Getting on—and getting it on

Sex. It’s not just for movie stars, the young, the birth controlled, the reproducing, newlyweds, newlymets, Rick Santorum, or the people upstairs. Our parents are doing it. And so are theirs.

Modern culture is preoccupied with sex. Sex, sex, sex. It’s everywhere. We’re obsessed with it. There are just two groups at opposite ends of the demographic for whom sex is verboten: those under 16, for obvious reasons, and those over a certain age because well, the idea of oldie sex is kind of hideous, isn’t it? Old people don’t have sex, do they?

Of course they do. It’s just that it’s one of our last erotically incorrect taboos. We’d rather not go there. Plus we’re so busy slavering over youth—and figuring out ways to preserve it—to even acknowledge the existence of wrinkly sex. But that doesn’t mean older people stop being interested in it. According to The Warmth of the Heart Prevents Your Body From Rusting by Marie de Hennezel, when someone asked the German princess Elizabeth Charlotte at what age did sexual desire fade away, she answered, “How should I know? I’m only 80!”

University of Nevada, Reno instructor and clinical sexologist Dr. Tory Clark says the “taboo” is all about perception and dated ideas of adult sexuality. We tend to internalize images presented by pop culture, and especially for sub-cultures we’re unfamiliar with, we accept them as true representations of society.

“That’s just what we’re conditioned to seeing,” she says. “A lot of times, my students in class freak out when they see two guys kissing or old people kissing, but girl-on-girl action is OK. It’s what we’re inundated with and becomes aesthetically pleasing to the eye, and [for this society] that’s not old people, per se. We definitely have an issue with ageism, I think, in our society. … It varies from culture to culture as to what’s acceptable in the sexual realm.”

You might remember reading about a senior citizen in 2003 who placed a personal ad in the New York Review of Books. It was entirely straightforward in its mission: “Before I turn 67—next March—I would like to have a lot of sex with a man I like. If you want to talk first, Trollope works for me.”

Jane Juska, the retired English Literature teacher who placed the advertisement, was not looking for marriage (although she was subsequently offered it and politely declined). Nor was she looking for walks on the beach, trips to the opera, cozying up with a film and a cheeky Rioja, or any of the other things people put in personal ads. She just wanted sex.

And she got it. Lots of it. She received 63 replies from men aged 32 to 84, which she divided into piles of yes, no and maybe. Despite putting her personal ad in a literary magazine, several replies mistook Trollope for trollop, which she says further added to their ardor.

Jane Juska then proceeded to have rather a lot of fun. Having played catch-up after decades of celibacy, she wrote a book about her late life sexual adventures, titled A Round Heeled Woman. “Round heeled” is archaic slang for “promiscuous,” although until she placed her advert, Juska was anything but. She had not had a date in 30 years.

The book, elegantly written with great wit and honesty, did well. Almost a decade later, it has been turned into a stage play—just finishing a run in London after opening on Broadway. It was adapted by British writer Jane Prowse, and has Cagney & Lacey actor Sharon Gless in the lead role. Gless optioned the book soon after it was published, because she loved the story and wanted to play Juska. Prior to its publication, Juska first read bits of her book to her monthly writing group. You can only imagine their faces—it’s a candid read.

What is extraordinary about A Round Heeled Woman is its openness, its expression of straightforward desire. Here is an old lady, born in 1933, who placed the personal ad in 1999 and simply wanted what most people want: sex. But we don’t want old people to want sex. We want them to be neutered, especially older women. Jane Juska was tired of feeling neutered, and did not want to go quietly into old age without first kicking up her heels.

Inspired by Eric Rohmer’s film Autumn Tale, about a woman who advertises for lovers, Juska cheerfully admitted at the time that she “expected to be murdered,” but she was bored of playing life safe. She subsequently had a series of regular liaisons with three men and phone sex with a fourth; the youngest was a 32-year-old David Duchovny lookalike. She refused a marriage proposal because she did not wish to give up her newfound sexual freedom.

Sharon Gless plays Jane Juska in <i>A Round Heeled Woman</i>.

