When I was 12, savvy enough to know just enough about sex to conceive of it but too immature to understand the motivations behind it, the idea of my grandparents having sex repulsed me. That two fragile bodies, elegant but brittle, could engage in such a primal pastime was disorienting. Sex was for the young—not for the old. Tautness was a determining factor in this tautology: Tired, sagging, hunched over couples had no business between the sheets.
Oh, how wrong I was.
Jane Fleishman, PhD, a sexuality educator who focuses on senior living communities, was doing a Body Electric training when she was in her mid-40s and she had an experience that changed her definition of sex. The Body Electric school, which started in 1884 at the height of the AIDS epidemic, focused on the intersection of sex and spirituality.
“During the training, I had this moment when I felt the hand of God on my heart,” says Fleishman. “It was just the most incredible closeness I’d ever felt to God. I’m a fairly secular person. But wow, in that moment there was something that touched me in a way that I don’t think I’ve felt before or since. I sensed the deep and strong connection between my sexuality and my spirituality.”
Joan Price, an advocate, author, and speaker for what she calls “ageless sexuality”met the love of her life at age 57. Their sex life was a turning point for her. “I went from feeling invisible after menopause to discovering a man who finds me desirable, a man who I felt was the sexiest man alive—and he was seven years older than me,” Price told me. “I would just fall into his eyes, his voice, his beautiful dancer’s body. And I did fall into it—quite often. Fall on it, fall under it, and fall beside it.”
Typically, the common narrative on sex and aging focuses on what goes wrong as we age, not what goes right. Apparently, it’s not uncommon for women of a certain age to be told by their (usually) male doctor that menopause signaled the end of their sex life. Yes, aging comes with certain physical challenges: erectile differences, for men, and thinner and stiffer vaginal walls for women. For both, it may take longer to achieve full arousal. But a new, emergent narrative on sex and aging is coming to light.
The National Institute of Aging recently published an article about how many older couples find greater satisfaction in their sex lives than they did when they were younger: “They may have fewer distractions, more time and privacy, and no worries about getting pregnant. They also may be better able to express what they want and need, which can offer an opportunity for greater intimacy and connection.”
A widely shared article in the New York Times, “The Joys (and Challenges) of Sex After 70,” talked about how sex can drop off in our final decades, but for those who keep going, it can be the best, most satisfying sex of their lives.
Clearly, it’s fallacious that older people don’t have sex. And if older people aren’t having sex, they’re probably thinking about it, says Fleishman. The American Association of Retired People (AARP) reports 67% of those over 50 have sex regularly, including 31% who said they had sex several times a week and 28% who have sex at least twice per month. Menopause is not a death knell for your sex life—in fact it may be a herald for when the sex gets really good.
To keep going in the face of sexual ageism requires persistence, devotion, and brave communication. It means expressing what works for you—and what doesn’t. The discovery process of what “works” is continual. It means stretching yourself to find novel ways to work around glitches, overcome awkwardness, and discover new excitements. Finally, aging asks of you to transform seeming obstacles into opportunities for intimacy. Don’t enjoy penetration or oral sex? Talk about what does turn you on. What if alternate routes became preferred pleasure avenues? The key, of course, is mindset. Instead of a hitch in your giddyup, what if the hitch was your giddyup? The following are three potent arenas ripe for a sexual makeover—no matter what your age.
Do you need to get over your shame?
“Older adults have a lot of what I call body shame,” says Fleishman. “We feel badly about our wrinkles, sags, bags and liver spots. The places that used to be high are now low.” If you feel betrayed by your aging body and let self-consciousness preoccupy your experience, your sexual appetite will undoubtedly suffer.
One 2019 study on “Body Image, Attractiveness, and Sexual Satisfaction Among Midlife Women” found that women’s body image impacted their sexual satisfaction. “Women who felt self-conscious about their bodies reported that these concerns had a negative impact on their sexual satisfaction, whereas women who felt confident discussed better sexual satisfaction, even in the face of bodily changes.”
Comparing yourself to a younger version of you, judging yourself to have been more attractive before, squelches desire. Feeling “frumpy” is a major buzzkill in bed. Acceptance of the body you have is the game-changer. “The younger you feel inside, the more capacity you have to feel sexually satisfied,” says Fleishman.
As someone who is not immune to societal judgments around the aging body, Fleishman has a corrective measure she shares with her students: “Who do you see yourself as when you close your eyes? What happens when you look at yourself through your mind’s eye? What does your body look like and how does it feel?” She recommends turning a kind and appreciative eye toward your body. If self-consciousness still interferes with sex, Fleishman suggests undressing before your lover gets into the room, getting under the covers, dimming the lights (or even lighting a candle), and then asking your partner to join you. When you are about a quarter of an inch apart, looking into each other’s eyes, she says, “you are not judging wrinkles. You are looking into each other’s souls. There’s the invitation to go beyond and deeper, see into the spirit, in a way that the world doesn’t even understand yet.”
The world, she says, needs to catch up to the idea of older adult sexuality. The notion that once you reach a certain age, you’re asexual or not interesting to look at it anymore is a huge disservice. “Even my wrinkles have wrinkles,” says Price. “It doesn’t define me. I wear them with pride.”
Can you stoke your erotic imagination?
By the time midlife rolls around, you’ve probably tried a number of sexual positions. Yet if you want to introduce novelty, you might have to set your sights on something other than a new position, especially when erections and penetrations are not as reliable sources of pleasure.
