Chapter 3: Sex & Aging — The Joke’s on Them
“Sex after 90 is like shooting pool with a rope.”
—George Burns, 1896-1996
“Picasso had his pink period and him blue period. I’m in my blonde period.”
When I first thought about writing The Zoomer Philosophy, I just assumed that the instalment dealing with aging and sex would be the most controversial. If the last taboo in Hugh Hefner’s time was sex and the last taboo in our time is age, then it follows that sex in age should now be the taboo of taboos: a taboo squared.
In fact, the opposite appears to be true. The sexual revolution has been so successful in extending the idea of Pleasure as a Universal Right that even the stubborn refusal to acknowledge the sexual urge in aging people is in retreat. The evidence is everywhere. Type “sex and aging” into Amazon’s search engine, and you get no fewer than 114 book entries. Customers at adult stores, particularly the more upscale variety, are increasingly older adults. According to Mercedes Jones, owner of the Dick & Jane Romance Boutique in Richmond Hill, Ont. (voted one of the best adult product stores in a Toronto Sun readership poll this year), her target demographic is between 45 and 65 and includes customers in their 70s. At in-store workshops, the majority of her audience are “women over 50.”
The two signature impediments to sexual activity in the aging are erectile dysfunction in men and vaginal dryness in women (not lowered libido due to menopause, by the way, which research has shown to be a myth). Both conditions can now be routinely treated.
The two most famous hosts on the self-help sex circuit — Dr. Ruth West-heimer and Canada’s own Sue Johanson — had their careers take off when they were well into their 50s. It’s safe to say The Graduate’s iconic Mrs. Robinson, once the symbol for the voracious older woman, would today be celebrated as a pioneering “cougar.”
There is one chink, though, in the wall of cultural acceptance for lust in later life: the jokes. Sex and older people are as much a staple in popular humour today as ever: sly put-downs of the incongruity of old people in the clutches of amour or vice versa. For those of us invested in a New Vision of Aging, the jokes are a bit of a problem. If our message was being heard by the world, you’d expect a tailing off of the “old-sex” put-down jokes. Yet this clearly hasn’t happened.
The other problem with the jokes is that they’re really funny.
George, 85, marries Lou Anne, 25 and beautiful, and on their wedding night Lou Anne decides on separate bedrooms to save her husband from overexerting himself. Shortly after she gets into bed, though, there’s a knock on the door. It’s George. He comes in, they have sex, everything’s fine and he leaves. Ten minutes later, there’s another knock on the door. George again. They have sex again. He leaves again. The same thing happens three more times until Lou Anne, happily exhausted, is moved to comment, “George, I’m impressed. I’ve been with guys a quarter your age who could only have sex once.”
“You mean I was here already?” George says.
But the last laugh may be ours. Despite the incongruity that pervades the jokes, older people today are having more sex, longer into their lives, than ever before. As early as the 1950s, Alfred Kinsey was reporting that older sexually active men were having sex weekly and that older sexually active women were experiencing orgasms at a frequency that compared to the rate they’d enjoyed in their late teens. A University of Chicago study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2007 found, in a survey of more than 3,000 adults between ages 57 and 85, that 50 per cent to 75 per cent of the total survey group had remained sexually active with a “significant proportion engaging in frequent and varied sexual behaviour.” Sexual activity involving residents in nursing homes has risen to the point where workshops are being given to staff instructing them in tact, while a major debate rages about the proper response from authorities (sex “bans” in many North American homes on the one hand, porn video Saturday nights in a Danish home on the other).
According to employee reports, a lunchroom at a retirement home can rival a high-school cafeteria when it comes to drama about who might be paired with whom. It’s only a matter of time before a sitcom surfaces with the title Forget Bingo.
Meanwhile, the sex older people are having today is probably the best medicine available. Although I’m sad to report that the legendary aerobic benefit of sexual activity has turned out to be an urban myth — 30 minutes of moderately vigorous sex burns only slightly more calories (75 to 85) than 30 minutes of watching TV — the other benefits of sex and love are real and significant. A 1997 study done at Queen’s University in Belfast found that middle-aged and older men who reported “high frequencies of orgasm” had a death rate, in the decade during which the study tracked them, that was “half that of men who did not orgasm frequently.” (The first group enjoyed an average of 100 orgasms a year more than the latter.) Similar studies have shown that, for both genders, regular sex can statistically improve a person’s sense of smell, resistance to heart disease and ability (i.e. willingness) to lose weight and stay fit; reduce their susceptibility to depression, chronic pain, colds and the flu; and give them better bladder control and teeth. Sex for older people — like companionship, whose salutary effect on longevity has been known for a while — seems to be part and parcel of keeping the zoom in Zoomer. It’s simultaneously a result of good health, a motivator of good health and a metaphor for good health.
