What qualifies as passionate sexual activity? This isn’t a trick question. I’m not getting into a Bill Clinton-esque game of semantics. My inquiry is driven primarily by the most recent installment of the weekly column in The New York Times entitled “Modern Love”. It’s also spurred by a series of articles on RH Reality Check, “How Are Your Orgasms, Mom?” Living in such a youth-obsessed culture means that hearing about anyone over the age of, say, fifty (and I’m being generous here) having sex is enough to make a lot of people in their twenties and thirties clap their hands over their ears and go “la-la-la-la-la! I can’t hear you!”
The “Modern Love” column this week was written by Nancy Price Freedman, a 70-year-old woman who investigates whether long-term sexual passion is quantifiable and if it even matters. Upon hearing that an acquaintance ended a relationship because she doubted its potential for long-term “passion,” Freedman writes that
It seemed like such a waste of a promising relationship, and such a high bar to have to maintain — to remain physically passionate for years and years. Though afterward we laughed about the passion part, with barely concealed envy.
“Oy, who has the energy?” my friend said with a laugh.
“Who has the flexible joints?” I added.
“Does anyone actually remember sex?” a postmenopausal colleague chimed in. Shrieks of laughter.
Freedman adds, “Sex at our age is something we’re evidently more comfortable joking about than talking about honestly. But that doesn’t mean it’s not happening, despite our declining energy, joints and memory.” And that’s the point that is almost never accepted or acknowledged. She encapsulates the whole issue with this: “Yet the whole issue of sex among older people distracts us from a deeper truth that simple, tender intimacy is very important as we age, the sort of thing our highly sexualized, Viagra-pushing culture tends to minimize or ignore.” The thought of “tender intimacy” over grand sexual passion is seen by our culture as being so boring, so wussy, so girly. Old men popping Viagra in commercials? Standard issue. Old people cuddling in embraces and exchanging slow kisses? Well, it’s assumed that nobody wants to see that.
Underlying this is the fear of aging (younger is always better!) and the issue of seeing intimacy among older people as somehow representing the sex lives of your own parents/grandparents. As someone who definitely knows her parents still have sex (thanks, dad and stepmom, for having sex in our shared hotel room after you mistakenly thought I was asleep), I find myself thoroughly non-squicked by the prospect of senior citizens gettin’ it on.
There is also the assumption that a passionate sex life is necessary to be happy in a relationship. I don’t believe that to be true. And it also is inherently tricky to define what makes a sex life or a relationship “passionate”. Is it defined by frequency? By amount of foreplay? By position used during intercourse? By wearing skimpy lingerie? People’s sex lives are not mapped out like cinematic sex scenes, nor do people stop having sex upon reaching a given age.
RH Reality Check’s Ann Whidden has an excellent feature on the consequences that ensue when we simply write off the possibility of seniors having sex.
“From birth to death, we are all sexual beings. We have a hard enough time acknowledging this when it comes to children, but when it comes to aging adults, the silence is deafening. And deadly: 60 percent of unmarried women ages fifty-eight to ninety-three report that they didn’t use a condom the last time they had sex, and the CDC reports that 15 percent of new HIV cases are among people over fifty.”
Simply put, “Stigma and shame from family, caregivers and doctors, who get “grossed out” by the idea of older adults having sex, leave the concerns of aging adults invisible and untended.” Nobody wants to have “the talk” with card-carrying AARP members about things like condoms and the necessity of STD testing. Whidden closes with a terrific quote from Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes: “On his ninety-fifth birthday, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes saw an attractive woman and mused, ‘Oh, to be seventy again.’” Sexual intimacy at seventy? Perfectly cool. Sexual intimacy at ninety-five? Also fine. Thinking that your sex life stops once the hair turns gray and the bones turn arthritic? Wholly inaccurate. And that “tender intimacy” Freedman spoke of? Yeah, it’s a good idea for the twenty-something set, too. Passion knows no age.