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As the population ages, many people are reaching older age having gone through one or more divorces. That’s particularly true for the generation known as the baby boomers, who hit adulthood in the 1960s and ‘70s when societal norms around marriage and women’s roles were changing drastically. Add to that, a more recent upward trend in so-called gray divorce, which is older couples divorcing after many years of marriage. While many studies have pointed out difficulties stemming from divorce for men and women but particularly for women, including financial challenges and diminished social support, many women in this study described how divorce was sexually empowering for them.

The study I conducted for my doctoral research was an exploration of the question of what contributes to sexual satisfaction as women age. It was a qualitative study, which included my interviewing 16 women aged 56 to 92, 14 of whom had experienced divorce at some point in their lives. From the stories of the women I interviewed, divorce emerged as a significant factor that often served as a springboard for sexual growth. For the research participants who had divorced, the dissolution of their marriages created opportunities for sexual exploration and pleasure that were sometimes missing in their marriages, whether they divorced at a young age or when they were older. As one might guess, the quality of marital sex was related to the way the divorce was perceived at the time and then subsequent sexual experiences. For example, if the marriage was very stressful or the sex was very unsatisfying, divorce especially provided an especially important opportunity to learn and experience sexual pleasure.

This study, which corroborated the findings of one larger book-length study on the topic entitled Deserving desire: Women’s stories of sexual evolution,found that after a period of disorientation, women often found divorce to be an impetus for sexual experimentation and learning about themselves. After recovering, none of the women said they would prefer not to have divorced in the long run. In fact, they reported feeling sexually empowered over time by their divorces. This empowerment grew from multiple roots. Sometimes, divorce helped the participants to challenge social norms. Sometimes it created freedom from childcare, from an abusive relationship, or a mixed orientation marriage. Most often, divorce created space for new relationship energy and sexual exploration, and, perhaps paradoxically, sometimes it created a sense of security that aided experimentation by making the end of relationships seem less scary and more workable.

Divorce changes people’s lives in profound ways. How these changes occur and the types of changes have received relatively little attention in research literature, especially the dimension of sexual expression. This study invites further consideration of the possibility that the quality of sex in marriage impacts the quality of sexual expression after divorce, and that many older women remember their divorces as part of a sexual revolution in their lives, whether the divorce was early or later in life.doodad

Kate Morrisssey Stahl, PhD, LCSW, CST is an assistant clinical professor of social work at UGA and an AASECT certified sex therapist. The full research article, entitled “Sex after Divorce: Older Women’s Reflections,” was co-authored with University of Georgia professors Jerry Gale, Denise Lewis, and Douglas Kleiber in the Journal of Gerontological Social Work.

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When I told my mother-in-law that I was writing my dissertation about aging and sexual expression, she deadpanned “Well, at least it will be short.” Many cultural messages imply that our sex life will inevitably worsen as we age. However, one of my heroes on the topic of aging and sexuality, Joan Price, has dedicated her writing for the past decade to dispelling the myth of inevitable sexual decline and offering concrete ways to improve one’s sexual experience as one ages.

Price’s own romantic experience sparked her interest in sex and aging.  “I was a health and fitness writer — and before that, a high school English teacher. My world changed when, at age 57, I met the man who would become the love of my life. He was then 64. Our relationship was so dynamic and extraordinary sexually as well as every other way that I changed careers and started writing about older-age sexuality at age 61.”

That relationship inspired a range of works, including her 2014 book, The Ultimate Guide to Sex After 50: How to Maintain or Regain a Spicy, Satisfying Sex Life, and her informative blog on the topic. In the book, Price provides a wide-ranging consideration of age-and-sexuality issues from a sex-positive perspective. This means in addition to addressing solutions to sexual problems, she explores sexual flourishing and considers many approaches to sexual expression, including dating later in life, how to spice up sex, and information on a range of sexual choices and lifestyles for both single and partnered older adults. In her award-winning blog, Price curates news, information, and reviews of sex toys and videos of interest to older adults. Readers can access it at: http://betterthanieverexpected.blogspot.com/.

When I asked Price about the most important thing she has learned in her work, she replied, “Yes, things change, our bodies change, our relationships change, our responses change. But for every problem, there is a solution with the right information, creativity, and a sense of adventure. A sense of humor helps, too.”Boom Athens Logo - Favicon (Recolor) - 75px

Readers may submit questions related to age and intimacy to Ms. Morrissey Stahl at: AsktheBoomTherapist@gmail.com. By sending a question, you are consenting to BoomAthens printing it although identifying information will be withheld if it is published. Having your questions answered can be useful but it does not take the place of getting personalized, professional advice.