that desire is the only motivation for sex—I think we need to move away from that—because it’s not the only motivation. Even if you don’t want sex, you can get great satisfaction from satisfying your partner sexually, because you’re being generous. You’re showing them love. It’s affection, it’s intimacy.
So it’s not, this whole thing like well, what am I going to get out of it? Well, you’re going to, what, you know, what you’re going to get out of it, is actually making your partner happy and keeping them happy. So that would be my answer to that one.
Do you find that people who…they believe like I don’t enjoy sex anymore, I’m not interested in it but I still want to pleasure you. I want my partner to have a good sex life.
Have you found in speaking with people that very often once they brought in their definition of sex, that maybe they do get pleasure out of like, nonpenetrative sex, for example?
Totally. I think when people say sex, they mean intercourse. You will say to people, well, I’m not interested in sex, anymore. And it’s like, okay, would you not like a nice massage? Would you not like to have a bath with your partner and have snogging and kissing? And you know, oh, yeah, I want to do that but just not sex. And so they don’t mean sex. They, generally, most of the time mean intercourse. So that’s the first thing to get right.
This scenario that I’m painting where people think it through, most people don’t think it through. Most people think, Well, my partner is not going to be interested if it doesn’t involve penetration, which can be the case with some men, or they just think, they just don’t think past well, if I can’t have penetration, then I’m not going to want sex, as people think of sex as intercourse.
This is the other thing about trying to move past thinking of sex as having a beginning, a middle and an end and a destination like, “You’ve got to have an orgasm. I’ve got to have an orgasm.” You know, it’s got to start with foreplay, finish with intercourse. We’re very rigid in how we think about sex and how we think a good sex life should be so the more we can move away from that and just think differently. Once you change your attitude, you can change anything, I think.
One thing that does not cause a drop in desire or sex is a not real phenomenon you may have heard of called “lesbian bed death.” It’s one of those catch phrases that gets passed around and can lead folks to believe that if you’re a cisgender woman who’s into women, then your relationships will inevitably end up like… I don’t know, two women sitting around kitting scarves or something. Not that there’s anything wrong with knitting. I admire those skills. But yarn play instead of sexy play? That’s just not something that gay women are more prone to than anyone else. I love that Tracey debunks this in her book.
It‘s really funny, isn’t it? Because almost all the research about lesbians says that they have more orgasms than straight women do, which makes sense because they’re not going to be into penetration as much. They’ve both got a clitoris. They probably know better how to touch it, how they sort of treat the clitoris effectively to create an orgasm. So, it’s just logical that lesbians are going to have better sex.
This again, it’s to do with the myth that people think females don’t have as high a sex drive as men. Women do have as high a sex drive as men. It’s just that they need more interesting sex to keep them interested. Like the average man would seriously have exactly the same scenario, have sex exactly the same way with a partner every single time they had sex and probably not even bother about it, because he generally ends up with an orgasm.
Of course, being a guy or having a penis doesn’t mean you won’t enjoy adventures, but given the hurdles women and vulva owners often face—not because we or our bodies are perplexing, but because of things like wonky messaging and limited sex education—that “orgasm gap” can be pretty real.
And for many folks, orgasms are a huge reason for wanting sex. Yes, sex can be great without it, but seriously, orgasms are awesome. And we all deserve them.
So to keep a woman interested in sex, Tracey said, you’ve got to give her a sense of adventure and eroticism. For some women that means what many consider “naughty,” “kinky” or “raunchy” sex. For others, it’s about feeling seduced and desired…or playing with toys or talking about your hottest fantasies.
Another myth Tracey debunks in her book is the idea that sexless relationship concerns will sort themselves out over time. Before bringing these concerns up to a partner, she recommends doing a bit of reflecting.
So say you’re the person that wants sex and your partner’s gone off sex. So you need to sit down and think, right, okay. Do I think that maybe he’s just or she has just forgotten about it? Because sometimes that can happen, because it just becomes a habit, and then it’s embarrassment that, you know, you have to turn to your partner and say, “God, we haven’t had sex in five years. What are we going to do about it?”
