Tristan Taormino of the Village Voice raises some very important questions about sexuality and older women. While our popular culture now includes representations of mature, sexual women, she notes that they are generally portrayed as women in their 40s:

Mainstream media would have us believe that after 45, women stop being sexy. And past 60? Well, that’s just old, right? (Old being the opposite of young, young being sexy, and sexy being young.) People are living longer, healthier lives so why shouldn’t their sex lives keep on going? And why are we so afraid to
imagine that they do?

Evidence that Taormino provides seems to suggest that the fear is subsiding somewhat. Recently released books and films (not to mention the fuss at the Oscars over 61-year-old Helen Mirren) attempt to normalize the idea that the sex lives of older women are natural and vibrant — even if they come with their own complex issues.

Taormino interviews Lauren Taylor, a professor at Columbia School of Social Work and a clinical social worker who works almost exclusively with people over 60 at the Service Program for Older People, a nonprofit community-based clinic that provides counseling on the Upper West Side.

“It’s much easier to think about Grandma baking cookies than having sex,” Taylor said. “In approaching the subject of sex with older people, almost all of them feel tremendously relieved to be talking about it because no one else will — not their doctors, not their families; no one wants to talk
about it.”

“The oldest woman in my women’s group is 89, and she was recently talking about the fact that she’s been very lucky all of her life that she’s been able to masturbate and give herself pleasure,” adds Taylor, mentioning an important yet overlooked form of pleasure.

The biggest hurdle, says Taylor, is not getting older folks to open up about sex, but rather getting them to think beyond intercourse. As people get older, their minds may stay hot to trot, but inevitably for many, their bodies fall behind; they must confront real physical issues like arthritis, limited mobility, erectile difficulties, and vaginal dryness and pain. Although Viagra has made it possible for many men to solve their erection problems, Taylor believes it has also put the emphasis on intercourse as the most desirable — or only — definition of sex. She says if seniors can think beyond intercourse, the issue of “performance” doesn’t have to take center stage.

Taormino mentions the work of Betty Dodson, an artist, sex educator, and author of “Sex for One and Orgasms for Two,” who is known as the “Mother of Masturbation” for her work on women and self-pleasure. She continues to be proudly sexually active at 77.

Taormino also discusses Deirdre Fishel’s documentary “Still Doing It: The Intimate Lives of Women Over 65,” of which one reviewer wrote: “Personally, I can deal with seeing older flesh on-screen, and nothing shown is in any way done for the sake of titillation, but it’s just toooo [sic] in your face.”

His response echoes common sentiments of fear and disgust surrounding older people’s sexuality. “At what age do you plan to retire your genitals?” That’s what Joan Price (joanprice.com) asks those who consider sexy seniors “icky.” Price, author of  Better Than I Ever Expected: Straight Talk About Sex After Sixty, says, “The main misconception is that seniors are either asexual, pathetic, or ludicrous because they’re still interested in sex.” […]

Price’s book and accompanying blog (betterthanieverexpected.blogspot.com), Dodson’s work, and Fishel’s documentary have all kick-started a much needed dialogue. They not only prove that seniors do in fact have fulfilling sex lives, they can also empower older folks to get busy. However, there is a serious lack of resources for the complex sexual issues facing people over 60, including illness and disability, hormonal changes, a decrease in libido and arousal, and the effect of common medications, not too mention coping with major changes to the vagina post-menopause, including dryness, atrophy, and a thinning of the tissue that can cause tearing, discomfort, and pain.

Pain during intercourse is a common complaint for post-menopausal women. WVFC board member Dr. Patricia Allen, a gynecologist in New York City and advocate for women’s health, recently wrote about the treatment of a patient who had stopped having sex. Often women don’t realize that treatment is available — it is all too often assumed that pain with intercourse in inevitable.

A good site for information to help understand some of issues surrounding sex at an older age is  SIECUS, the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States — especially their publication “New Expectations: Sexuality Education for Mid and Later Life” (PDF).

The 25 lessons in this teaching manual “are designed to help people in midlife
and beyond identify the sexuality issues that confront them, re-think their old
scripts, and consider creating new and healthy ways of being sexual in their
later years.”

The full manual (175 pages) is available online. Hard copies can be purchased for $25.

Christine

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  • Joan Price July 20, 2007 at 6:15 pm

    I was happy to see your comments on Tristen Taormino’s article. Thank you for including the link to my website and my sex & aging blog, http://www.betterthanieverexpected.blogspot.com. I was also delighted to see the resources you included, such as New Expectations — a fine source of information.
    Isn’t it wonderful that topics like sex and aging are no longer taboo — largely thanks to the Internet — and people are realizing they can find information, interact, and learn from others with the same issues in their lives.
    Joan Price
    Author of Better Than I Ever Expected: Straight Talk about Sex After Sixty (http://www.joanprice.com/BetterThanExpected.htm)

    Reply