Sex After 50: Getting Back in the Saddle

Returning to sex after divorce, death of spouse, can be awkward, but joyous.

July 21, 2009, 3:38 PM

July 22, 2009— -- Janet, a 58-year-old newlywed from North Carolina, hadn't had sex in 15 years and was well past her hot flashes when she finally consummated her second marriage in May.

Her late-in-life romance blossomed after the end of a 22-year marriage to an emotionally abusive husband.

"There was not a lot of love there and definitely not a lot of sex," she told "I didn't want to get involved with another man because I didn't want to get hurt."

But a dear friend from her days in the U.S. Army entered her life unexpectedly -- he too was divorced and eager to rekindle their relationship.

"I felt very safe with him, but he was in St. Louis and I was in North Carolina," explained Janet. "We got to know each other over the phone. He had me laughing, rolling on the floor like it used to be."

The couple met up in Indianapolis, staying with a relative in separate bedrooms. Jim brought roses to her door each morning and kissed her. "But I was extremely nervous."

As devout Christians, the couple took an oath of celibacy. And even though their three-year courtship was "passionate," Janet was well past menopause and worried about what kind of a lover she would be on their wedding day.

With men and women living longer, the number of people who are sexually active past 50 has steadily risen since the 1970s, according to both Swedish and American studies.

But for women like Janet, who are suddenly single again, either because of divorce or the death of a spouse, getting back in the bedroom can be anxiety-producing and awkward.

A 2007 study in the New England Journal of Medicine, reported that 73 percent of those in the 57 to 64 age group and 53 percent of those 65 to 74 reported having had sex with a partner in a the previous year. Among 75- to 85-year-olds, about 36 percent were still sexually active.

And, according to statistics from AARP, an estimated 15.4 percent of men and women over 50 are divorced, 6.25 percent have never been married and 4.4 percent are widowed.

"If they haven't been dating for a long time, women are up against feelings of self-confidence," said Lonnie Barbach, a clinical psychologist from the University of San Francisco.

Sexually Active Seniors on the Rise

"They're bodies have changed and they may not feel as comfortable or attractive," she told "Women are not getting the same attention from store clerks."

Biologically, women's bodies are more challenged than men's, and the pharmaceutical industry has yet to produce a "pink" Viagra. Besides lower libido, women's vaginal muscles are less flexible and without use, can actually shrink.

"If you don't use it, you lose it," said Barbach, author of "Positive Approaches to Perimenopause and Menopause."

Janet's gynecologist applauded her efforts to wait, but warned her that not having had sex for over a decade could be painful.

"It's almost like you are going to be a virgin again," the doctor told Janet. "But I'll help you get ready for your wedding night."

Janet was prescribed estrogen cream to ease vaginal dryness and given a series of books on what to expect.

But many middle-aged women are unprepared for that first sexual encounter.

Pam, a 57-year-old divorcee and business consultant from Maine, reconnected last year with a friend she had a crush on at riding camp 40 years earlier.

The first time wasn't so bad: "Alcohol played a major part," she told "He wasn't expecting anything and neither was I. We talked and that helped set the stage."

"But the next day I was exceedingly sore," she said. "I had shrunk up. It's amazing. I wasn't prepared for it."

The hardest part isn't medical but psychological, say therapists.

"The preparation is kind of scary for a lot of women," said Sandra Ceren, a Del Mar, Calif., psychologist. "Will he see me the way I am now or as I was? Will he see my age spots and sagging breasts. Will he find me as perky?"

One 54-year-old, an author of 13 books on the topic and whose pen name is the Dating Goddess, knows firsthand the pitfalls of getting back in the saddle.

Her husband of 20 years left her at age 48. "I was in fetal position for many months crying," she told "I was overweight and who would be attracted to me?"

But since then, she's dated 98 men in four and half years. In her book, "From Fear to Frolic," she recounts getting naked for the first time after her divorce – with 30 to 40 extra pounds.

Older Sex With Bags and Sags

Her first encounter was with a nearby neighbor who was also overweight. "I felt less self-conscious about the bags and sags."

"The first time is like the first waffle -- you throw it out," she said. "People expect bells and whistles and usually the first time is not like that."

Susan, a therapist from northern California, had been married at 19 for 16 years. A long relationship with someone she met at work ended recently.

"Never in my life have I dated," said the 65-year-old. "I was a single parent raising kids. Every man I ever went out with I met organically."

"I am very, very anxious about being with a stranger – someone I know nothing about," she told

She has reason to worry.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, 15 percent of all new HIV cases were among men and women over 50 and seniors are one of the fastest growing groups to contract other sexually transmitted diseases.

"The rules have changed," said Susan Kellogg, director of sex medicine at the Pelvic and Sexual Health Institute of Philadelphia. "They don't grasp condom use or sage sexual behavior."

Women who had been married to high school and college sweethearts may find they have herpes for the first time in their lives, asking Kellogg, "How did this happen? I don't understand."

"Now they are back dating with men who have had more partners in their lifetime and more exposure," she said. "I see women fumbling with this."

But women are also finding fulfillment in these later-in-life relationships.

Alison, a retired interior decorator, had been married for 25 years when the mailman found her husband dead of a heart attack on their western Massachusetts porch.

Their sex life had been "dismal," but when she began dating again, "It was a whole new world -- wow," said the 58-year-old.

"My husband was my first real sexual encounter and I thought, that's how it's supposed be," she told "I discovered that wasn't true, and there was nothing wrong with me."

Today, Alison is happily married to a man she met online. There have been health challenges, but, said Alison, "Oh my God, what had I been missing all these years."

For newlyweds Janet and Jim, whose passion was held in check until their honeymoon, they were not only psychologically ready, but "spiritually prepared."

When the sexual moment arrived, was it good? "Yes, yes, yes," said Janet emphatically.

"It was so different from the last time I was married," she said. "I didn't know if I would be a good lover, but our love was already established. I think God wants me to be happy. He brought us together again."

"We trust each other, we laugh at each other, we cry together," said Janet. "It's so refreshing and different and that's what makes the sex so great."

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events