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“I never expected to have intimate friendships with extraordinary men,” she said at the time. “True, I’ve met some men who are not kind or thoughtful, but I’ve also met men who are kind and thoughtful and funny and true. Which is to say, I guess I found out that men are people.” The replies she received included graphic nude photos, notes saying, “Have Viagra, will travel,” and one suitor stole her pajamas and champagne flutes.

However, for the most part, she loved her experiences, and enjoyed the intellectual as well as erotic connections. Having grown up in a climate of Midwestern sexual repression, followed by an unhappy marriage in San Francisco and decades of celibacy, weight and alcohol issues, Juska transformed herself in later life and was ready to play catch-up.

“Where I grew up, you had to bow and scrape to the nearest man and keep your mouth shut,” she said. Not the bowing and scraping type, she used to teach creative writing to inmates at the fearsome San Quentin prison.

Juska was not, however, on a feminist crusade. She insisted that her story was hers alone, and not a call to arms for older women everywhere to kick up their heels. What makes her story stand out is that it is so fearlessly proactive, which resulted in her being hailed as a sexual liberator of senior citizens, a title she was not interested in carrying.

“I don’t think everyone should do this,” she said. “I didn’t go on a crusade to liberate women. I’m not an expert. I’m not a guru.” She went on to say that if her book is ever made into a film, she wants to play herself, and have Daniel Day Lewis “play all the men.”

Getting better all

We live in the era of the wellderly. A 100-year-old London resident, Fauja Singh, recently ran the Toronto Marathon. Sixty is the new 40, and retirees do Zumba. Longevity and good health in old age have never been better. So what is our problem with oldies and sex? Why do we gag at the mere thought of it?

And while old men are allowed to retain their sexuality via Viagra and cultural acceptance, “Not a word is spoken about the sexuality of old women, as if they no longer feel desire after menopause. This is not the case.”

“Old age” is a broad term. Women have been traditionally boxed in by specific biological events: start of fertility, (optional) child-bearing and rearing, end of fertility, menopause. These events manifest themselves within our culture as women over 40 being considered “old,” at least by the entertainment and beauty industries. To be a sexual older woman in Hollywood, you have to be Kim Cattrall or Courtney Cox, if you are not to be cast as someone’s asexual mother or grandmother. Britain seems slightly less ageist. Helen Mirren is still regarded as sexy in her mid-60s, while the French appear to actively celebrate mature sexuality: think Catherine Deneuve.

But what about real women in real life? “Chris” is in her mid-50s, in a long-term sexless marriage, and has a few lovers whom she sees periodically. She is attractive and healthy, and can’t countenance the idea of sexual desire fading with age.

“The ageism doesn’t bother me,” she says. “I’m too busy and feel too fit to dwell on that. One incident recently did strike me, though. I was on the way home from work, looking tired, when I glanced at an attractive man who pulled up beside me. He didn’t notice me at all, and I thought maybe with age I have become invisible.

“I don’t think we should be conditioned to give up sex in older age. I enjoy sex. It’s not quite as heady as in my 40s, but it’s more comfortable and without angst or guilt. A lot depends on your health and fitness levels and attractiveness. Certain physical stuff does crop up—or doesn’t!—plenty of men have erectile dysfunction, and women tend to get a dryness going on. I noticed this lately, so I bought KY jelly and hid it in a brown bag. People make fun of KY jelly.”

“We definitely have an issue with ageism,” says Clark.

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So despite erotic visibility diminishing daily, 50-something women are still on the sexual radar, hanging on by a thread, despite their internal non-dimmed desire. The desire equation is simple and weighted against women. As men age, attracting sex becomes easier, but as women age, it becomes harder. So where does that leave women in their 60s, 70s and 80s? While older men can pop Viagra and get it on with younger women, the older sexually active woman remains taboo. Find an older man attractive, and you have a sugar daddy. Fancy an old lady, and you are a gerontophile.

“I hear women around 60 or 70 saying, ‘I no longer exist, I’m not on the scene anymore when it comes to sex, nobody notices me anymore,’” said the late sexologist Ulrike Brandenburg. “Men can have erections thanks to new products that enhance virility, so why can’t we see women as radiant, grey-haired and sensual?”