So sometimes, it can be that they actually would like to have sex but they just need to get over that embarrassment. Then you need to think about specifically, what do you want? What kind of sex do you want from your partner? And how are you going to feel if they turn around and say, “Actually, no. I don’t want to recommence our sex life. I don’t want to restart it.”
Before you go blurting out something like, you know, “We don’t have sex anymore. Why not? We need to talk about this.” Instead of saying something like that, think it through, have some points, and then say something like, “I just want to talk to you about something. You know, I love our relationship. And I really miss the sex that we used to have. Can we have a conversation about getting that back on track or just why it isn’t happening anymore?” Really calm, non-threatening.
And don’t expect your partner to immediately respond, “You know, good point! Let’s calmly talk this through and figure things out.” They might reply that way, but Tracey said that many folks are completely surprised—especially if they haven’t had sex for years—and react with anger or defensiveness: “Well we would have more sex if you didn’t __ or ___.” But at the heart of those responses, Tracey said, is fear.
Lots of people will react with anger or they’ll come out with something like, well, I would be interested in sex, if you hadn’t put on weight or, you know, well, I’m the one that’s out making the money or people react with, with anger, which is just fear, because they’ve taken aback. So, don’t read too much into that. Try not to get too bent and just say, “Look, I just want to have a conversation but maybe let’s do it later. Should we do it later?” Give them some time to think about it, and then come back to it.
When you do talk about your concerns and wishes, make sure to frame them positively.
It’s really just saying, “I love you or I’m worried about our relationship,” depending on what scenario you’re in and “I would like to talk about our sex life because I really miss, miss the sex we had.”
So, flattery will get you everywhere. You know, it’s don’t go in there accusing, saying, “You don’t touch me anymore. Don’t you fancy me anymore? Don’t you desire me? Do you think I’m fat?” You know. “Are you having an affair?” That’s obviously not going to get you anywhere at all but if you’re kind and just think about, you know, I love this person. And, you know, I want to have sex with them more often. You know, I wonder how they’re feeling about that.
And if your partner still refuses to talk about it, even later, that’s important information to have.
And then you have to make a decision, then, you know; do I want to be with somebody who’s actually going to completely dismiss my sexual needs? And you might decide yes, if other things are great. I can satisfy myself, you know, by masturbating or looking at porn or whatever or reading erotica. Or you might decide, well, that’s bloody selfish and maybe, you know, the relationship’s over as well.
[a few bars of acoustic music]
I had to ask Tracey about her own journey, too, starting from early on.
I’m very curious about all of this that you’ve learned, all of your expertise you have now. How does it contrast to what you learned about sex and relationships when you were growing up?
Gosh, I have a bit of an interesting story actually. Because when I was growing up, my big sister was working at family planning. She’s four years older than me. So she was sort of bringing— when everybody else was reading the lovely dolly magazines and you know how to put lipstick on—I was being made to read “how to cope with herpes” and “how to put on a condom.” And all the kids at my school figured this out, that I had a big sister there. So they would come to me and they’d say, can you ask your sister about this and can you ask your sister about that. So I ended up, you know, becoming really knowledgeable about sex through that. So that set me up for my job, I think.
But the thing that affected me the most was when I was 15, my father admitted that he’d been having an affair for 10 years. And he left my mother to be with the woman who’s now his wife. First of all, it was awful experience for all of us, but I remember just being fascinated by these big forces of love and sex, and my god, sex must be so powerful, because I knew that he loved my mother. I mean, he obviously loved her as well.
But to me, in my little 15-year-old brain, I saw it as a love versus sex thing. And so I’ve never underestimated how powerful sexual desire can be. My god, I mean, people have, you know, left thrones for it. It can make the sanest [person] insane. So, I have a great respect for sex in that sense and I still do. Sex can be…it’s such a small part of our lives, really, in terms of time, but it’s a very big part of our lives. Very, very big.
Tracey herself has not been a stranger to challenges in sex department. That’s one reason she has so much empathy for anyone struggling with issues like low desire, which she experienced with menopause.
I mean, I didn’t have a great menopause. I had an awful menopause. My desire just went through— I used to have a really high sex drive and it just fell away. I was like, this isn’t gonna happen to me. It was awful.
