Sex after 50 is a hot subject, even though research can't quantify what "hot" really means or how cultural grey zones shape our experience of it. That's a disclaimer to what I'm about to write, which is that back in 2001 a group of researchers got together to compare and contrast the sexual behavior of Americans and the French in a study published in the Journal of Sex Research. What they found, in short, is that Post50 French women seem to have more active sex lives.
Given the hotness factor and enduring cultural relevance of the study, I recently revisited my conversation with one of its principle directors, Alain Giami. Of his voluminous report Giami summed things up this way: "Our study shows that the possibility of having sex after 50 is strongly dependent on the capacity to be in a relationship. If one is not in a relationship, there is no sex.
"The fact that in the States marriage is the exclusive option for couples makes it difficult for men and women of this [older] age -- especially if they have already built a family in a previous relationship -- to get so strongly involved again," he added. "In France, the diversity of options for living in a couple seems to facilitate the bonding of older men and women."
That marriage is the "exclusive option for couples" in America is debatable, particularly with the rise of cohabitation in this country. That said, even with these shifting cultural values we're still deeply beholden to the institution and business of marriage, just as we're deeply beholden to its evil twin, the institution and business of divorce.
Not so in France, where cohabitation -- those "diversity of options" -- is entrenched in the culture across the entire socio-economic spectrum. "Marriage is not the only honest and responsible way of bonding," Giami said by way of explanation. Catherine Deneuve put it more bluntly in an interview when she declared: "Marriage is obsolete and a trap."
That's great ammo for those who love to volley grenades at the French for being "immoral" (and who are equally quick to forget that it's often the biggest moral pontificators among us who literally get caught with their pants down). That said, it's worth considering Giami's view that living together facilitates companionship for older men and women.
The implication here that older French men appreciate older women more than their American counterparts intrigued me enough to ask Giami to qualify his statement. "We can look at that in two ways," he replied. "We could say that Frenchmen are attracted to older women and to women of their same age. But we could also ask the question: Do American women remove themselves from the sexual market because they're not interested in sex anymore? They may continue to be sexy, with cosmetic surgery and so forth, but to look sexy is not enough to sustain a sexual relationship. So perhaps they don't want to have as much sex." Which I suppose is another way of saying that looking sexy and feeling sexy are two different things.
My unempirical assessment is that if older French do indeed have more active sex lives than American women, it's because they grow up and live in a sexier culture. And that culture has definitively shaped their awareness of themselves and the world at large.
Michele Fitoussi, former editor of French Elle, spoke to that point when I asked her what she felt was the single most defining difference between older French and American women. After pondering for a moment, she replied: "French women have a keen sense of the brevity of time and immediacy of pleasure."
That struck a chord, since it's safe to say that we Americans seem to have a keen sense of the immediacy of the future and the brevity of pleasure. How research might quantify that -- and how it dovetails into our sense of sexuality -- is another grey zone in and of itself.