In a campaign to promote later-life sex, one sixtysomething woman explains why her active love life is a taboo topic
Does the thought of sex among the over-60s put you off your breakfast? Maybe you are not so squeamish and think all is fair in love, spread the love, let it all hang out. Yet there are a great many for whom the very idea is just yuck.
So much so, indeed, that the relationship charity Relate has felt the need to team up with the renowned British photographer Rankin to shine the spotlight on the unseen — sex and intimacy in the later years. The campaign, “Let’s talk the joy of later life sex”, features a series of five couples photographed by him, the aim being to tackle the stigma around this taboo subject and enable anyone who wants to talk about it — and do it — to do so freely, openly and without shame.
Research has revealed that only a fifth of people in the UK think society is OK with talking about it and fewer than 10 percent of people aged over 65 think society is comfortable with it.
Jack Nicholson and Diane Keaton in the later-life rom-com Something’s Gotta Give ALAMY
I am 61. I have been married and divorced twice and in my present relationship for seven years. My partner and I live together in London. He is 66 and — hold your noses, block your ears, blindfold your eyes and shoot me now — we have a terrific sex life. Sometimes we have sex several times in 24 hours. Still. Yes, at our advanced age and five years after moving in together. But I don’t tell my friends because I don’t want to irritate or embarrass them or appear to be boasting. And I am afraid that they may feel that this is too much information.
As for telling my son and daughter: no way. They are not teenagers. They are in their thirties and one is married, but, even though we get along famously and talk about almost everything, I think their mother’s sex life might just have them passing each other the sick bucket.
We all know that children don’t want to think about their parents having sex with each other or, frankly, with anyone; having sex, full stop. Most of us oldies are tactful enough not to discuss it with them, and rightly so in my view.
Yet my generation has always been open about sex with each other, or at least my circle has. Before my first husband and I got married, I talked about it a lot with my girlfriends, as did they with me. In some detail. We learned from each other and had a laugh. When we married, the subject suddenly became verboten. By tacit agreement, we all just shut it down. I think this was out of respect for our husbands’ privacy and out of loyalty to them. For 20 years or so sex was off the conversational menu and the main topics were work and children.
Then in our fifties, one or two friends discreetly began to out themselves about not having had any activity in the marital — or any other — bed for, variously, two, five, eleven or whatever number of years, it was they had been suffering in silence. Their husband or wife hadn’t touched them.
Most couples, it transpired, had made no reference to it whatsoever between themselves; the one withholding sex not wishing to discuss it for fear that the other would ask for it; the one silently yearning for it and feeling rejected, too mortified to say so for fear of more rejection and the appearance of desperation or neediness.
Occasionally someone would say they had gone to a couples counselor or sex therapist with their spouse, but that ultimately it hadn’t worked. “We weren’t into lighting candles and touching each other with feathers,” one told me. “That was never going to cut the mustard.”
Over the past ten years, I think I can honestly say that the number of my married friends, acquaintances, and colleagues who are not having sex is greater than the number who are. And these are only those who have dared to say it out loud — or whose sadness has forced them to reach out to others for support. How many more are there keeping it to themselves for fear of the stigma?
The stigma seems to be multifaceted for the over-60s: not having sex; not wanting sex; wanting sex; having (what other people may consider) too much sex for their own good.
Of these, perhaps the greatest stigma of all is the last: having plenty of it and loving it. To say so is to prompt unwelcome images in other people’s minds of aged flesh and desire and ecstasy. Even in this era where anything and everything goes, OAP sex is seen as the final frontier. Sex is the preserve of the young. In the old, it is unseemly, undignified, ugly, wizened, dry (it’s none of those things, by the way). The thought of creaking bones and the clash of ancient and redundant genitals is unedifying, even repellent to many individuals as well as to our culture as a whole.
Well, it shouldn’t be. We need to overcome our misplaced disgust. There are still plenty of us at it and it’s great. In fact — spoiler alert — it is better when you are old than when you are young.
Last week one of my friends who is nearer 70 than 60, and single and roving, was asked by her daughter, aged 29: “What’s sex like when you’re old?”
“Much, much better,” came the answer. “Sex benefits from confidence and experience, and the sloughing off of expectations of physical perfection and inhibitions. Best sex ever, in fact. So much more so than the, at best vanilla, at worst, frankly disturbing experiences of the past.”
It wasn’t the answer the young woman was expecting. “That’s great,” she said, rather weakly.
To which my friend responded: “Well, you did ask, and I’ll be honest. I wish someone had told me when I was your age since it’s something you can really start looking forward to, and right now.”