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It's Enough To Make A Unicorn Blush: Our Problem With Talking About Sex

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Not long ago I wrote a blog called "Sex, Love, and Unicorns," describing the ambivalence I was encountering when I talked about sex among us older folk. Everyone seemed to be embarrassed by the topic. Those who were doing it were a little sheepish and didn't want to go public. Those who weren't doing it were a little cynical and didn't want to hear others sing the praises of a revitalized erotic life. It got more than 500 comments!

Several things surprised me about those comments. First of all, a good proportion of them were from men, and a good proportion of those were celebrating their partners -- aging bodies and all. Why, they asked, were we women so critical of how we looked?

Second, I was struck by how honest and helpful the comments were. When one reader raised a problem or a fear, others jumped in with solutions and encouragement. "Ladies, don't ever give up on this wonderful part of your life," wrote an enthusiast. "It's not just about the physical; it's about connecting with someone so deeply that it transcends all of our problems."

And many went out of their way to assure the rest that the point was not what you did but whether it reflected a sense of personal authenticity. "If you like sex, fantastic," wrote one, "and if you've had enough to last a lifetime and would rather have a foot rub -- there's nothing wrong with you."

Most of all, I was bowled over by the sheer number of people who wanted to counter the question I implied -- why are we embarrassed about the topic of sex? -- by sharing their own experience and expertise. One addressed a common problem this way: "Hope folks can handle the truth because there is no fun in painful sex. Don't pretend it doesn't hurt, because it doesn't have to." Another recurring issue was erectile dysfunction. "Being there myself, I recognize that Old Guy performance anxiety can impair one/s partner's enjoyment," wrote another. He recommended Viagra.

There were even some sharp exchanges. When one woman wrote that in her experience "all sexual interest dried up after menopause, and that was such a relief. That energy is now diverted into activities in the community" another countered: "Speaking as an old lady who runs a charity, I think that community service and sexuality are not mutually exclusive." And some offered words of wisdom. "Sex is physics; love is chemistry."

Several writers expressed gratitude for the honest discussion. "I've been stressing out about these issues recently, so it's wonderful to read such positive comments," wrote one. But another thought honesty on the subject was overrated. "While my group of female friends has always talked at length about many things, speaking graphically about their sex lives has not been one of them. Seems tacky." Both comments confirmed that most people weren't comfortable talking about sex.

When I called my friend Laura Carstensen, who runs the Stanford Center on Longevity, she was intrigued. The thing is, she mused, sex performed by aging bodies is as taboo a subject as aging itself -- even among those who study our behavior. Of all the studies she has supervised that show the older we get, the happier we get, none of them asked the respondents about their sex lives.

Perhaps the researchers didn't know to look for sexual happiness, because they, like most of us, had not expected it to be a major source of joy at this stage of life.

One reason we don't talk about these things among ourselves, Carstensen suggests, is that as we move through the second adulthood years, there are more and more things that can go wrong. While we want to celebrate the good times and go after all that our reinvented lives have to offer, we are always aware of the disasters that lurk behind the same experiences. We understand that we will have many occasions to make peace with loss. So we want to enjoy the moment and not analyze it.

This tendency to appreciate the glass half full is, I have found, one of the saving graces of our current lives. In fact, one of the comments said as much: "One of the reasons that people might be satisfied with their sex lives as they age is that they finally learn to expect less and appreciate more. Lord knows, there is more and more that you can do nothing to change as you age." And more and more to discover about what brings you joy.