Tuesday 20 March 2018

I want lots & lots of sex

Suzanne Harrington on the weird and wonderful story of the 67-year-old woman who wanted some no-strings hanky panky

Active Old Age: Sharon Gless and Barry McCarthy
debunk the myth that older people are asexual in
'A Round-Heeled Woman'. Photography: Donald Cooper
Active Old Age: Sharon Gless and Barry McCarthy debunk the myth that older people are asexual in 'A Round-Heeled Woman'. Photography: Donald Cooper

Suzanne Harrington

Our culture is massively preoccupied with sex. Sex, sex, sex. It's everywhere. We're obsessed with it.

There are just two groups at opposite ends of the demographic for whom sex is forbidden: those under 16, for obvious reasons, and those over a certain age.

Because, well, the idea of oldie sex is kind of hideous, isn't it? Old people don't have sex, do they?

Of course they do. It's just that it's one of our last taboos; it is erotically incorrect. We'd rather not go there.

Plus, we're too busy slavering over youth, and figuring out ways to preserve it, to even acknowledge the existence of wrinkly sex.

But that doesn't mean older people stop being interested in it.

When someone asked the German princess Elizabeth Charlotte, who died in 1722, at what age did sexual desire fade away, she answered: "How should I know? I'm only 80!"

You might remember reading about a senior citizen who, in 1999, placed a personal ad in the 'New York Review Of Books'.

It was entirely straightforward in its mission: "Before I turn 67 -- next March -- I would like to have a lot of sex with a man I like. If you want to talk first, Trollope works for me."

Jane Juska, the retired English literature teacher who placed the advert, was not looking for marriage (although she was subsequently offered it -- and politely declined).

Nor was she looking for walks on the beach, trips to the opera, cosying up with a film and a cheeky Rioja, or any of the other things people put in personal ads. She just wanted sex.

And she got it. Lots of it. She received 63 replies from men aged 32 to 84, which she divided into three piles: yes, no and maybe.

Despite putting her advert in a literary magazine, several replies mistook Trollope for trollop, which she says further added to their ardour.

Juska then proceeded to have rather a lot of fun. Having played catch-up after decades of celibacy, she wrote a book about her late life sexual adventures, titled 'A Round-Heeled Woman'.

('Round heeled' is archaic American slang for promiscuous, although until she placed her advert, Juska was anything but -- she had not had a date in 30 years).

The book, elegantly written with great wit and honesty, did well.

Almost a decade later, it has been turned into a stage play -- currently running in London's Riverside Studios until November 20, after opening on Broadway -- which was adapted by British writer Jane Prowse, and has 'Cagney & Lacey' actor Sharon Gless in the lead role.

Gless optioned the book soon after it was published, because she loved the story and was keen to play Juska.

Prior to its publication, Juska first read bits of her book to her monthly writing group. You can only imagine their faces -- it's a candid read.

What is extraordinary about 'A Round-Heeled Woman' is its openness, its expression of straightforward desire. Here is a lady in her 60s who simply wanted what most people want: sex.

But we don't want old people to want sex. We want them to be neutered, especially older women. Juska was tired of feeling neutered, and did not want to go quietly into old age without first kicking up her heels.

Inspired by Eric Rohmer's film 'Autumn Tale', about a woman who advertises for lovers, Juska cheerfully admitted at the time that she "expected to be murdered", but she was bored of playing life safe.

She subsequently had a series of regular liaisons with three men and phone sex with a fourth. The youngest was a 32-year-old David Duchovny lookalike.

She refused a marriage proposal because she did not wish to give up her newfound sexual freedom.

"I never expected to have intimate friendships with extraordinary men," she said at the time.

"True, I've met some men who are not kind or thoughtful, but I've also met men who are kind and thoughtful and funny and true. Which is to say, I guess I found out that men are people.''

The replies she received included graphic nude photos, notes saying, 'Have Viagra, will travel', and one suitor even stole her pyjamas and Champagne flutes.