Even when Jane Fonda, fit, fresh and face-lifted in her 70s, talks about sex, does anyone want to listen? Joan Collins and Vivienne Westwood are all in their 70s and married to handsome younger men. We assume that their marriages are asexual, because we can’t stomach the idea of an old lady wanting and having sex. Yet we do not make the same assumptions about older men and younger women.

“Any sex life in later years is a continuation of whatever it was earlier in a person’s life,” writes de Hennezel. “Age therefore does not dictate sexual desire, even though it may alter its frequency and characteristics. While sexual relations may be slower and less active, we know that they also become more sensual.” In other words, less chandelier swinging, more emotional connection.

A national survey of older people and sexuality, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, showed that for most people aged between 57 and 85, sex remains an important part of life, and sexual activity diminishes only slightly between your 50s and your early 70s. Many men and women remain sexually active well into their 70s and 80s. The study showed that health, far more than age, was the crucial factor in sexual activity.

“We found that older adults remain interested and engage in sex, yet many experience bothersome sexual problems that can compromise both health and relationships,” said the study’s author, Dr Stacy Tesser Lindau of the University of Chicago. “Lack of reliable information about how sexual activity and function might change with age and illness, combined with taboos around discussing sex in later life, contributes to worry or even shame for many older adults.’

Further research by Dr. Lindau, published in the British Medical Journal in 2010 and reported by Time magazine, reported that 67 percent of men aged 65 to 74 reported being sexually active, compared with 40 percent of women. One-third of men aged 75 to 85 said they still had regular sex; the figure for 75 to 85 year old women is just 17 percent. Female lack of desire was cited, but it’s probably more complicated than that. For a start, women live on average five years longer than men, which means there are far more women whose long-term partners have died than men in the same situation.

Also, according to Cornell University gynecologist Dr. Peggy Polanescsky, our sexuality ebbs and ¾ows throughout our lives, usually in relation to our circumstances.

“I think some women, for whatever reason, over time lose interest, but sometimes they lose interest because they stop doing it, or sometimes their husband has prostate cancer or something and it all gets tied into his illness, and you don’t have a partner for a number of years,” she is quoted as saying in the book Still Doing It. “It waxes and wanes—even in younger women it can wax and wane.”

Still Doing It: The Intimate Lives of Women Over Sixty is a 2004 documentary and book, by New York writer and film maker Deirdre Fishel. Featured among the women is a 70-something sexologist in a stable relationship with a 20-something man; an 85-year-old who met the love of her life, a younger journalist, and carries on a passionate relationship despite where she lives (“In a retirement home we don’t have much privacy, but we do what we can.”); and two 70-something women who met and fell in love a few years ago, having left unsatisfactory heterosexual relationships. They are planning on setting up a retirement home for gay men and women. “When people stand up on the bus to give us their seats, they have absolutely no idea how wild we are in bed,” they told Fishel.

“Our images of older women—the grandmother, widow, fragile little old lady—are so strongly etched in our minds that we’ve become blind to the full lives of amazing older women living all around us,” writes Fishel. “We’ve got no idea what’s going on behind their closed doors and consequently have no access to the insights of some of the most sexually experienced women on this planet. Older women are still doing it, still loving it, and still getting better at it.”

As the French philosopher Robert Misrahi puts it: “The acceptance of a new sexuality may eventually contribute to an improvement of old age.”

Aging is hard work. The least we can do is retain the pleasure and intimacy of our bodies, even as they are slowly falling apart. Anyway, sex increases longevity. So have more, and live longer, better and happier.

“I always think about how it’ll get easier as the generations go on, with women being more adventurous with dating because of the roles we’re expected to play,” says sexologist Clark. “Keep a positive attitude and just get out there, and do what you want to do. Date and be safe. I think that being aware of sexually transmitted infections and whatnot is really important. That’s a statistic that’s definitely on the rise with the 55-plus generation. I have so many clients and different people who’ve hooked up and gotten into dating or long-term relationships, too.”

D. Brian Burghart contributed to this article.