Chapter 41: Sex — What?! Again?!

You Bet. Sexual Liberation 2.0.

I’ve always considered myself lucky to have come of age in the ’50s and ’60s, a time of unprecedented liberation in Western culture, including attitudes to sex. I came “on-stream” just as the pill arrived and just as my local culture heroes, Irving Layton and Leonard Cohen, appeared on the Canadian literary scene daring to talk about this still “secret thing,” sex, which itself was trying to shake off the lingering shackles of Victorian prudery. It was the post-war era of Henry Miller and Lenny Bruce, who was arrested in the U.S.A. for daring to suggest that watching two people make love might be healthier than watching two people trying to kill each other. It was the era of American Supreme Court cases and obscenity trials about whether or not a bosom could be seen or said on screen. It was the era of Masters and Johnson.

In 1964, William H. Masters, an obstetrician-gynecologist at Washington University in St. Louis, and his assistant, Virginia E. Johnson, released the first results of a study involving their direct observation of some 700 willing subjects engaged in some “10,000 complete cycles of sexual response.” As anyone who’s been watching the Showtime TV series Masters of Sex will know, the duo’s findings were explosive at the time: scandalous to older people, electrifying to younger (I was 21). Among other things, their study showed that women were capable of multiple orgasms and so were potentially far superior to men in their capacity to enjoy sex; and that female orgasms were just as likely to be clitoral as vaginal, which meant that a woman could satisfy herself as fully as a male. The study also showed that as long as people remained reasonably healthy and had access to “interested and interesting partners,” there was no absolute age at which sexual abilities disappeared. While it might take longer for men to become aroused and for women to lubricate, the research acknowledged that a significant number of older men and women were capable of “excitement and orgasm well into their 70s and beyond.” Eureka!

Masters and Johnson have a particular resonance for this issue of Zoomer magazine, falling as it does precisely 50 years after their landmark work and marking the first annual publication of the Zoomer Sex Survey, titled “We’re Still Having Sex: Better With Age.” It’s fascinating to look at our survey and compare it with the conclusions Masters and Johnson drew about adults in general and older adults in particular. I’m not talking about the details of the survey but its philosophical slant. Masters and Johnson were primarily concerned with sexual behaviour, with what people actually did. The behaviours M & J uncovered, far more extensive than anyone expected, were explosive precisely because of how repressive and guilt-ridden the public imagination still was about sex at that time; people did the deeds but didn’t admit them, their bodies were ahead of their spirits. Our survey, on the other hand, is as much about attitude as it is about behaviour; and it’s in attitude that we’re exponentially more liberated than our counterparts 50 years ago. For example, where the average adult in 1964 would have considered “normal” sex to consist almost exclusively of heterosexual intercourse, the majority of those surveyed by us today define sexual activity as a broad spectrum consisting of: “sexual intercourse, oral sex, genital stimulation or masturbation.” In relation to that spectrum, a strong majority report enjoying and wanting sex and being actively engaged in sexual activity, with “half always ready to go and the other half needing a bit of time to get in the game.” In addition, the greater maturity of our cohort seems to go along with fewer sexual inhibitions and more sexual honesty: two-thirds say they’re “less inhibited about sex now that [they’re] older …” and three-quarters are ready to ask for what they want sexually and, conversely, have a “high degree of confidence” in their ability to satisfy their sexual partners. Well more than half are willing to try new things when it comes to sex; and for nearly half, those new things include novel positions and the use of arousing porno.

To understand how we’ve reached the dawning of what appears to be a “new” age of Aquarius, you have to take into account the history of the first. For a good 15 years after the advent of the pill, through the peace and love movement, through the rise of feminism and the coming out of homosexuality, there was an ever-expanding sense of sexual freedom and experimentation that seems now, in retrospect, pretty close to idyllic. For a brief moment, even promiscuity, was not really considered decadent but a healthy way to achieve God’s gift of pleasure and not just for boys but for girls. The only residual fear was still the age-old one of “knocking up” a girl and ruining two, maybe three lives at once. The notion that sex itself could be dangerous, though – let alone lethal – was unthinkable.