Role-playing, restraints, and blindfolds can unleash a newfound sense of playfulness. A significant challenge to intimacy is the loss of novelty in the bedroom. Why not compensate for when your body goes rogue by relying on your erotic imagination to be a bridge between excitation and release. Throw in a dash of mischief, a smidge of danger, and you have integrated the push-pull of opposing forces that set up dynamic engagement, a requisite of hot sex. As Jack Morin writes in the book The Erotic Mind, “We are the most intensely excited when we are a little off-balance, uncertain, poised on the perilous edge between ecstasy and disaster.”
As is the way of any leap into faith, there may well be awkwardness when it comes to older adult sex, such as funky smells and sounds. Parts may not work the way they used to. Yet disabilities may pierce preconceptions, awkwardness brings vulnerability, and vulnerability leads to deepened intimacy.
“If you can find humor in it, all the better. We don’t take ourselves as seriously as we did when we were younger,” says Fleishman. And what looks like a stepping stone on the way to pleasure may turn out to be a waterfall, adds Price.
Part of the erotic imagination is allowing anticipatory pleasure to have its way. Enter planning for sex. “Most people of any age expect that sex will be the way we see it in the media—natural and spontaneous with people falling into one another’s arms,” says Dr. Peggy J. Kleinplatz, a professor of medicine at the University of Ottawa and a sex researcher. “I think that’s an unrealistic expectation at any point through the life cycle. But with maturity, most people realize that the best sex requires effort, devotion, intention, and deliberation in order to optimize the quality of erotic intimacy.”
What Dr. Kleinplatz refers to as “tips, tricks, techniques, and toys” all have their place in the sexual landscape. But what makes sex magnificent, suggests Dr. Kleinplatz, is empathic communication. “Most people are casual in how they listen. Extraordinary lovers put effort into empathic communication, into touching, so as to feel what’s going on under the other’s skin.” This kind of interpenetrative touch, she says, lets each person be felt and known.
Making time for sex is a bit like a psychedelic journey, in which set and setting often determine the quality of the “trip.” “To be centered in one’s own experience while being intimately engaged with another is key,” says Dr. Kleinplatz. The potency that comes from this field determines the yield; the quality of attunement shapes the denouement.
One of the best ways to practice this kind of attunement is solo play. Let your imagination run wild, bracket intrusive thoughts and distractions, explore new positions, and discover what gets you off without any pressure of having to make someone else feel good.
Are you investing in your sex life?
In the New York Times piece about sex after 70, the author reports that many of the older people she interviewed told her they wished they’d “invested in sex earlier in their lives, including through better communication, more intimacy, and overcoming sexual anxieties.” In a nutshell, that is the silver lining playbook of older adult sex: authenticity, openness, and a deep appreciation for connection.
The optimal sexual experiences research team of the University of Ottawa found that the quest for sex of this caliber was most likely to begin in midlife among those who are so inclined and become enhanced thereafter. With experience, lovers become less willing to settle for sexual relations that are unfulfilling. As Dr. Kleinplatz says, “It takes a certain amount of life experience before people begin to ask is that all there is.”
The awareness of time running out can make every act of intimacy feel sacred. Age becomes not a waning force but a galvanizing one, incumbent upon each one of us to make the pivot from mediocre sex to marvelous sex. What was tolerable in younger years, in a life crowded by children, careers, and social obligations, may no longer be tenable later in life. All that body burden of sadness, acquired over a lifetime, must be met with its equal and opposite: unfettered delight. A 2018 study published in The Journal of Sex Research examined sexual motives in the later part of life. One of the themes was “from lust to love” and another was “from getting sex to giving sex.”
Part of this shift stems from reckoning with the weight of the accumulated grief of our lives. “I talked about it as a dialectical relationship between sadness and pleasure,” says Fleishman. “Yes, we’ve had so many losses as we age. We may have lost a spouse, our careers, our neighborhood, our friends, family members, our pets. We may have lost a breast or a testicle. But the other side of it, which people often forget when they’re kind of going through the litany of all the things that are wrong, is we have this enormous capacity to have emergent pleasure.”
We no longer feel the pull of the obligatory notions and are strangely free of caring about what other people think. We can at long last, through our sexuality, touch into “a deep part of ourselves that has been longing to emerge,” says Fleishman. “The part of us that wants to feel unadulterated joy, to feel creative, playful, and connected.”
Sex after midlife gives us the overview to realize that we are enlarged by our losses, not diminished by them. Many older people urgently want—because if not now, when?—to have the deeper emanations of the heart run the show. It’s the time to have a lifetime of loss put to use as a tenderizer for the soul. It’s the time to consider aging, not as a noose around our neck, but as a loosening of the yolk that we’ve been carrying for many years, suggests Fleishman.
If I learned one thing through writing this story, it’s that the need for touch never leaves us. “It is the first language and the last, and it always tells the truth,” writes Margaret Atwood in her book The Blind Assassin. No matter what age takes away from our sex lives—dependable erections, gushy vulvas, spontaneous desire—it gives so much more. We lose the performative to find the intrinsic, lose the obsession with PIV to become polymorphously pleasurable. If my grandparents were alive today, I’d congratulate them on their ability to keep risking delight, on finding refuge in one another, held in deepening magnitude despite everything, or because of it.