And something else as well. That we continue to have sex as we age is proof for me that sex is not here simply for procreation. We’re not just meant to suffer a flood of hormones in our youth, bang out some children and then devote ourselves to family but not to pleasure. If that’s all sex existed for — which is the trope of several of our religions — then with the onset of menopause for women and andropause for men, people would stop doing it. But we don’t — because in fact we’re meant to keep doing it; its persistence is not an accident of nature but a part of nature’s design. In that light, the removal of the final stigma, the taboo of taboos, is another little gift from God. A gift that also happens to be extremely practical.
You can carry the argument further. Without the pressure of procreation (evolution’s directive), sex for older people is a potentially purer, more advanced expression of human beings’ attraction for each other. Far from being a sexual afterthought, the aging segment of our population may be in the sexual vanguard. Research shows that the lovemaking of older couples is significantly more leisurely than it is for younger ones: older men are actually more capable of maintaining erections longer than their younger counterparts; and older women are more knowledgeable about their partners’ bodies and their own.
Where, then, does the final taboo reside? It’s where most stereotypes come home to roost: in ourselves. We live in an image-dominated, youth-oriented culture, with sight firmly ensconced as the predominant sense. Unless we look sexy, the equation runs, we don’t feel sexy and if we don’t feel sexy, we can’t imagine anyone being interested in us sexually. Wrinkles and extra flesh, we’ve been drilled to believe, do not a sexy look create. As a result, we risk being turned off not by any potential partner but by ourselves.
So, ultimately the greatest gift we can give ourselves as we age is the gift of true sexual liberation. Not simply liberation from the prohibition against engaging in sex but from all the restrictions and narrow conventions that a younger demographic wraps around the sexual experience. Liberation from the rules of sex. Perhaps no one has codified this idea better than Nancy Price Freedman, a 70-year-old artist who wrote a column for the New York Times’ “Modern Love” section this summer, titled, “Yes, We Do. Even at Our Age.” At one point, Price Freedman describes a situation in which an elderly man, visiting his ill wife in the hospital, draws the curtain closed around her bed and joins her under the covers, so that she can “get warm” and fall asleep. “That’s passion,” she writes. “And love. But not sex. Yet sex still seems to be the barometer with which we measure an enduring marriage, and increasingly those of us in our Golden Years are being told that with a little chemical enhancement, we can go on having passionate sex for years, decades … Yet the whole issue of sex among older people distracts us from a deeper truth: that simple, tender intimacy is very important as we age, the sort of thing our highly sexualized, Viagra-pushing culture tends to minimize or ignore.”
Tellingly, Price Freedman isn’t immune to the hype herself. Recently, she confesses, she and her husband ordered a DVD set advertised in a magazine for retirees that guaranteed to teach “creative lovemaking” and “new ideas for you and your spouse to enhance your marriage.” The DVDs duly arrived in an unmarked package. Price Freedman and her 78-year-old husband popped the first one into their player and sat down to watch. The verdict? “We laughed at some parts, I fell asleep in the middle of the second one and I’m not sure if we ever looked at the third.”
What more could any of us ask, from sex or any other pleasure, as we approach eternity? To indulge or abstain according to our inclination — and to laugh along the way.
Mr. Schwartz, a retiree living in Florida, wakes up one morning beside his wife, groaning in pain. “Stanley, what is it?” she asks. “I feel terrible,” he says. “I’m taking you to the doctor,” she says. When they get there, the doctor takes Mr. Schwartz into his examination room; he comes out after 10 minutes and asks Mrs. Schwartz to come into his office to speak privately for a moment, while her husband sits in the waiting room. In the office, the doctor says, “Mrs. Schwartz, I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but your husband is suffering from a very rare, usually fatal illness. There’s only one thing that can save him: a daily dose of oral sex. You know what oral sex is, Mrs. Schwartz?” “I know. Thank you, doctor,” says Mrs. Schwartz and walks back out to the waiting room.
“Stanley,” she says, “you’re gonna die.”
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.