Is sex between older people – and older people having sex – one of the last taboos in Britain? You bet it is. We’re British.
We don’t airily wave away hundreds of years of history and conditioning. Never before has there been a generation of “older people” like us. We do what youth today is doing – be it e-mailing our friends, taking adventure holidays, wearing Nike trainers or having sex. But – we take some getting used to.
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Changing attitudes to mature sex
Mature sex often didn’t happen years ago. Lives were shorter, and many women, often totally ignorant about sex before they married, thought it was something to be endured as the price for having a man around. Women may have craved affection (don’t we all?) but there is little evidence that many of them were craving sex over 60. They were tired, worn out with child-rearing and relieved not to have to “do all that”. Men were always encouraged to “sow their wild oats”.
Yet until as recently as 50 years ago or so, women were meant to move from virginity to marriage to young motherhood – with no sex education. The mother of a friend of mine said to her virgin daughter before her wedding in 1960, “You’ll have to do disgusting things when you are married. But you must never refuse because he’s your husband.”
The Sixties completely wiped away the notion that virginity was essential to respectability and decency. Sex was suddenly seen as a healthy pleasure, though of course the Church didn’t agree.
Do you remember how it was before? Britain appeared to be hopelessly lacking in sexual awareness. (Most young men who kissed my breasts or got me half undressed did the decent thing and asked me to marry them.) Though of course in those days sex had other dangers. Pregnancy being the main one.
And when I was young I thought sex only took place (when it did) between attractive young people with beautiful bodies. No one portrayed older women as sexually alluring. Marlene Dietrich was one of the few who raised older men’s pulses. As far as I was aware, writers and poets seemed only ever to have praised youth and beauty.
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Shakespeare’s line, “When 40 winters have besieged thy brow” haunted me. I regularly plastered my forehead with my mother’s Elizabeth Arden face cream. Who would want a woman with a besieged brow? There seemed to be no future, sexual or otherwise, in age. My mother told me that my father had spent his 30th birthday in mute despair. He hated getting older. Mind you, he also hated being married to my mother.
In Leigh-on-Sea when I grew up, you married as young as possible; 25 was “leaving it a bit late”. Some kind of fumbling sticky togetherness took place maybe just before marriage, usually on the wedding night – and then young marrieds had children. As women in my neck of the woods got older, they certainly didn’t package themselves for sex.
Sex to the adults of my youth was embarrassing, rude or funny. It was obvious to anyone of my generation with half a brain that sex wasn’t something parents did. As for grandparents, they were wrinkled, affectionate old people. To my Russian Jewish grandmother, anything to do with sex was out of the question. “Men,” she’d say. “Feh. They’re no-goodniks. They vant one ting.” She once saw me kissing a boy goodnight when I was 17. She called me a whore.
British sex, so help us, was Donald McGill seaside postcards – the fat lady with the tiny husband saying “I can’t see my little Willy.” It was Sid James and giggly Barbara Windsor losing her bra in dreadful Carry On films. Oh, wonderful to look back at them now. But deadening at the time if you were young, because that was the British view of sex.
Only in mainland Europe did they produce films with sensual, truly sexually sophisticated adults. The ongoing British role model for the ideal woman was the dullest woman in screen history, Celia Johnson, the insufferably boring doctor’s wife in Brief Encounter. It was so sexlessly British it made you want to emigrate.
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Christine Keeler and the Swinging Sixties
And then – something happened. Pictures of an intolerably alluring British woman with a fabulous body were splashed across newspapers around Britain and the world. Christine Keeler was everywhere. She’d been having SEX at Cliveden with, gasp, a cabinet minister and heaven knows who else in the aristocracy. How promiscuous, how scandalous, how delicious. We Brits had Sex after all. How come no one had noticed before? Suddenly the world was looking at Britain with astonished new eyes.
The poet Philip Larkin wrote that “Sex was invented in 1963.” “Much too late for me,” he added. But what relief for the rest of us. Soon the Beatles wrote the lyrics to our love songs, the Stones urged us to spend the night together. SEX was on our agenda, Sex was in the air – as was a mighty eruption of talent and creativity. A new generation exploded into glorious, vibrant life and with it came new sexual manners, morals and mores.
Slowly and surely the changes spread across the country from the Kings Road. Yes, I agree, they took ages to reach some parts of Britain (and just maybe they didn’t ever reach a place near you), but as a nation we are resistant to change. Even if it’s fun. (Especially if it’s fun.) Even if it’s for the better.
By 1967 it felt sensationally sexy to be British. This was a decade that gave us truly sexual British role models: Joanna Lumley, Jacqueline Bisset, Charlotte Rampling, Helen Mirren, Diana Rigg, Felicity Kendal, Jane Birkin.
And as we lay on beds listening to Sergeant Pepper, the contraceptive pill was freely available. For the very first time in history, women could have sex with no worries. If you ask me, the pill was the biggest invention since the wheel.
For most of my friends – by then I’d moved to London – it meant blissful, angst-free sex with a man you really liked and were probably going to become “involved” with. It did not mean sex with everyone you met. (Michael Caine said later, “Swinging London was the same 200 people in the Kings Road sleeping with each other.”)
It was certainly sexual liberation for men, some of whom were becoming alarmingly casual in their approach. So many women had discovered they liked sex, that men didn’t need to be charming. I remember at the end of one evening a man saying, “Oh, if you’re going to argue about it, forget it.” But men still fell in love and I can’t deny that it was marvellous to be a truly sexually free woman.
