Monday 15 July 2019

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

Suzanne Harrington

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.

Jane Fonda, who has talked about the pleasures of septuagenarian sex


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.

What is deemed truly deviant is that Daniel Craig would want to have it off with someone old enough to be his, well, mother. Meanwhile, in a recent interview, 53-year-old Gary Lineker spoke proudly of his second wife who is 19 years his junior – young enough to be his daughter – and says his friends heartily approve. Would they have approved had she been 19 years his senior? Sex with a 72-year-old woman? Unthinkable. Deviant. Grotesque.

Unless of course you have a thing for grannies, in which case your next point of reference is the slew of specialist websites which will gladly cater to your freakish tastes. Remember the ridicule heaped on Wayne Rooney after his youthful encounter with an older prostitute? It was not his visiting a prostitute which caused the fuss, but her age. The male equivalent is not taboo – unpleasant American shock jock Howard Stern ran a Get Your Grandpa Laid competition last December, the 86-year-old winner unfortunately choking to death on a steak before claiming his 'prize' – a session with two prostitutes at Nevada's Bunny Ranch.

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.

Then along came feminism, collagen and the internet, and ever since, middle-aged women have been becoming increasingly conscious of the fact that perhaps that they were not quite ready for the female equivalent of pipe and slippers (knitting needles and hairnet?)

Women are not ageing like they used to. Nor does sexual desire evaporate overnight, despite what the medical industries would tell you.

The reality of sex in middle age is not about women not being up for it, but about working with a whole new set of related issues: while in middle age you have the self-esteem, the experience, and the confidence that may not have been as rock solid in earlier years, you may also have to work with the affects of menopause, breast cancer, prostate cancer, and the general acceptance that you will not be having physical sex like a 25-year-old when you are 55 or 65 or 75, even if you still feel 18 inside your head.

It's just the that rest of the world hasn't quite caught up yet. Hence the sexual adventures of one 60-something being worthy of a memoir, and then a theatre production 'A Round Heeled Woman' .

Had Jane Juska – the Trollope-loving woman at the centre of the narrative in her late 60s who placed an advert looking to have lots of no-strings sex with a variety of partners – been a man, would anyone have even noticed?

But because she was an older woman keen to have "lots and lots of sex" after a long period of celibacy, she was viewed a bit scandalous, a bit oddball.

The traditional model for older women has been monogamy, a falling off of sexual activity with their life partner, then possibly widowhood – or in latter years, divorce or separation – followed by a late middle age and old age where nothing at all happens sexually. Nada. It is o-v-e-r, and what's more, older women are either relieved or don't care.

The reality, as the University of Pittsburgh shows, is rather different and continues to change. Thanks to the internet, older people who have divorced long-term partners are not going quietly into the good night with their crime novel and mug of Horlicks, but are going online and connecting with other singles their own age.

One anonymous widow in her late 60s has been having a ball with internet dating. "I had no idea sex could be such fun," she says. "I am playing catch up like you wouldn't believe. The idea of remarrying doesn't interest me at all."

Former editor of 'Ms' magazine Suzanne Braun Levine, in her book 'Woman's Guide To Second Adulthood', writes "Changing the rules can be a particularly alarming development for those in our lives who have counted on our devotion. Men in particular are more than a little bewildered by how we are redefining ourselves in relation to them."

In another book, 'Sex After...Women Share How Intimacy Changes as Life Changes', American journalist Iris Krasnow interviewed 150 women about their personal lives – sex, marriage, pregnancy, menopause, divorce – and reveals how the hottest stories came from the oldest women.

She found that the people she spoke with – women and men – remained interested in sex and their sexuality until death; one 88-year-old woman told of how she and her husband continued to have regular sex almost until his death aged 91.

A 72-year-old woman who had been in an unsatisfactory open marriage in the Seventies talked about her current very happy sex life with a monogamous partner and a vibrator. Sex toys are clearly not just for the 'Sex and the City' generation and beyond.

Krasnow's findings showed that women like sex and continue to have it, irrespective of calendar age. Yet in the Pittsburgh research headed by Holly Thomas, many of the 600 women in the study who were sexually active still fell into the 'sexual dysfunction' category.

In other words, they were confronting issues related to older sex – like changes in physical response – yet were still enjoying themselves.

They did not view sexual dysfunction as a major obstacle, apparently; these days, there is nothing that cannot be lubricated or treated with oestrogen.

Human resourcefulness extends to the bedroom when it comes to working with what is available – Thomas reported women taking a "holistic" approach.

And anyway, sex is as individual as fingerprints – it's not all acrobatics and performance art, despite what porn would have you think.

The Pittsburgh research showed how older women wanted physical closeness as much as anything else. Oh, and – let's not beat about the bush – orgasm.

When enjoying good health – physical, psychological, emotional – the desire and capacity for orgasm does not diminish with age. Don't let anyone tell you any different.

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