Being in love knows no age limits, and our bodies can experience great sex throughout our lifetime. That is the message of my new book How We Love Now: Sex and the New Intimacy in Second Adulthood. But as I have been talking up that message, I have learned a thing or two about how it is received.
For one thing, I have encountered a perceived discomfort with the topic, at least on the part of those in charge. One women's group was wary of inviting me to speak, because, they said, "when we got organized we agreed to avoid two subjects -- sex and politics." Another was happy to have me as long as I concentrated on the love part of my message, not the sex part.
This strikes me as odd, since many women I interviewed for my book were so happy to speak quite graphically and enthusiastically about their sex lives. As I listened to them, I began to think that the "dirty little secret" about women and sex at midlife was how much they were enjoying it.
Furthermore, a lecture I attended given by the indomitable Dr. Ruth was totally clinical -- in her always matter-of-fact way; and the Q-and-A section was just as frank. One women was concerned about using a vaginal lubricant because it might not taste good to her partner.
I am not sure what the disconnect means except perhaps we have only gotten half way to believing that we are entitled to an erotic life after menopause -- we go for it, but we don't talk about it. As if talking about it, leads to others picturing us doing it, which is embarrassing; because we are still intimidated by unreal cultural images of women's bodies and misinformation about older women's sexuality.
Another explanation may be that for many women, this is the first time in their lives that they can separate sex and love. Until now we were expected to believe that sex was only permissible in combination with love. And reproduction. Nowadays, women of a certain age, no longer have to worry about pregnancy, but they are also becoming comfortable with separating sex from other requirements as well. Good sex for the fun of it is catching on.
Several recent studies have confirmed that older women are disproving the conventional wisdom. One analyzed "sexual activity, desire, and satisfaction" in a group of women over forty with a median age of 67 and found that the majority of them were satisfied with their sex lives and that the proportion increased with age. When I read about this study on Huff/Post50, I added a comment saying that my research confirmed the findings, and that "there are a lot juicy women out there." I must admit that when I chose the word "juicy," I knew I was asking for trouble.
But I wasn't prepared for the real anger that my comment elicited -- from men. They were furious at the suggestion that there were lusty women around, because that most definitely wasn't their experience. "I did encounter one," a man wrote, "and she was riding a Unicorn!" The anxiety behind such bitterness is confirmed by a theme that came up in my research: that when men encounter the least problem in their ability to perform, they give up. They need to listen to what women are saying about the range of erotic possibilities that don't require youthful stamina.
When I began to notice surprising numbers of men -- many on their own -- in the audiences for my talks, I was afraid I was in for more Unicorn comments. Instead, I found that there was a touching eagerness to have this life experience explained and discussed openly. They knew that if they were looking for truth-telling and support, they would find it among women.
This Valentine's day let's celebrate all the wondrous new possibilities for both love and sex, for both men and women, in our fifties, sixties and seventies. If it gets confusing at times, that is only because the territory is unfamiliar.