I knew that applied to neurons and gift certificates, but I had no idea it was true of female genitalia. That tissues grew thinner and dryer after menopause, yes, but not that visitor-free vaginas can actually atrophy: grow shorter and narrower. I didn’t know it because no one ever talked about it, any more than they talked about how people can enjoy satisfying, passionate sex into their 90s—if they make it a priority and embrace the ways sex changes over time.
Ageism makes the topic still taboo. As my friend Dread Scott put it rhetorically, “What’s the most revolting thing in this society? A naked old woman.” No stranger to radical ideas, Dread felt that the most radical part of my message might be “the sex part. People are willing to accept the idea that older people can be integrated into society, but the idea that older women want to have sex, and enjoy it, really challenges conventions. It relates to the way women are sexualized at a younger age than men and also discarded far younger.”
I do think we baby boomers are going to rage against the dying of this particular light, and fortunately there are more and better resources to turn to. Like Deirdre Fishel’s book and documentary Still Doing It: The Intimate Lives of Women over 60 You can watch the trailer here, and I can’t beat Fishel’s inspired description of the book:
Women over 60 are still doing it – it being whatever turns them on, from doing humanitarian work to buying a dildo, from climbing Machu Picchu to having the best orgasms of their lives. Sex is so much more than an act – it’s a metaphor for being alive. STILL DOING IT is a call to arms. Women of all ages, stand up! Follow your passions! Fall in love! Get laid!
Another must-have for the bedside table is Joan Price’s Naked At Our Age: Talking Out Loud About Senior Sex, a candid and comprehensive guide to how sex, relationships, and self-image change over time.Here are some more of the mortifyingly many new ideas I encountered from Price and the many people she quotes: expert and inexperienced, coupled and single, straight and gay.
- action often precedes arousal, not the other way around. “So women who think they need to be in the mood to have sex might in fact need to have sex to be in the mood! In other words, just do it!” Price writes.
- older genitals need more stimulation to get aroused and more time to reach orgasm.Getting hard (for men) and getting wet (for women) are no longer reliable measurements of arousal.
- after menopause, reduced blood flow, vaginal thinning, and less flexible pelvic-floor muscles can make sex less pleasurable, uncomfortable, or even excruciating. This is treatable. Check out the vaginal renewal program Price recommends. (Hint: three components: moisturizing, manual massage, and vibrating massage.)
- while true erectile dysfunction is rare, just about every man experiences erectile dissatisfaction. As men age, they’ll be happier if they re-prioritize intercourse—which isn’t the key to most women’s sexual satisfaction, anyway. “I’ve spent my life . . . trying to persuade men that they’ll have better sex and get better response from women if they ditch their preoccupation with their penis and focus instead on leisurely, playful, whole-body, massage-based sensuality,” says sex educator and counselor Michael Castleman. Their partners need to be sensitive to how vulnerable this makes men feel.
- orgasms aren’t the be-all and end-all either. There are myriad ways to find pleasure. Age and experience should make us smarter about what feels good and better at communicating it. As at any age, partners need to ask for what they want—or don’t want—whether it’s porn, or a sex toy, or a kissing all afternoon.
- if you really, really want to hang up your toe shoes, OK. But being single or celibate isn’t reason enough. (In this excellent Senior Planet interview, Joan Price fields the question, “If the fires are flagging, why not just let the urge to merge fade away?” – among others.) Masturbation counts as “using it.” (Nor is masturbation necessarily a solitary activity, as Betty Dodson, a hero of mine and one of the myriad experts quoted in the book points out.) Sex is good for you: it improves sleep, reduces risk of depression, and bolsters the immune system, to name a few of the ways. And if you think you’ll want a lover again, it keeps nerves firing and tissues healthy.
- consider alternative relationships. I know lots of straight women who aren’t having sex and wish they were. They’d have more luck if they could decouple sex and romantic love. Not sleep with creeps, but not hold out for Mr. Perfect in Every Way Forever either. Consider friends with benefits. And respectful, honest non-monogamous relationships.
- practice safe sex. Price cites an AARP report that “Only one in five sexually active single adults over forty-five reports using a condom regularly.” Vaginal thinning puts older women at a higher risk of infection, and older people make up the fastest growing segment of new HIV/AIDS cases in several states. Price found that those of her respondents who were having the most sex with the most partners were often also the ones who never had unprotected sex.
Naked At Our Age doesn’t shy away from illness and loss either, issues raised by the death from cancer of Price’s own beloved partner. After a long hiatus, she started nurturing her sexuality again, to stay healthy and to maintain her ability to enjoy sex in the future. Thus the following exchange with a nurse practitioner who was readying her for a breast and pelvic exam:
“You sexually active?”
“I’m sexually active with vibrators,” I said, unsure what she was really asking. “I have orgasms, but not partners. Is that what you wanted to know?” No, it wasn’t, she explained, laughing. The question was designed to lead to offering an STD test if the answer was yes. We brainstormed possible ways to reword it.”
I’d like to know what they came up with, because I’m recalibrating my notion of “sexually active” too.