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By Dr. Aline Zoldbrod
Imagine you're a stereotypical "old lady," with a lined face and gray hair, walking down the street. Some young guy looks at you and thinks, “How ya doing, grandma, you old coot? Are you wearing your Depends?” Actually, no, you think, you're wearing nice underwear because you’re going to meet your beloved to see a movie, then go home and have some really delicious sex, replete with leisurely foreplay and plenty of laughter. You pass a juicy 38-year-old walking down the street with her two little kids in tow, and think, “Poor dear. She won’t have really good sex again for a good 20 years."
This is not tabloid fantasy: "Sexually Active Septuagenarian!" It is possible. Not for everyone — but for a substantial minority, perhaps a fifth of women or more. And I'll tell you why, based on research and my experience as a sex and couples therapist — but first, what gives? Why are we suddenly talking about this squirmy topic?
It's because author Iris Krasnow has a new book out, "Sex After...," subtitled "Women Share How Intimacy Changes As Life Changes." And it includes women in their 70s and beyond who are having a glorious time, sexually. Some have partners; others have just discovered the joys of solo sex; some are having their first orgasms ever, thank to vibrators and toys now available for anyone to order online.
People have an 'ick' reaction to thinking that their parents are being sexual, let alone their grandparents.
Krasnow writes about the 77-year-old who “was inspired to try fellatio for the first time after watching a how-to video on YouTube." And she shares the story of another woman in her 70s, a recent widow, who met up with a male friend she had not seen for 54 years and who went to bed with him on the first date, staying in bed having sex with him for five hours.
I’m thinking that this book excerpt is going to blow a lot of people’s minds. Even the "Granny Porn" websites have women who are ages 40 to 50. Women in their 70s?? Most of what you’ll find if you look up “sex over fifty” online talks about frail vaginal tissue, lack of lubrication and flagging erections. Those accounts are accurate but psychologically conservative.
In contrast, the denizens of Krasnow’s research don’t talk about any of the physical barriers to erotic pleasures. This is a group of women who are sexual explorers, women who want to have as much sexual pleasure as they can. They are what psychologist Dr. Abraham Maslow would probably call “sexually self-actualized.”
Krasnow’s findings, while based on a very small sample of older women, actually fit with academic research on the sex lives of older people. Surveys repeatedly find that there is a cohort of men and women, ranging in age from their 60s to their 80s and above, who are having active, enjoyable, single or partnered sex lives. They tend to be healthy and active people, and their attitude about what it is to have a sexual relationship and to be a sexual human being has flexed with age, so that standards are less perfectionistic and performance driven, and the physical changes of aging can be taken in stride.
There is a cultural stigma associated with talking about the sex lives of the elderly. People have an “ick” reaction to thinking that their parents are being sexual, let alone their grandparents. But times have changed.
The same cultural movements that have given greater permission for sex outside of marriage, beliefs about what kinds of sexual and relational experimentation are acceptable, and trends such as gay rights have affected sexual attitudes in the older age cohorts.
Even the groups of people older than the baby boomers have been affected by the liberalization of society. So while the oldest baby boomers are about 68, the cohort a decade older has seemingly embraced a geriatric sexual revolution as well.
Doing The Math
Just a few statistics:
• The National Social Life, Health and Aging Project (NSHAP) interviewed a nationally representative group of 3,005 individuals between the ages of 57 and 85 in 2005-6. Almost 84 percent of men and 62 percent of women ages 57-64 engaged in sexual activity over the past year. It is true that as the next decade approached, and the one after that, sexual activity diminished. But it by no means went down to a point where people in their 70s and 80s had no sex.
• In 2009, AARP did a survey on sexual satisfaction in midlife and older adults. In answering the question, “How satisfied are you with your sex life?,” among men 60-69 years of age, 13 percent answered extremely satisfied, and 39 percent answered “somewhat satisfied.” Among men age 70+, 5 percent answered “extremely satisfied”, and 21 percent answered “somewhat satisfied.”
• But check out the statistics for women. Among those age 60-69, 18 percent answered extremely satisfied and 23 percent answered somewhat satisfied. But among women aged 70 and up, 17 percent still answered "extremely satisfied,” with another 10 percent saying “somewhat satisfied.”
A few perfectly understandable correlations exist. Health problems and sexual problems tend to go together. And relationship status and relationship quality are important for predicting psychological health and sexual satisfaction. The research is too complicated to summarize in a few sentences, but suffice it to say, Krasnow is not reporting on older women who are out on the teensy, tiny tip of the standard bell curve. We’re not talking about .05 percent of 70-year-old women enjoying sex. We might be talking about roughly a fifth of 70-year-old women.
That doesn't exactly fit the popular images of "over the hill" women as sexually uninterested and uninteresting.
Once past menopause, most straight women who would like to be noticed by men realize that we are invisible. One of my dear friends in her 60s, who has an amazing body from more than four decades of being an athlete, talks about walking down the street in her Southern home town wearing a classy blouse and a slim skirt and bright red lipstick. She reports that guys follow her with their eyes, but as they get closer and see the lines on her face, she sees the disappointment on theirs.
But it looks like if you’re lucky in your 70s and beyond, with more leisure and more time to socialize, someone your age or older (or younger) might still find you interesting, psychologically and sexually.
