Ever since Fifty Shades of Grey burst on to the literary scene it’s left a trail of curiosity in its wake. By bringing sex into mainstream discussion, it’s encouraged many of us to examine our own sexual habits. Although it’s unlikely most twenty-somethings are experiencing the same level of sexual extremes, it does reflect the idea that sex in your twenties is often about sexual discovery. So what about your thirties and forties? According to a study commissioned by Singles247.com, women reach their peak of sexual confidence aged 31. On top of confidence, recent research from the University of Texas suggests sex drive increases in your thirties and forties, with a marked rise in sexual fantasies.
‘Sexuality develops throughout our lifetime,’ says Aisha Ali* (www.aishaali.co.uk), a consultant psychotherapist who specialises in relationships and sex. ‘Life changes, such as work, children and marriages, all impact our sexuality and relationships, but no one stops being sexual after a certain age,’ she adds. However, while research suggests the yearning for sexual intimacy doesn’t decrease with age, there are clearly factors that diminish our confidence and desire. The same study that put a woman’s sexual confidence peak at 31, also found that just 12 per cent of adults questioned described their sex life as very good; most gave it a lacklustre five out of 10. So why are things falling flat?
1. MAKE TIME FOR EACH OTHER
Whether it’s running around after children or long hours in the office, a number of factors often mean that sex isn’t on the cards, or that we’re just too fatigued to enjoy some time between the sheets. ‘Our lives really have become busy and we have less time for partners,’ says Ali. ‘One of the most common complaints I hear from clients is about people being time poor and too tired for sex.’
On top of this, ‘a lot of bedrooms are not set up for sleep or sex,’ explains psychological therapist, Michelle Bassam (harleytherapy.co.uk). Everybody is constantly on their smartphone or tablet, they log off, then turn over and think ‘I’m going to have sex,’ but it doesn’t, and shouldn’t, work like that,’ she adds. This sort of sexual behaviour can leave a partner feeling undesired, less attractive, leaving them rejected and affecting their confidence.
If the trappings of a modern lifestyle are leaving your sex life in a rut, the first thing you need to do is learn to speak about the issues with your partner gently and without criticism or blame. ‘A lot of fun and different activity goes on in the bedroom now, but people still haven’t learnt to talk about it as a couple – sulking or ignoring each other will only make matters worse,’ says Bassam.
‘It’s an American idea, but a lot of people have date night and it does spark intimacy,’ she adds. Making time firstly for yourself and then for your partner is important. ‘Spontaneity is key,’ she adds.
Making time for each other doesn’t mean just for sex. ‘Refusing sex or not getting around to sex is often a relational problem,’ suggests Ali. ‘Intimacy is really about allowing yourself to be vulnerable with a person and getting to know each other.’ Not spending time with each other or avoidance through going to the pub with your mates is a sign that intimacy is lacking. ‘The route I often take with clients is addressing the relationship first and working on the sex afterwards, although it often improves as a result.’
2. THINK ABOUT FEEL, NOT LOOKS
Another emotional aspect that might be hampering your sex life is a lack of body confidence. ‘In a lot of cases by time you’re in forties, you’re in a long term relationship and your bodies may have changed from when you first met your partner,’ says Bassam.
There are different degrees to a lack of body confidence, explains Ali, ‘Remember that most people want to have sex with the light off!’ If you’re focusing on what you look like, you’re shifting the idea of sex on to performance, when sex should be about the sensation you feel. ‘You might also feel shy from a lack of self-confidence or experience,’ she says. ‘We’re a nation now where ‘looks’ and the idea of fit and active bodies are so important,’ she says. ‘Porn, for example, is the main source of sex education for a lot of young people, but it’s not about sensuality or connection.’
Remember, a normal body shape or type is a myth. ‘Imagine what feeling sexy means to you and emulate it,’ explains Ali. ‘For instance, try wearing your favourite perfume.’ Doing this creates a circumstance where you feel safe and comfortable – try to move away from focusing on looks. ‘Stop judging yourself by making comparisons, based on how you look and your sexual performance, it’s important you don’t base your confidence on outside events and other people.’