This situation changed, with dramatic suddenness, in the 1980s, when the chill set in. First there was the herpes scare, with its pyramid scheme-like paranoia that the virus was going to rapidly and inevitably infect every person on
the planet. Then, even more grim, came AIDS. Freedom was replaced by constraint. I remember feeling bad for the young people I knew at the time because they were coming into sex when sex could mean death. Not surprisingly, they expressed less of that instinctive zest for sex than kids had 20 years earlier.

So is it surprising – it shouldn’t be – that today a “new” attitude toward sex has emerged among the aging population, spearheaded by that familiar kind of liberation. What’s new is the old resurrected. In a way, we’ve brought the ’60’s into our 60s. Why should this shock anyone? We are, after all (pardon the hubris), the generation that created the sexual revolution. I mean, we practically “invented” sex, didn’t we? So is it really eye-opening when our survey confirms our demographic’s tolerance for difference as we grow older? That we haven’t become more set in our ways and crankier à la the historic stereotype but, in fact, against type, more liberal? That we’re not just more willing to try new sexual scenarios and activities but relational strategies as well? That the fastest growing demographic using online dating sites like OkCupid and eHarmony are mature adults?

At the same time, we’re not as reckless as we were then in the first full flood of the sexual revolution. Our openness has been tempered by the succeeding plagues and even gays in their pursuit of equality have embraced the conventions of bourgeois marriage and family. So, what’s truly surprising to me as a proud and happy survivor of the sexual revolution is that this latest manifestation of our changed attitude seems so, dare I say, tepid. In the ’60s, we greeted sex with an almost giddy abandon; today, we’re still open enough and comfortable enough with it but, for me, somehow, the excitement is missing.

Maybe this was inevitable, given the blows sex took in the ’80s and ’90s. After all, two of the most celebrated sexual icons of that period, Dr. Ruth Westheimer, 85, and Sue Johanson (of the “Sunday Night Sex Show” and “Talk Sex With Sue Johanson”), 84, earned their reputations dispensing practical, often graphic sexual advice to a generation of nervous young people calling in to their shows to make sure that they weren’t leaving their partners dissatisfied or courting a terminal illness, often in the same question. Maybe it was only natural that some of that prudence should have rubbed off on us, too, and that’s why, in our reserved Canadian way, we ended up 17th on the 2008 Durex Sexual Well-being Global Survey by nationality (a statistic I lament and that I, proud Canuck and ardent lover, find a touch embarrassing).

That the gen-xers and gen-Ys, teenagers and 20- and 30-somethings, who inherited one of the gloomier sexual cultures in recent memory, found a welcome source of liberation in the sexual advice of two women half a century their senior would seem strange; but why not? Sue Johanson and Dr. Ruth treat sex as a human activity that can be enormously pleasurable, but that is not the end of the world. This is an idea that’s both reassuring and revolutionary. What was also revolutionary was that this advice was being dispensed by two women who were not exactly beauty queens, as if to underline that, contrary to depiction in pop culture, you don’t have to be drop-dead gorgeous at 60 with a body that looks 30 à la Christie Brinkley to enjoy one of life’s greatest pleasures to the very end. Perhaps Dr. Ruth’s tag line, delivered in her signature Yiddish Mama accent, said it best: “Get some.” I second the motion. To the extent that each of us can, we should relax, get liberated again and, yet again, if we choose, “Get lucky and get some.”
Besides, research has shown it’s really good for your health.

Moses’ Zoomer Philosophy — which launched in ZOOMER Magazine in October 2009 — is a series of monthly essays on age and aging, and the secrets and the science to living better, longer, healthier and happier lives. The first volume of his collection is now available in e-book format on the Kobo Books website.  Click here for more information.