By Masako Fukui for Earshot, 6 Dec 2016.
When 88-year-old author Doreen Wendt-Weir began interviewing people for her book Sex in your Seventies, she changed her name to the more glamorous sounding Evangeline to help her overcome her “conservative, reserved, somewhat timid” nature.
Perhaps more importantly, the less stodgy persona also helped loosen the tongues of her interviewees. The stories Evangeline heard were often startling.
Take 80-year-old virgin Albert, whose attempt to court a much younger woman ended in a misadventure with Viagra that left him enduring its potent effects for nearly two weeks.
And there’s Celeste, whose biggest dilemma when hopping into bed for the first time with a new man was where to put her dentures, an all too common problem for late life daters, according to Wendt-Weir.
But the personal stories in the book were not as surprising as the reactions to its publication. Wendt-Weir was accused of being a “dirty old woman”; even her own children were ashamed at first.
The response is understandable — as a society we just don’t want to associate sex with old age.
Most of us assume that “if a person is using a walking frame, has had cardiac surgery or has chronic diabetes”, then sex is not a part of that person’s life, lamented Dr Sue Malta, research fellow at the National Ageing Research Institute in Melbourne.
After all, sexy is wrinkle free and dewy skinned, full of vigour, hard in the right places, perky in others.
But this is an illusion perpetuated by ageist myths, and there is ample evidence that suggests people continue to explore and enjoy their sexuality well into old age.
In fact, Dr Malta’s research showed that sex and romance are firmly on the minds of many older adults, who not only make up the fastest growing demographic using online dating sites, but are likely to end up in bed quicker than their younger cohorts.
But while sex is still important for many older people, sexual feelings do change with age.
Susan, a 73-year-old internet dater, said she had now parted company with her trusty vibrator, which accompanied her in bed when she was in her 50s and 60s.
“Now I want the man but not the machine,” she said.
Catherine Barrett, director of the OPAL Institute, which promotes the sexual rights of older people, said late-life sex needed to be seen in the context of a broader human experience involving intimacy, companionship, pleasure, and love.
“Older people are saying to me that the approach to talking about their sex is reductionistic and that they want to talk about sexuality more broadly,” Dr Barrett said.
She said older adults were more likely to focus on the “quality” in sexuality, rather than the sex. In fact, sex in old age can be an experience that’s “deeper and richer”.
Wendt-Weir has been in relationships with four men throughout her life, but said the best sex was with her last partner, whom she met when she was 72.
Her love life with him was exceptional because it was more than just good sex. It was about the “loving bond”, she said. “He made me feel valued.”
But 61-year-old Tom suggests this might be a distinctly “woman’s perspective”.
For Tom, sex is still mostly about penetrative sex culminating in orgasm, though he admitted another part of him was “a bit softer, more about the sensual”.
In fact, the experience of ageing for Tom feels a bit like a growing chasm between his mind and his body. In his head, he is still a strapping 20-year-old.
“You know, I think I’m Brad Pitt. Then I look in the mirror, and I think, ‘Oh my god, I’m actually not, I’m some old guy that’s invisible to most people,'” he said.
Tom said the part of him that felt he had to “get hard, get my partner off” could be problematic, because it prevented him from accepting the inevitable vulnerabilities of ageing.
“If in a way I’m always trying to hide my vulnerability, then I will be likely to use Viagra because then I can pretend I’m invulnerable,” he said.
“I can maintain the fantasy that I’m a 20-year-old dude.”
Rates of sexually transmissible infections among older Australians have increased in recent years and may continue to rise as more and more seniors go online to potentially meet new and multiple sexual partners.
And as the ageing population grows, thorny issues like dementia and sexuality, sexual health policy in nursing homes or sexual assault of older people need to be addressed.
Yet a frank and open discussion about sexuality and old age is problematic because most people over 60 have had little or no sex education and often feel inhibited talking about sex.
“I wouldn’t go around asking people about their love lives at all because in the circles in which I move, we don’t really talk about sex,” Wendt-Weir said.
But post-pill baby boomer Tom feels that his generation is considerably more liberated. There is anticipation his peers might usher in another sexual revolution in their twilight years.
And while he feels sad for the loss of that intense “life affirming sex drive” and “explosive orgasms”, he now feels more comfortable and “safer just being myself with my partner now than probably ever”.
Married now for 27 years, he explains that ageing is a gradual process involving constant negotiation and adjusting to physical and emotional changes.
Safety or comfort may not be high order concerns in the sex lives of perky, dewy skinned youth. But what the older generation seem to be saying is that a new kind of sexuality can emerge with age, one that focuses on whole body intimacy and the value of human connections.
This is encouraging for all of us — because it means getting on doesn’t mean we can’t continue to get it on.Leave a reply