Sunday 23 November 2014

There's no need to whisper it anymore – older women like sex

The older woman as desexualised being is ingrained in our culture but what's going on in the real world is very different from the picture being painted by the media, writes Suzanne Harrington

Helen Mirren is presented as a sexual goddess despite being 65, but she is a notable exception
Helen Mirren is presented as a sexual goddess despite being 65, but she is a notable exception
Anne Reid and Daniel Craig in The Mother
Jane Fonda, who has talked about the pleasures of septuagenarian sex
Author Jane Juska (left) and actor Sharon Gless, who starred in the play, A Round-Heeled Woman, based on Jane’s story of embarking on sexual adventures, aged 67

GUESS what? Middle-aged women like sex. So do older ones. Yes, incredibly, women continue to like sex long past the age they are deemed sexually attractive by the fashion, beauty and entertainment industries. While these industries connect female sexual attractiveness a bit over-literally with the sell-by date of female fertility – meaning that once your eggs are no longer viable, then neither are you (just ask any Hollywood star the same age as her leading man, but cast to play his mother) – the reality in ordinary bedrooms is rather different.

This is because women over 50 still like sex as much as anyone else, thank you very much, and there is now academic research to prove it.

It's hard to know where to start with this – that women over 50 liking sex is anything but the bleeding obvious, or that academics have actually been paid to formally spell out the bleeding obvious. It makes you wonder which century we are living in, and on which planet. But first, the research.

Recently published in the 'Journal of the American Medical Association', researchers at the University of Pittsburgh led by Dr Holly Thomas studied 600 women aged 40 to 65 over a period of several years.

After four years of monitoring, there were 354 sexually active women; another four years later, 85pc of the group were still having regular sex. One in 10 regarded sex as 'extremely important', half said it was 'moderately important', and one fifth said it was 'not very important'.

The study showed that women who rated sex as important were more likely to remain sexually active in later life.

Well, duh. We need a study to tell us that? Or actually, perhaps we do – to highlight the yawning disconnect between (a) what is actually going on in the bedroom and (b) how older women are presented in the media and via those industries which profit from how women look.

From a cultural perspective, the sexually active older women is presented at best by that awful term 'cougar', at worst as something deeply unappetising, even vaguely transgressive. As though having sex with a post menopausal woman is verging on gerontophilic. Older women as valid sexual beings are virtually non-existent in mainstream culture.

Harrison Ford and Judi Dench are both in their 70s; while Ford could, without too much suspension of disbelief, play your lover, Judi Dench could only ever play your gran.

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When Jane Fonda, also in her 70s, talks about the pleasures of septuagenarian sex, everyone goes 'ewwww' and blocks their ears. We don't do this with older men.

Sean Connery is 83 and is still considered attractive; somehow male ageing has been marketed as an asset, while for women it's game over.

In Hanif Kureishi's screenplay 'The Mother', the late middle-aged mother steals her adult daughter's lover. Yet this is not the central transgression.

The assumption is that men aspire to remaining sexual active to the death. Literally. Dying during sex, for a man, is mythologised as the ultimate way to go; for a woman, dying during sex would be perceived as a grisly Stephen King plot. The older woman as desexualised being is ingrained – a 2011 survey of over 2,000 film viewers by the UK Film Council found over 60pc feel older women are not portrayed as having sexual needs or desires in film. Cinema audiences may acknowledge Helen Mirren as a sexual goddess despite being ancient (at least in film terms – in reality she is 65), but Mirren is a notable exception. Can you think of another?

Yet we are, as usual, in the midst of a cultural shift, and like all cultural shifts, these things take time. Before we all started marrying late and becoming parents late, and living longer, being a woman over 50 meant looking forward to golfing, grandchildren, and incontinence wear.

The dominant cultural message was to slip into your elasticated slacks, love, because it's all over. As a sexual being, you were toast – dried out and crumbly.

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