Is it possible to keep the passion alive?
How could any woman of a certain age fail to respond to these opening lines of Erica Jong's new novel
'I used to love the power I had over men. Walking down the street, my mandolin-shaped ass swaying and swinging to their backward eyes. How strange that I only completely knew this power when it was gone."
How could any woman of a certain age fail to respond to these opening lines of Erica Jong's new novel, Fear of Dying, expressing the moment every woman dreads, when her sexuality becomes invisible to all, and perhaps lost to herself as well?
From Fear of Flying, first published more than 40 years ago, to Fear of Dying, Jong, now 73, has never held back on her frank, fearless - and often hilarious - journey into the sexual psyche of the female sex. Having coined the term "zipless f***" to describe her original fictional heroine Isadora Wing's fantasy of sex with a stranger, free of commitment or emotional ties, she is now continuing to explore the desires and sexuality of the baby boomer generation to which I belong as we enter our 60s.
I joined Cosmopolitan magazine as a junior sub-editor in 1972, at the age of 20, and it was there I received much of my own sexual education. Suddenly it was OK to talk about sex. Sex free of guilt. The right to say no as well as yes. Sex seemed to be everywhere, and infinite in its potential variety. The year Cosmo launched in 1972 was the same year The Joy of Sex, the groundbreaking, best-selling sex manual, was published.
The following year Nancy Friday's My Secret Garden, a survey of women's sexual fantasies, caused a huge storm because until then many assumed only men had sexual fantasies. Fear of Flying was also published in 1973, causing the tectonic plates that underpinned women's sexuality to shift once again. Jong's honest exploration of a woman who lusted after sex even while she longed for love, and couldn't quite marry the two to her satisfaction, gave us all permission to explore our sex lives more frankly.
"Sex follows us throughout our lives," said Jong recently. "The need for touch, the need for connection, that never goes away. But the forms of it change. As people age, touch is more important, erections are less important, and I think somebody needs to write about that."
The zipless f*** was an unfulfilled fantasy in the book but ignited the debate about the true nature of women's sexual desires and became the lodestone for discussions about female lust. In Fear of Dying, Jong's 60-year-old actress protagonist, Val Wonderman, joins an internet dating site called zipless.com with the injunction: "Happily married woman with extra erotic energy seeks happily married man to share same."
What's really up with Val is that her parents are dying, her dog is on the blink and her rich, much older hubby has a life-threatening illness. What Val wants is some unbridled passion to prove to herself she's not dying too. For a short while, zipless seems the way to go.
Frankly it's all a bit far-fetched, but there's wisdom there as well, and if Jong's latest book is a further sign the taboo surrounding sex and older people is beginning to break down, I'm all for it. It's time we oldies had our say about sex.
From the recent film 45 Years, starring Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay, which depicts a poignant, failed sexual encounter between the long-married protagonists, to the twinkly, more upbeat sexual shenanigans in The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, the recognition that sexuality doesn't have a sell-by date is an important one.
Because just as sex can be a source of joy, lack of sex, or bad sex, can also be a cause of sadness, disappointment, frustration and even shame, regardless of your age.
The changing nature of our lives - increased longevity, better health, but also the possibility of living with chronic illness - all raise new questions regarding sex and sexuality.
Is it, for example, possible to keep passion alive after 40 years of marriage? Or to reignite it if you've "drifted into unsexuality", as one psychotherapist described to me a common problem that arises in her consulting room? And what, for example, happens when a woman in her 70s is concerned her medication is dampening her libido? Will she be too embarrassed to bother her GP for fear her concerns will be brushed aside?
While the number of older people meeting on the net - and the increasing prevalence of STIs in later life - might suggest it's an uninhibited, indeed zipless and reckless, free-for-all out there, when I speak to some of my single women friends about their anxieties, an alternative set of scenarios present themselves.
For all the women of my acquaintance revelling in their new-found sexuality, I know an equal number who yearn for sexual love but are paralysed by fear. They rail against their ageing bodies, doubt any man could find them sexually attractive and are horrified at the thought of undressing in front of someone else.
When my own relationship ended in my mid-50s, after 23 years, I both desired and dreaded a sexual relationship for exactly these reasons. When I met the lovely man who has now been my partner for seven years, who didn't rush me into bed but waited for three months until I made it clear I was ready, I was amazed and gratified to rediscover my sexual mojo.
Because sexuality does not necessarily die with age. Sometimes it just lies dormant. A friend, now 65 and a divorcee for 20 years, had endured a 10-year sexual drought (excluding a couple of desultory brief encounters) until she met her current lover on an internet dating site last year.
"Although I continued to dabble on the internet, enjoying chatting to people even if it went no further, I think I'd pretty much blocked out my sexuality," she told me.
"And when I went through cancer a few years back, I thought I'd probably shut up shop for good. Now I've met a man who is warm and generous and makes me feel sexy, womanly and attractive. This isn't the best sex I've had in a long time, it's the best sex I've had in my life."
You can't generalise about sex. Sexuality, regardless of age, is as varied as individual personalities and individual relationships. I know couples in loyal marriages of 40 years plus for whom sex is a distant memory and has been replaced by friendship and easy familiarity, although not, I am quite sure, without a certain sense of loss.
I hear tales from women friends of sporadic sex, duty sex, sex that can only be facilitated by Viagra... On girls' nights out, after a few drinks, we sometimes share bawdy stories of post-surgery sex and the best positions for dodgy hips.
In Fear of Dying, Jong sets out to be as honest in her exploration of what it means to be a still sexually-charged 60-year-old woman in the 21st century as she was when she told the story of Isadora Wing. But just as Isadora realised sex with strangers wasn't the answer, in this book, too, her heroine finds the answer closer to home.
In some ways the irrepressible Jong is just an old-fashioned girl for whom love and sex can never be entirely separated. As for the rest of us, we have to find our own sexual path. Thanks to outspoken Erica and others of her ilk, we can do so in the knowledge that sexagenarian sexuality is a celebration of life rather than a shameful secret.
'Fear of Dying' by Erica Jong, published by Canongate, is out now, priced, €25.50