However, for the most part, she loved her experiences, and enjoyed the intellectual as well as erotic connections.

Having grown up in a climate of Mid-Western sexual repression, followed in San Francisco by an unhappy marriage and decades of celibacy, weight and alcohol issues, Juska transformed herself in later life and was ready to play catch-up.

She went on to teach creative writing to inmates at the fearsome San Quentin prison. Juska was not, however, on a feminist crusade. She insisted that her story was hers alone, and not a call to arms for older women everywhere to set off on a sexual odyssey.

What makes her story stand out is that it is so fearlessly proactive, which resulted in her being hailed as a sexual liberator of senior citizens, a title she was not interested in carrying.

"I don't think everyone should do this," she said. "I didn't go on a crusade to liberate women. I'm not an expert. I'm not a guru."

She went on to say that if her book is ever made into a film, she wants to play herself and have Daniel Day-Lewis "play all the men".

We live in the era of the 'wellderly'; in an era where a 100-year-old London resident, Fauja Singh, recently ran the Toronto Marathon; where 60 is the new 40, and old-age pensioners do zumba; where longevity and good health in old age have never been better.

So what is our problem with oldies and sex? Why do we gag at the mere thought of it?

"The sexuality of elderly people is one of society's last taboos," writes sixtysomething French psychologist Marie de Hennezel in her book, 'The Warmth Of The Heart Prevents Your Body From Rusting: Ageing Without Growing Old'.

And while old men are allowed to retain their sexuality via Viagra and cultural acceptance,

"Not a word is spoken about the sexuality of old women, as if they no longer feel desire after menopause. This is not the case".

'Old age' is a broad term. As women, we have been traditionally boxed in by specific biological events -- start of fertility, (optional) child-bearing and rearing, end of fertility, menopause.

These events manifest within our culture as women over 40 being considered 'old', at least by the entertainment and beauty industries.

To be a sexual older woman in Hollywood, you have to be Kim Cattrall, or Courteney Cox, if you are not to be cast as someone's asexual mother or grandmother.

Britain seems slightly less ageist -- Helen Mirren is still regarded as sexy in her mid-60s -- while the French appear to actively celebrate mature sexuality: think Catherine Deneuve.

But what about real women in real life? Women in their 50s are still regarded as sexual beings -- just. Chris is in her mid-50s, in "an Irish marriage" (by which she means long-term sexless), and has a few lovers whom she sees periodically.

She is attractive and healthy, and cannot countenance the idea of sexual desire fading with age.

"The ageism doesn't bother me, I'm too busy and feel too fit to dwell on that," she says.

"One incident recently did strike me, though. I was getting petrol on the way home from work, looking tired, when I glanced at an attractive man who pulled up beside me. He didn't notice me at all and I thought, 'Maybe with age I have become invisible'."

She continues, "I don't think we should be conditioned to give up sex in older age. I enjoy sex.

"It's not quite as heady as in my 40s, but it's more comfortable and without angst or guilt. A lot depends on your health and fitness levels and attractiveness.

"Certain physical stuff does crop up, or doesn't! Plenty of men have erectile dysfunction and women tend to get a dryness going on. I noticed this lately, so I sneaked into Boots and bought KY jelly and hid it in a brown bag. People make fun of KY jelly."

So despite erotic visibility diminishing daily, fiftysomething women are still on the sexual radar, hanging on by a thread, despite their internal non-dimmed desire.

The desire equation is simple, and weighted against women -- as men age, attracting sex becomes easier for them, and as women age, it becomes harder.

So where does that leave women in their 60s, 70s and 80s? While older men can pop Viagra and get it on with younger women -- such as Rupert Murdoch and Wendy Deng -- the older sexually active woman remains taboo.

Fancy an old man and you want a sugar daddy; fancy an old lady and you are a gerontophile.

"I hear women around 60 or 70 saying to me, 'I no longer exist, I'm not on the scene any more when it comes to sex, nobody notices me any more'," said the late sexologist Ulrike Brandenburg.