But who could have known then that we were the generation that would be as hungry for life and sex as the years rolled by as we were then? And that our parents’ generation might end up learning a few tricks from us?
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You tend to stay a certain age, rarely your chronological age, in your brain. I think we enjoyed being young so much that we’ve stayed young, to the irritation of some of today’s younger people. Many of us still have a hearty appetite for sex, even if it’s not always readily available. We’re not the stiff, respectable, grey older folk of yesteryear who “put away childish things”.
Most of my friends in the 50-80 age group dress like 35-year-olds, colour their hair, exercise – or threaten to, visit the dentist regularly (your face sags less if you keep your teeth) and if they want cosmetic surgery or teeth-whitening they damn well have it. “They preserve old buildings,” said a 71-year-old professional woman I know who’s just had a face-lift. “What’s wrong with me having a bit of restoration work?”
Some of the couples I know who stayed together are struggling a bit on the sexual front (life was ever thus).
He’s 68 and wants sex daily, she’s bored by his lack of foreplay (or afterplay) and frankly would like the whole thing to last longer than three minutes. Or she, in her seventies, would love to have sex and her husband simply isn’t up to it. So she has – and has always had – affairs.
I’m amazed (and rather cheered by) the number of my married women friends who’ve finally played away since their fifties. They’re fond of their husbands, they like the familiar rhythm of their lives, but the thrill of the lover and the quality of the sex is so much better than they get at home. Sometimes the affairs have kept their marriages alive. One or two have fallen painfully in love – but haven’t left their husbands. Had I but world enough and time to report on the sexual activities of my men friends over 50 and 60 I could fill the Encyclopaedia Britannica. The true extent of male infidelity has rarely been acknowledged.
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Single over 60
But what of single, widowed and divorced women as we get older? We see ourselves as sexual yet complain that the world doesn’t see us that way. Give or take the odd Meryl Streep movie or lusty, sexy Brenda Blethyn convincing us of sex after 50, why don’t we play the lead in love stories? We are not shown stripping off. Does this mean we’d better keep our clothes on?
All the advertising and editorial pages in glossy magazines still show models in their spindly teens and twenties. But where are we? Don’t we buy clothes? Don’t we like provocative lingerie? Aren’t some of us financially fitter than women of 22? Yes, that’s right, but the marketing truth is that most fashion and beauty magazines and advertisements are targeted at the 18-34 age group.
Another truth is that women over 40 remind men of their mothers – don’t even mention women over 60. And as the film, TV and advertising industries are chiefly run by young men, the very thought of their parents’ generation having sex makes them uncomfortable. The taboo lies with them, certainly not we quiveringly sexual beings.
But just because Hollywood, the media and advertising can often be mercilessly cruel to older women, it doesn’t mean real life is that way.
Single older women report less choice of men. Well yes, they die off or are married. And as we’re more selective than men, we can’t always get who we want. I’ve learnt to live with the fact that Antonio Banderas would probably not want sex with me even if we were shipwrecked. But men are everywhere. If you really want a man you can get one. You just have to be out there, and “up for it”. It does take confidence, a will to look your best.
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Sex with a new partner
You may have to be the bold one who takes the sexual initiative. I’ve done that when I was at bursting point with lust – but it does work. In both cases I’d known the men for some months, but apart from sexual tension and quirky conversation, nothing was happening. Was I too intimidating? Too shy? Too old? (One of the men was 20 years younger.)
I later asked the younger lover why he’d never made a move. “I thought it would be more fun if you did,” he said. Over the past few years I’ve certainly known men, friends and neighbours in the 50-70 age bracket, divorced, widowed and aching for a partner. A couple of them are now with older women. (That could be the sticking point. Those of us who want good sex don’t necessarily want to become wives and housekeepers.)
What of the agony of taking your clothes off and letting a man see your older body? Oh please. Few of us have sex under 1,000-watt bulbs. We’re talking sex, not micro-surgery.
Men know what they’re taking to bed. They’ve already spotted you’re not Naomi Campbell. Unless they’re scouting for the Elite Model Agency, men are not that critical about women’s bodies. Many men feel they are ugly. What they like are willing, enthusiastic, sexual partners who’ll abandon themselves to pleasure.
They want women to like their bodies. And men do like affection. They love to be made a fuss of. I’ve always found it very easy to be hugely affectionate to a good lover (and there’s almost nothing I’d refuse a good lover who cooked).
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The role of a sexual partner
What I appreciate about being older is that I’ve finally learnt not to look for everything in one man. You can’t have a man for all seasons. My younger lover is not the man I take to political conferences. The man whose humour I most appreciate is not the man who’ll come to the ballet. The men I stay with overseas are not interested in my erratic London life. If I need a practical man I’ll pay someone to fix the car or put up the shelves. Often I need to be alone.
Men are frothy, marvellous luxuries – even though some are daily phone calls. My women friends are the necessities. The women buoy me up and carry me through, which is something else I never would have guessed all those years ago. So sex now is for pure sweet pleasure. Easy as Sunday morning stuff. It doesn’t have to have a future. There’s nothing riding on it, no agenda. No “where were you?” because it doesn’t matter. No “will you call?” because he’s been calling for years. No declarations of affection because some things are best left unsaid. I can’t imagine when sex stops. When you tire of it I suppose.
But the truth is that we’re not the first “older” people who are keen on sex. In my outrageous twenties I asked a charming, chatty Englishwoman I’d met in Villefranche when people stopped having sex. “It’s no good asking me, my dear,” she said. “I’m only 83.”
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This article originally appeared in Saga Magazine August 2004.
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