So, I really, and that was one of the motivations for writing this book was I thought, Bloody hell. I’ve written – this is my 17th book. You know, I knew everything, and my libido fell so, and I was like, Wow, if it’s gonna happen to me, and I’m really knowledgeable about sex, then how is everybody else going to cope?
And also because I suppose what I do and working from home, I just, I used to like at least masturbate once a day, which I think is the secret to a good sex drive. If you give your body lots of orgasms, your body craves orgasms. And that’s what happened with my desire was that suddenly I thought, Oh, god. I haven’t got my vibrator out for lik, months.
I didn’t go off sex. I forgot about sex. So then I had to go, Okay, right. All right. Don’t panic. It just means that, you know, desire is not going to tap me on the shoulder anymore. It means I have to create it.
Therefore, then you just think, okay, well, what makes me feel sexy—watching a sexy film, reading a sexy book, you know, getting myself halfway there with a vibrator before I get in bed with my husband. So accepting that I’m not gonna feel spontaneously turned on anymore, well, not all the time anyway, and it’s not my partner’s job to turn me on, either. It’s my job to turn myself on. And that changed everything, I think.
And also knowing that it’s normal. It was like, okay, so it’s got nothing to do with my relationship. It’s got nothing to do with me. This is just what happens. It’s hormones, hormones. It’s a thing. They just trickle away and you can’t do anything about it.
And so, Tracey said, you look at sex from a different direction. For her, vaginal penetration is painful. She said vaginal pessaries have helped. They’re basically devices you insert that support areas of your pelvis. She and her husband have also switched to other types of sex, such as oral, most of the time.
I mean, I’ve got a partner who doesn’t mind about that. It’s so, so we live with that, work outside of the square. And the sex is, I have to say, in lots of ways better because of that.
I loved hearing that. I totally believe that sex challenges can spur creative and end up broadening our sexual repertoires, so to speak.
Tracey sprinkled lots of true stories and experiences from many different folks throughout Great Sex Starts at Fifty. I asked her to share what struck her most about people’s commentary when she approached them about these topics.
I was really struck, apart from people not talking about not having sex, but by how much it isn’t about what you look like or what’s actually happening. It’s all about perception. It is all in the head.
All the people who said, “I hate aging, you know. My body doesn’t look the same. You know, my breasts are down around my waist, and I’ve got stretch marks. And who would ever want to sleep with me? Why, you know, why would I ever want to have sex again? I don’t look the way I did.” All of those people, surprise, surprise, were having rubbish sex, or having no sex at all.
The women who said, “I don’t look the same, you know, as I did. But I actually still think I look sexy. So, I don’t really care what anyone else thinks. And my husband thinks I’m sexy so that’s all I care about. I couldn’t care less if I look older or you look young.” They’re the people who were having great sex.
Now, the people who were complaining about not looking the same probably looked 20 times better than the ones that thought they didn’t. So, it doesn’t matter what you actually look like. It doesn’t matter, you know, whether you’re the big sex kitten and look great on Instagram or whether you’re one of these people that looks like a librarian. You know, it doesn’t really matter. It’s got nothing to do with looks. So that was just reinforced big time.
If you want to experience great sex, now and throughout the rest of your life, Tracey said to remember that it is all about attitude.
If you really want to have great sex until you’re 90, you will have great sex. You will find a way to get past all of the challenges—you really will—because it’s all about wanting to.
But if you are looking for excuses to get out of it or just never really liked sex that much, then, you know, aging is going to come along and it’s going to be a gift to you. It’s going to be, “Well, look at that, got a dry vagina. Cant have sex with a dry vagina.”
That was fascinating to me. It is all about the brain and the attitude. If you change your attitude, then you can change anything. So that was the biggest, biggest thing. Sex isn’t about the body. It’s about the brain.
Stream the full Girl Boner Radio episode, including Dr. Megan’s inaugural Pleasure Pick of the month up above or on your favorite podcast app! And enter her special Tracey Cox-inspired giveaway on Instagram: @Dr.MeganFleming