Politics

Sex on Valentine’s Day — or any day — isn’t just for young people



As Valentine’s Day approaches, we’re bombarded with images of attractive young people exchanging gifts, drinking champagne, sharing chocolate and otherwise communicating sexual and emotional bonding. But what about older couples? The media seems, once again, to be communicating that sexual pleasure is the purview of the young and beautiful. But is that true?

In a 2019 TED talk called, “Is it OK for Grandma to have sex?” Jane Fleishman, a sexuality educator and researcher with a focus on seniors, said, “Older adults are having sex and having fun having sex.” A 2018 National Poll on Healthy Aging by the University of Michigan found that seniors, many of whom were part of the sexual revolution of the 1960s and ‘70s, are still enjoying sex, although that may be an image their children and grandchildren would rather get out of their heads.

One thing modern seniors have up their sleeves is the combined knowledge that sex can be fun, take many forms and that it also requires some effort.

But the former “free love” generation, even those who were not active in the sexual revolution, are being forced to come to grips with changes in their bodies and minds that are changing their relationship to sex. How can they do that in today’s age-avoidant culture?

Elisabeth Gordon, an integrative sexual health psychiatrist, told me recently that contemporary seniors who want to have an active sex life must deal with “a crisis of identity.” She explained that since we are acculturated to correlate sexuality with youth, it can be hard for baby boomers to think of themselves as both “senior” and “sexual.”

Of course, not all seniors are boomers, nor were they all part of the sexual revolution. But whatever their experiences when they were young, many older individuals find it hard to reconcile these different selves when most of the media focus on either the beautiful young or the ailing elderly. “You can be sexy, or you can be old, but you can’t be both,” one of my psychotherapy clients recently said to me.

Sari Cooper, a sex therapist, disagrees. “That’s one of the reasons I love the show ‘Grace and Frankie.’ Here are two older women, frankly talking about their sexuality,” she told me.

Psychotherapist Joel Kanter told me that many of the issues facing seniors “are not so different from the issues that younger clients bring in, like relationships, intimacy and sexuality.” However, in their book, “Magnificent Sex,” the researchers and sex therapists Peggy Kleinplatz and A. Dana Ménard write that “although the view from the peaks of optimal sexual experiences is remarkably similar, whether from the vantage point of an older, monogamous, heterosexual couple after 50 years of marriage or a 22-year-old bisexual, polyamorous, BDSM aficionado, the paths towards the heights are quite distinctive.”

The former “free love” generation, even those who were not active in the sexual revolution, are being forced to come to grips with changes in their bodies and minds that are changing their relationship to sex.

Fortunately, for anyone seeking to improve their sex life, there are numerous resources from which to draw. Books, sex therapists, physical therapists, psychotherapists and physicians are all gradually coming on board to deal with sexuality in older adults.

Dr. Jonathan Vapnek, a urologist, told me that he prescribes appropriate medications to help with physical limitations, but he also encourages patients to try sex toys. Dr. Joan Berman, a gynecologist, works with older women who want to have sex but for whom it is physically painful. “They don’t always need medical intervention,” she told me. “Sometimes, learning techniques for relaxing the pelvis can make a huge difference.”

The trick is that you have to ask for help. But the idea that seniors are not supposed to be sexual can make it hard to ask. Cooper also said that many seniors, after spending their youth rebelling, settled into the traditional, heteronormative patterns of their parents where “sex is hidden, especially if there are children in the home. The children are gone, but it’s hard to change those patterns.”

Those old patterns are only part of the problem, though. Asking potential partners for what you need can be a daunting prospect for seniors who are uncomfortable with what one woman I spoke with, married for nearly 50 years, called her “less than attractive body.” She explained that she wanted her husband to remember her “as a young and beautiful woman, not this old, flabby, wrinkled lady.”

Gordon told me that another problem is that there is no social construct for a sexy senior. “We have the dirty old man, wannabe cougar, but no positive message of sexuality and aging in our culture.” There is, of course, “Silver Fox,” a positive term sometimes used to describe an attractive older man. But since it usually refers to how a younger woman feels about an older man, older women are still left out of the equation. On the other hand, research has shown that contemporary acceptance of bi-, queer, lesbian, gay, trans and other sexual orientations has made it possible for some older people to enjoy their sexuality more, and differently, as they age.

Covid has, of course, created more havoc. A single friend in her 70s told me, “The only men in my life are blood relations, so sex is only a fantasy, but social isolation during the pandemic is more problematic than lack of sex.” That painful loss of contact, more than sexual need, was echoed by numerous older singles of all genders and sexual orientations with whom I spoke.

But while psychotherapists like myself tend to think of sex and sexuality in terms of intimacy and connection, there is another side to this coin. Sometimes good sex is just physical. This can be true for the over 60 crowd, whether they are couples or singles just starting to date again.

One thing modern seniors have up their sleeves is the combined knowledge that sex can be fun, take many forms and that it also requires some effort. Marcia Lavipour, a couples therapist, told me about a couple in their 70s who had always made sex a priority. As they got older, she said, “it took a little more work, and climaxing didn’t always happen for both of them.” But with some experimenting and creativity, they found that after 45 years of marriage they were still enjoying sex with each other.

What’s most important is to find a way to reconcile the sometimes surprising fact of being a senior citizen with a newly discovered sense of sexuality as an older person. The media may not have caught on yet, but with this integrated sense of identity, even seniors can have a sexy Valentine’s Day.



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