Why Getting Older Doesn't Mean Giving Up Sex
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Joan Price is 67 and wants you to know that sex doesn’t stop at 50—or 60, 70 or 80 and 90!
The author of "Better Than I Ever Expected" is back with a new book, "Naked at Our Age: Talking Out Loud About Senior Sex" (Seal Press), inspired by the many readers who wrote to her asking about how to deal with issues ranging from vulvar pain to breakups, illnesses such as cancer and Alzheimer’s, as well as “dating while older,” erectile dysfunction, divorce, grief, even hiring people for sex or erotic touch. The tone of the book is supportive but realistic; Price isn’t telling seniors to expect to have the exact same kinds or frequency of sex, but instead that if you’re adaptable, sex can continue (with yourself and others) for one’s entire lifetime.
Throughout the book, Price and a series of experts such as Charlie Glickman, Lou Paget, Carol Queen, and Candida Royalle offer tips related to specific queries in concise, practical responses. Price is a big sex toy advocate as well. “When I review a sex toy on my blog, I concentrate on what it does well (or is supposed to do well!), and how well it works from a senior perspective. e.g. It shouldn’t hurt arthritic wrists; it should last as long as we need without overheating or turning itself off, and more.”
Health is a major recurring theme in the book, and seniors and STDs have been getting more and more attention. Down the block from my apartment is a giant ad on a bus stop saying, “Age is not a condom,” advising seniors to get tested for HIV (those in New York State can call 800-541-AIDS; NYC, 800-TALK-HIV). In an article on “STDs & The Elderly,” Dr. Elizabeth Boskey writes, “More than 60 percent of individuals over 60 have sex at least once a month, and yet they are rarely considered to be ‘at risk’ of an STD. Even those who are no longer sexually active may still have a sexually transmitted infection for which they were never treated or screened, and the long term neurological side effects of diseases such as HIV and syphilis may be easily mistaken for other diseases of aging.” While HIV prevention may be new to seniors who haven’t faced being single since before the AIDS crisis, that doesn’t mean it’s not vital.
But STDs are not the only sexual health concern for seniors; even the pursuit of sexual pleasure can be called into question when it’s raised by seniors. One of Price’s interviewees recounts a physician who dismissed her query about sex after a hip replacements if it were a ridiculous notion. “My doctor blushed and cringed when I mentioned the subject.” Several contributors recommend regular masturbation, massage, and things like Kegel exercises. According to Royalle, exerciseing the PC muscle “helps us lubricate and prevents the thinning of the vaginal walls—two of the main reasons intercourse can become painful with age.” Changing desires can also be a concern for long-term couples, such as the woman who told Price, “Having my breasts touched used to arouse me, but now I hate it,” while, separately, a man complained that his wife, who used to love breast play, now doesn’t get turned on “no matter how much I do it.” That old sexual standby — communication — applies even more as we get older; you can’t assume that even your long-term partner is the same sexual creature they were thirty (or even three) years ago.
The very fact of talking about seniors and sex together is enough to make some people squeamish. Reporting on 76-year-old Japanese porn star Shigeo Tokuda, feminist website Jezebel started out a post stating emphatically, “No one in our culture wants to think about the elderly copulating.” Pioneering author and editor of Sugar in My Bowl, Erica Jong, 69, told an interviewer that sex among the elderly is the least discussed type of sex. “My daughter says it’s disgusting. No one wants to think about their grandparents having sex,” said Jong. While we can laud women like the recently departed Elizabeth Taylor and Farrah Fawcett, finding our elders, especially women, sexual, and acknowledging that desire is a lifelong endeavor, is more challenging. Asked about her erotic role models, Price says, “I find Robert Redford the most erotic male celebrity. I felt that way when I was 30, and he just gets better with age. I know Betty White agrees with me. When asked, ‘What’s one thing you regret never having done?’ she answered, ‘Robert Redford.’ I think Helen Mirren is an amazing sexual role model for women because she embraces her sexuality and exudes it with every step and smile, even when there’s nothing particularly erotic about what’s she doing.”
I’m 35, and have never thought about many of the issues Price presents, partly because I’ve been so focused on the here and now, and partly because many of them are things I imagined, perhaps, that I was immune to. I’m sure it’s the folly of every generation to imagine we know better than our elders, that we are more enlightened and that many of the issues Price’s interviewees face won’t happen to us.
For those who are interested in someone “of a certain age” but aren’t sure how to act around them, Price has some advice:
Do: compliment them (sincerely), tell them you’re attracted to them (and why), be honest and engage your date around common areas of interest, and, if you get intimate, focus plenty on touching, kissing and non-genital arousal.
Don’t: be overly shy or monopolize the conversation. Another biggie? “Don’t expect your date to pay just because she/he is older or (you assume) makes more money than you,” advises Price. “You don’t want to start out as an unequal relationship. If your date wants to pay, fine, but don’t go in with the expectation. We don’t like to be made to feel like sugar daddies/mommies.” And don’t ask their age! “It will be revealed as your date feels comfortable with you.”
What surprised and pleased me most about Naked at Our Age is how much of its advices applies to me, at my age of 35. Yes, it features many issues specific to seniors, but what I tend to find with almost all sexuality topics is that they tend to be universal to some degree.
Ultimately, I like what Olivia, 69, had to say: “If you nurture sex, it won’t desert you.” Indeed!