To celebrate the release of my senior sex documentary Soul Sex with John and Annie, I reached out to Joan Price, a one of a kind expert for ageless sexuality, to talk about the joys and challenges of sex at later-age.
After my first senior sex book came out, a male journalist in his late 30s interviewed me. “I get what you’re saying,” he told me at the end of the interview, “but I can’t imagine my parents still having sex at their age, let along my grandparents!”
“Why not?” I challenged him. “At what age do you plan to retire your genitals?”
Sadly, his attitude is typical. It’s what I call the “ick factor”: the idea that senior sex is distasteful, disgusting, ludicrous, icky. Someone with wrinkles and loose skin can’t possibly be sexy and desirable, people think, shuddering as they picture us naked. When we’re not seen negatively, we’re usually not seen at all. Sexually invisible seniors.
Underlying this aversion to senior sex is the culture-fed belief that only young bodies are desirable. Look at advertising, television, cinema—anywhere you see sexy bodies. How often do you see people over 60 or 70? Ever? At least in the United States, where I live, society views older people as past their prime, no longer desirous or desirable, no longer sexual beings. This is the #1 myth about sex and aging.
Let’s look at some other myths about sex and aging:
Myth: If I don’t get aroused the way I used to, sex is over.
Truth: Arousal does change with age. What kind of stimulation we want, where and how we want to be touched, what fantasies turn us on—all these can change. That doesn’t mean we’re weird or defective or done with sex. It just means we need to discover what arouses us as our bodies age and we’re no longer driven by our hormones. Let this be an adventurous time where we’re open to new ways of expressing ourselves sexually.
Myth: If my aching back and sore knees make it impossible to get into my favorite position for orgasm, sex is over.
Truth: “I ache in the places where I used to play,” sings Leonard Cohen in “Tower of Song.” Our aging bodies may give us challenges, but we can turn those into an opportunity to explore which positions are most comfortable for us now. If you’re frustrated because you can’t find a substitute position that works as well for orgasm, experiment with using a comfortable position for extended arousal, then switch to your favorite for the finale. Try the special pillows and cushions made especially for sex—the right support can be the best investment you can make in sexual comfort and pleasure.
Myth: If I don’t have a partner anymore, sex is over.
Truth: Many of us are unpartnered, and the older we get, the more likely this is. But we don’t have to give up on the delights of arousal and orgasm. We can give these to ourselves! We can pleasure ourselves with erotic stimulation, such as Erika Lust’s films, and our own hands, lubricant, sex toys, and fantasies. Solo sex is real sex. (Even when we’re fortunate to have a partner, solo sex is lovely and desirable for the interludes between partnered sexual encounters.)
Myth: If I’ve lost the urgent desire for sex that used to drive my sex life, sex is over.
Truth: When we were young and hormonal, we felt what’s called “spontaneous desire,” One of the big changes that comes with aging is often the lack of spontaneous desire. However, if we let our bodies get turned on, our minds do, too. That’s called “responsive desire.” We need to let go of the notion that we need to feel spontaneous desire before deciding to have sex. If we let ourselves get physiologically aroused first, either solo or with a partner, we’re likely to feel desire kick in in response to physical stimulation. “Arousal first, then desire,” writes Emily Nagoski, author of Come As You Are: the surprising new science that will transform your sex life—an excellent resource to learn about spontaneous vs. responsive desire.
Myth: If we plan date nights that include a romantic dinner, and that doesn’t get us in the mood for sex afterward, sex is over.
Truth: Have sex before that romantic dinner—you’ll enjoy the sex and the dinner more! We need blood flow to the genitals to get aroused. When we eat first, that blood rushes to the digestive system, not the penis or clitoris. Have sex on an empty stomach—not when you’re famished, but before a meal rather than afterward. Another tip to increase blood flow: exercise before sex. That gets the blood going to the muscles, the brain, the heart, and, yes, the genitals.
What can you do about these widespread myths?
– Educate yourself. Learn what’s true and what’s false about how aging affects sex.
– If something doesn’t work the way it used to, don’t assume sex is over. Instead, learn how you can fix what isn’t working, or compensate for it, or do something different that works better.
– If you’re a senior and you believe some of these myths, look at where these beliefs came from. You’ve rejected many other ideas you were taught that no longer serve you. You can decide to reject the beliefs that hold you back from embracing and enjoying your sexuality now.
– If you’re young, don’t turn away from learning about sex and aging. If you’re lucky, you, too, will get old. After all, the alternative to getting old is dying young.
– If you’re in a profession that lets you interact with seniors, especially in a health or educational setting, do not assume anything. Ask questions. Help us to normalize senior sex in our culture by making it part of the conversation.
– Speak out. If you hear false information, misguided ideas, or people voicing the “ick factor,” say something. Let’s change our society’s view of senior sex, one voice at a time.