Maybe older hetero men are wising up about the joys of older hetero women. I learned a long, long time ago, as a sex therapist, that you cannot tell anything about how a given woman feels about sex — that is, whether she knows its joy — by looking at her. I work with many women who look sexy by societal standards — young, thin, fit, perky breasts, unlined faces — and who come to me because they do not like sex one bit.
After Viagra came out and was such a success for men, Pfizer was doing research to see if it could be marketed to women who were having arousal difficulties. Through The Lahey Center for Sexual Function in Peabody, I was involved in that research. My job was to interview women who were having arousal difficulties and were unhappy about it. They were to be given Viagra to see if it could help. So I had the privilege of interviewing women in their 50s and 60s who loved sex and who were upset by a diminishment in their feelings of arousal.
These were mostly just ordinary-looking 50- and 60-year-old women, the kind of women who actually walk around in the world, shopping at supermarkets and going to the post office. Not “older women” like Susan Sarandon (age 67) or Jane Fonda (age 76).
They did not look sexy to the outside world. But there they they were in my office, giving very specific responses to my research questions, talking with such sadness and passion about the loss of the sexual sensations they had loved. About their sexuality, which was such a treasured part of themselves. They talked about loss of lubrication, about the loss of the pleasant buzzing and warm sensations that were the hallmark of becoming aroused for them. They told me that when they talked to their gynecologists, they were just told that this was a part of aging and it could not be helped. But they loved sex, and what they had lost in terms of their physical functioning was devastating to them.
These women have incorporated most of the suggestions that sex therapists give to people about how to make their sex lives better.
The external, male, heterosexual world’s assessment of who is “sexy” is based on whether that particular man would like to have intercourse with that particular woman. I suspect that this can be true in the medical system, at times; male physicians doing an exam may not explore whether a woman whom they personally do not find sexually attractive needs help functioning better sexually. So older women whose questions about sexual functioning get short shrift might consider changing physicians.
Krasnow's Older Sexpots
Some of us will find Krasnow's stories inspirational. Some will find them preposterous and annoying. As a sex therapist, these stories tickle me, but they don’t surprise me. When I read Krasnow’s accounts, they made perfect sense. These women have incorporated most of the suggestions that sex therapists give to people about how to make their sex lives better.
If you cruise around online, most of what’s written on “sex over fifty” is a very male model, focusing on penis-in-vagina sex and then going on to talk about how the penises in question aren’t as firm as they used to be, and the vaginas are getting a tad dry. (One of my older friends described attempts at intercourse as “trying to shoot pool with a noodle.”)
There are several reasons why sex is working for Krasnow’s older women. When the women described are having partnered sex within committed relationships with their equally older partners, they are describing sex that is the model for the kind of sex women enjoy. There is a large component of interpersonal connection and romance between the partners. The women feel valued emotionally and sexually and feel comfortable in their own bodies and with their own sexuality. They give themselves permission to be fully sexual. You may have read the old Erica Jong book, "Fear of Flying," and may recall how the protagonist used to prepare for sex by bathing and anointing herself with various oils. One of Krasnow’s women talks about scheduling sex with her partner, putting on a wonderful nightgown in which she feels sexy, and throwing in as many toys as she can to keep things hot.
The lack of time pressure is paramount. None of these women is talking about the difficulty of fitting sex in between scheduled times of taking care of of other people — for example, one, two or three grandchildren. Sex is pretty high on the top of their list of things they want to do.
The stress in life has vanished. Neither partner in the relationship is consumed with the pressures of earning a living, dealing with relatives, or taking care of their own, aging parents.
They have broken through the societal rules that prohibit focus on pleasure and play and taking time for oneself. There is always enough time.
These women talk about feeling such joy in touch, and in connection. They have lots of leisure and are having a lot of what I call “belly” time, face to face interactions where the partners focus on each other. The couples are taking their time, spending hours in bed kissing and hugging and enjoying whole-body touch, rather than practicing what I call “homing pigeon foreplay,” where the pre-intercourse touching is not long in duration and focused mainly on the primary erotic zones.
The kind of sexual touching described in these committed couples seems to be less pressured; instead it is tender: intimate, loving, warmhearted, sympathetic, touched, kind, soft. There is ecstasy in getting long periods of this kind of touch. Both bodies are relaxed, melting into each other. Each good sexual interlude creates the desire to have another one.
Just to end by coming back down to earth a bit: The book excerpt does not discuss an important physiological element. This is a group of older women who were committed to keeping their bodies primed for sex. For those older women whose sexuality included intercourse, I assume they had very supportive and engaged gynecologic physicians who helped them keep their vaginal tissues young through hormones. These are locally applied — not systemic — hormones, but they can carry risks and remain somewhat controversial. USA Today offers a helpful look at the range of therapeutic options for post-menopausal sexual problems here.
Mainly, if you’re an older woman reading this now, and you are having pain with intercourse that you would like to address medically, you might want to speak with your gynecologist about it. If you want a second opinion, I'd recommend physicians who are members of the North American Menopause Society or the International Society For the Study of Women's Sexual Health.
The women Iris Krasnow describes are not the majority, but they are not myths either. You may — if you choose, and if physical and emotional reality allow it — be one of them.
Aline Zoldbrod, Ph.D., is a Boston-based sex therapist and the author of "SexSmart: How Your Childhood Shaped Your Sexual Life and What to Do About It." You can find her at SexSmart.com.