Oh boy. Just typing “sex after 60” makes me want to flee into the kitchen to eat four squares of dark chocolate. The phrase sounds like either a sentence or a prescription. So let’s call it something else: How about The Shape of Desire — and How It Changes As We Age.
In the meantime, I can talk about this book, A Frenchwoman’s Guide to Sex After Sixty by Marie de Hennezell and how it made me feel. I opened it with trepidation because even the slightest cultural pressure to have fabulous sex after a certain age raises my hackles. One of the payoffs of getting older, after all, is the freedom that comes with it — the freedom to stop playing roles, to stop only pleasing others and to be true to your own desires. I don’t want to be chasing my 20-year-old self forever.
Luckily, Ms. de Hennezel and I agree on most counts. It’s a curious book, insouciant and casual; her research involves little more than chatting up friends or couples she happens to meet. She raises an elegant French brow at the now universal practice of Internet dating and she seems to have never heard of Tantric sex, a meditative form of coupling that postpones orgasm.
Nevertheless, the author gamely signs up for an all-women Tantric workshop and eventually flings off her sarong along with everyone else (but stops there).
De Hennezel’s main point is that sex after 60 should be more freestyle and less about achieving orgasm. Desire will surface, she writes, if you let it happen and allow it to take its own shape. Older sex is more about expressing tenderness and intimacy. I was not surprised when she found that many younger readers were drawn to this paradigm, too. The hook-up culture can be a chilly world.
“We must let go of what we know, forget about sexual performance and old fantasies, and ‘let love happen,’” de Hennezel writes. “In other words, we must learn to take pleasure as it comes rather than focus on what it should be.”
I agree. The thing to explore, the thing to count on as we age, is that the desire to be physically intimate never goes away. I know I will be climbing into my husband’s hospital bed and taking more than half the blankets when the time comes. But the way sex works inevitably changes, as bodies change and libidos wax and wane. Some women feel even lustier in their 60s and 70s.
Others would rather watch Season 2 of The Crown. Men may still feel sexually aroused but lose the ability to have an erection and, for women, the loss of estrogen can make intercourse painful or orgasms more elusive. There’s always Viagra, topical estrogen creams or hormone replacement to address all that, but intercourse doesn’t have to be the be-all and end-all for couples as they age. There’s always the option of an erotic fulfilling sexual encounter that doesn’t include penetration. The main dilemma of having sex in old age is how to find and express sexual desire when the usual routines no longer work.
My main advice? Build it, and they will come (literally). That is, schedule regular intimate interludes — an hour that you reserve for the two of you to just loll around in bed. A planned rendezvous but with no expectations or pressure to perform — just a willingness to devote some time to a little naked intimacy as opposed to doing the crossword. Chances are, something will happen. It just might not be your old script.
The body has a mind of its own. If you clear a space for desire to emerge and accept its path, you may be surprised that (a) the desire is still there, and (b) it feels wonderful to have sex with this person you have had sex with for so long — even if “what you do” for sex changes. We weren’t designed to drive each other mad with passion for 40 or 50 years. The trick, really, is to cultivate closeness — because it’s closeness that fuels desire for the other. It’s a sense of intimacy and connectedness that makes both of you more patient (and creative) with any obstacles in its way.
As for the esthetics of aging, it’s amazing how irrelevant physical flaws, real or imagined, are when it comes to sex. The wrinkles, the extra pounds, the thinning hair — once you’re in the sack all that disappears, erased by the ever-resilient desire to feel close to another warm-skinned person.
Two volumes that might join de Hennezel’s on your shelves: Canadian journalist Sarah Barmak’s well-researched and spirited investigation, Closer: Notes From the Orgasmic Frontier of Female Sexuality, and an older title (2003) by Jane Juska, called A Round-Heeled Woman: My Late-Life Adventures in Sex and Romance. The latter describes the experiences of a 66-year-old woman who placed an ad in the New York Review of Books that said, “Before I turn 67 — next March — I would like to have a lot of sex with a man I like. If you want to talk first, Trollope works for me.” Juska received 63 replies and embarked on a series of relationships that ran the gamut from brief erotic encounters to several lasting love affairs. Sex, after all, is not just about maintaining intimacy in a marriage.
Barmak’s book is significant because she reports on new scientific findings about female orgasm and a revised mapping of the clitoris. It turns out it is not the dainty little accessory sex educators believed it was 40 years ago. It’s more like a vast underground mall — well, something more fun than that. The clitoral nerves extend far and wide in the pelvic area, which is why orgasms and how they arrive still remain a little mysterious. Her research also puts the kibosh on the old distinction between a “clitoral orgasm” and one achieved through intercourse; there’s only one female orgasm, and how a woman arrives at one is wonderfully varied.
Barmak, like de Hennezel, also points out that taking orgasm off the menu doesn’t have to mean the end of sex, either. Our definition of sexual satisfaction evolves, as we evolve and age. The point, all three authors agree, is that sex in whatever form we pursue it should be about doing what feels good and laying claim to pleasure at any age.