Building good sexual self-esteem and confidence is dependent on breaking old habits and new productive ones, says Ali. ‘You need to shatter the habit of negative thinking and learn to acknowledge and deal with your negative thoughts.’
3. LOSE THOSE EXPECTATIONS
‘The ultimate confidence killer in the bedroom is being compared to an ex-partner,’ says Bassam, ‘and it happens way more than I care to think.’
Ali agrees. ‘I often work with couples who say: “I’ve had loads of experience”, or “I’ve had loads of sexual partners.’ But, despite having experience, they should only be concentrating on the experience they have with their current partner.’ When someone says they have more experience than their partner, it’s a sure fire way of limiting your view of what orgasm and sex is. ‘They expect their partner should orgasm, get excited in the same way that another partner had and it’s often not the case, so don’t be intimidated by someone who’s more experienced – our sexual tastes change throughout life!’ says Ali.
If you’ve had more sexual experiences than your partner, or vice versa, ensure that there’s no criticism or expectation, advises Bassam. When there’s expectation, it’s easy to lose confidence, and remember that building confidence takes time, energy and commitment. ‘It’s a sharing experience and an experience you only share with that one person, not people from past relationships,’ she explains.
4. REIGNITE THE PASSION
Remember those butterflies in your stomach from the start of your relationship? ‘In the beginning of a relationship, sex tends to be very chemical or hormonal, and as you get older, if you’ve been together for a while, this ‘chemistry’ might diminish,’ says Ali. Sex might be off the cards entirely or just boring and mundane. Passion and desire go hand in hand and a lack of both tend to be the main difficulty people have when it comes to sex,’ says Ali. ‘Even though sexual chemistry can’t be manufactured, there are many ways of keeping it alive or reigniting that spark that made you first fancy your partner.’
Sex starts outside of (and isn’t solely about) the bedroom. It can be as simple as paying compliments, spending time with your partner, initiating sex, touching more often, being physically close and eye contact. ‘Foreplay keeps passion alive and can start outside of the bedroom,’ says Ali. Think about the things that put you in the mood, like food, music or romancing each other. ‘I recommended that clients explore a sensation exercise, by setting the scene with candles and paying attention to the scents they use,’ she suggests. ‘Take turns to gently explore your partner’s body, not necessarily focusing on the genitals – the point isn’t to bring each other to orgasm – but rather to explore the sensation.’ Take time to experiment with speed and pressure for 20 minutes, then swap, remembering to provide feedback.
The ultimate tip for boosting desire is paying attention to each other’s arousal cycles. They’re different for everyone and couples may be turned on at different times throughout the month or after certain events. ‘It’s about being aware about what turns on your partner and when, and amending your rhythm or patterns accordingly.’
On top of this, it’s important to remember that everyone has slightly different sex drives. ‘There is no normal – some people might have sex once a week, once a month, once a year and that’s fine for them,’ says Ali, ‘it’s about negotiating that with a partner.’
5. TRY SOMETHING NEW
There’s a whole world of ways to experiment, and experimenting has been proven to be good for your sex life. Those with outgoing tendencies who are more open have been found to experience better sexual function, according to a study published in the journal Sexual Medicine. The research also suggested that those with a positive disposition and outlook also had better sex. If you or your partner are wanting to find the confidence to try something new, there are a few things to consider.
‘Before you get started, you have to be totally agreeable with what’s about to happen,’ explains Bassam. So talk about your likes and dislikes to find out what would suit you both – ‘it’s a sharing experience and an experience you only share with that one person,’ she adds.
Whether it’s toys, positions, fantasy or role-play, the key is feeling safe enough to experiment. ‘Everyone has slightly different sexual repertoires, and that often comes with experience because we get to know our bodies and boundaries,’ explains Ali. ‘The more you practice, the better you get at it, and the more you feel safe and try different activities with that person.’
You need to recognise when your partner is comfortable, or that you can opt out if you aren’t enjoying it. Ali suggests using a code word that can mean ‘I don’t like this anymore’, rather saying ‘no’ or ‘stop’ which can be abrupt or make the experience a negative one.