We asked the lawyer and mindfulness practitioner Peggy Kerdo to share her experiences around perimenopause, menopause and postmenopause as a cis lesbian woman. The following piece has been adapted from Peggy’s presentation at the Adelaide Better Together Conference held in February 2023.
Peggy Kerdo: Here's a bit about me. I am 61, a lawyer, and a student currently completing a Master of Sexology at Curtin University. I’m also a mother and a grandmother, a child of Greek immigrants, and a cis woman that identifies as a lesbian. While I have no medical expertise or training, I have learnt a lot about my stories, my body and my mind in my transition through perimenopause to postmenopause. I’m sharing how my personal experience of sex changed, because I found the whole experience confusing, distressing and completely lacking in information that was not of a medical nature.
There was – and still is – very little information on positive and affirming experiences of sex for postmenopausal lesbians. So, I am going to start this conversation and share some guidance based on my experience, because I am passionate about encouraging all postmenopausal lesbian women to engage with their sexual being, if that is what they want.
Lesbian sex after menopause is different to lesbian sex before menopause.
For the record, postmenopausal lesbian sex is incredible, mind-blowing and so very joyous, but the postmenopausal body responds differently. What may have brought you to orgasm before menopause may not work in the same way, if at all. Getting in touch with your sexual body after menopause requires willingness, commitment, curiosity, patience, love, practise, play, and a whole lot of courage. But there isn’t enough positive, safe and accessible information on nurturing and exploring lesbian sexual vitality post menopause.
Most of what we learn about the ageing postmenopausal body is through a lens of medicine, so we’re met with fearful words like ‘atrophy’, ‘dry’, ‘brittle’, ‘prolapse’, and ‘incontinence’. While the effects of a lack of oestrogen on the body do need to be understood and managed, and medicine can provide blessed relief from some of the symptoms – that’s not all there is. What about sex? What about information on how to discover postmenopausal libido – which is not the same as premenopausal libido. Where is this information? Where is this advice? Is it any wonder that this phase of our lives exacerbates isolation and invisibility?
While this is common for people who experience menopause, lesbians have to deal with stereotypes around companionship and false concepts like lesbian bed death.
Our society struggles with the idea of lesbians having sex.
Our psyches are infiltrated with insidious ideas of sex between women not lasting, and of the inevitability of staid, placid, and non-threatening companionships in old age. And if lesbians are invisible before menopause, they are even more so postmenopause, because the idea that ageing lesbians have earth-shattering sex is even more unpalatable and unbelievable to the heteronormative patriarchal system. To articulate my point, let’s look at one of my pet hates – lesbian bed death or LBD.
The concept of lesbian bed death came out of research from the United States in the early 1980s. Data was collected from thousands of people regarding how often they had sex. According to the study almost 800 participants identified as lesbian. When the researchers analysed the data, they stated that lesbian sex in couples decreased markedly over a number of years. This data has been roundly critiqued. Firstly, all intimate relationships showed a decrease in sex activity as the years progressed. Secondly, and most importantly, the definition of what sex actually was in those studies (understood as penetrative sex) was not even questioned.
A great 2021 article that looked at LBD suggested that, “Rather than accept the label ‘lesbian bed death’ as characterising these sexual relationships, we [could] turn our attention to what we call lesbian bed intimacies: the myriad ways that lesbian women incorporate behaviours promoting emotional connection, romance, and mood setting, as well as relying on a wide variety of specific sexual acts (e.g., use of sex toys) and sexual communication.”
But the idea of lesbian bed death still is pervasive within and beyond the lesbian community. There is fear when sex stops. There’s not enough affirming, encouraging information out there about a possible natural lessening of sexual activity in an intimate relationship. More specifically, there isn’t enough information within the community about the change in sexual activity and libido for postmenopausal lesbians. So that’s what we’re up against in our society and community. But what gets in the way of us personally exploring our postmenopausal body and sexuality?
Barriers to embracing our bodies and discovering our sexual potential.
Shame, fear and grief stand in our way of unlocking deep, life-changing pleasure and joy within our very own bodies after menopause.
Shame-filled narratives tell us that wrinkles, sagging skin, hair under the chin and droopy boobs are ugly and unattractive – and we buy into it. We’re told that wanting sexual connection in an ageing body is embarrassing, perverse, shameful, and comical.
Fear sets in. As the body ages and no longer responds in ways so taken for granted in youth, fear of death, pain, isolation and rejection becomes more present. The frightening inevitability of growing old becomes crystal clear. It’s terrifying to see the end of the conveyor belt so clearly. It is easier to curl up and feel safe within the ‘known’ during the later stages of our lives.
Finally, we feel profound grief at the loss of the young, strong and trustworthy body. In so many ways, every day the body reminds us that youth has so very, very quickly passed.
Taking steps into a joyful and playful exploration of this postmenopausal body involves acknowledging and compassionately holding space for shame, fear and grief.
Three steps to re-engage with your body and discover sexual vitality after menopause:
- Tune in.
To feel what is going on in the body, you must be able to tune in. Better yet, find tools to help you connect and remain connected. The tool that helps me is mindfulness. And I’m talking about a real, consistent mindfulness practice after completing an accredited mindfulness course, specifically an eight-week program.
Why eight? Neuroscience tells us that it takes approximately eight weeks for new neural pathways to be formed at any age. Developing mindfulness is like engaging in a new bodywork program – like the gym, Pilates, barre, or yoga. You have to be taught the right way to do it and maintain it. Sorry – an app won’t cut it, nor will a weekend program. Find a reputable provider – like Openground, here in Australia – and commit. The courses provided by Openground focus on tuning in to the body and the senses and staying present for whatever is there.
- Get in touch.
And I do mean this in the sense of both getting in touch with sex-positive resources AND literally developing a practice of touching yourself. You do not need a partner to explore your sexuality. Find a qualified sexologist. Investigate tantra. Surround yourself with sex-positive resources, like Passionfruit based in Naarm/Melbourne. Read their blogs. Watch their videos. Have a look at their workshops. Better yet, go to some of the workshops! Have a Tantric yoga massage! You might find that orgasms do change after menopause. The clitoral orgasm may be inconsistent, but G-spot, A-spot and C-spot orgasms may just split your world. But you have to learn, you have to practise, and you have to play. As you play and explore, different sensations build. The body learns and it remembers everything, and all of a sudden you will experience a different kind of pleasure, joy and even ecstasy.
- Stay – if you can.
When we tune in and work with the body, pain and trauma may come up. If this happens, and you want to open-up and explore your body, find a good trauma-centred psychotherapist to support you. You will know if body exploration is right for you. Stay, if you can, if it is right for you. Listen to your body and to your heart – they are always right. And know that it is completely OK to stop if it becomes too frightening or painful. There is no failure.
Menopause is a transition to a new body, a new way of experiencing the world, just as puberty once was. And it is not an ending, but another beginning. It takes courage to again step into unknown territory when we are older. And it is worth it – this body, right now, can bring so much surprise, joy and transcendence.
We are only in this body for this lifetime. If you want to fully embody this one, wild and precious life, remember: tune in, get in touch and stay – if you can.
David A Frederick, Brian Joseph Gillespie, Janet Lever, Vincent Berardi, Justin R Garcia 5 Frederick DA, Gillespie BJ, Lever J, Berardi V, Garcia JR. Debunking Lesbian Bed Death: Using Coarsened Exact Matching to Compare Sexual Practices and Satisfaction of Lesbian and Heterosexual Women. Arch Sex Behav. 2021 Nov;50(8):3601-3619. doi: 10.1007/s10508-021-02096-4. Epub 2021 Nov 1. PMID: 34725751.