"Men can have erections thanks to new products that enhance virility, so why can't we see women as radiant, grey-haired and sensual?"

Even when Jane Fonda -- fit, fresh and face-lifted in her 70s -- talks about sex, does anyone want to listen?

Joan Collins, Barbara Windsor and Vivienne Westwood are all in their 70s and married to handsome younger men. We need to debunk the prejudice that older women are somehow not sexually attractive

And yet we do not make the same assumptions about older men and younger women.

"Any sex life in later years is a continuation of whatever it was earlier in a person's life," writes De Hennezel. "Age, therefore, does not dictate sexual desire, even though it may alter its frequency and characteristics.

"While sexual relations may be slower and less active, we know that they also become more sensual."

In other words, less chandelier swinging, more emotional connection.

A US survey of older people and sexuality, published in the New England 'Journal of Medicine' in 2007, showed that for most people aged 57-85, sex remains an important part of life, and sexual activity diminishes only slightly between your 50s and early 70s.

Many men and women remain sexually active -- by which I mean doing exactly the same stuff as the rest of us -- well into their 70s and 80s.

The study showed that health, far more than age, was the crucial factor in sexual activity.

And in Japan, a famously sexless society where one in four non- elderly married couples regularly report not having sex with each other, there is a growing market in 'elder porn'.

There is also a growing market featuring 'mature' women. "We found that older adults remain interested and engage in sex, yet many experience bothersome sexual problems that can compromise both health and relationships," said the study's author, Dr Stacy Tessler Lindau of the University of Chicago.

"Lack of reliable information about how sexual activity and function might change with age and illness, combined with taboos around discussing sex in later life, contributes to worry or even shame for many older adults."

Further research by Dr Lindau, published in the 'British Medical Journal' in 2010 and published by 'Time' magazine, reported that 67pc of men aged 65 to 74 claimed to be sexually active, compared with 40pc of women.

One-third of men aged 75 to 85 said they still had regular sex; the figure for 75 to 85-year-old women is just 17pc.

Female lack of desire was cited, but it's probably more complicated than that: for a start, women live on average five years longer than men, which means there are far more women whose long-term partners have died than men in the same situation.

Also, according to Cornell University gynaecologist Dr Peggy Polanescsky, our sexuality ebbs and flows throughout our lives, usually in relation to our circumstances.

"I think some women, for whatever reason, over time lose interest, but sometimes they lose interest because they stop doing it, or sometimes their husband has prostate cancer or something and it all gets tied into his illness, and you don't have a partner for a number of years," she says in a book titled 'Still Doing It'.

"It waxes and wanes -- even in younger women it can wax and wane."

'Still Doing It: The Intimate Lives of Women Over 60' is a 2004 documentary and book by New York writer and filmmaker Deirdre Fishel.

Featured among the women is a seventysomething sexologist in a stable relationship with a twentysomething man, and an 85-year-old who met the love of her life -- a younger journalist -- and carries on a passionate relationship despite where she lives ("In a retirement home we don't have much privacy, but we do what we can.").

Then, there are two seventy-something women who met and fell in love a few years ago, having left unsatisfactory heterosexual relationships.

They are planning on setting up a retirement home for gay men and women.

"When people stand up on the bus to give us their seats, they have absolutely no idea how wild we are in bed," they told Deirdre Fishel.

Writes Fishel herself: "Our images of older women -- the grandmother, widow, fragile little old lady -- are so strongly etched in our minds that we've become blind to the full lives of amazing older women living all around us.

"We've got no idea what's going on behind their closed doors and, consequently, have no access to the insights of some of the most sexually experienced women on this planet.

"Older women are still doing it, still loving it and still getting better at it."

As the French philosopher Robert Misrahi (born in 1926) puts it, "The acceptance of a new sexuality may eventually contribute to an improvement of old age".


Ageing is hard work -- the least we can do is retain the pleasure and intimacy of our bodies, even as they are slowly falling apart.

Anyway, sex increases longevity. So have more, and live longer, better and happier.

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