Marianne Heron on sexual fulfilment in the íthird ageí.
Would you advertise yourself as a sexually available woman (or man) at the age of sixty going on seventy? No? Well, Jane Juska did. Tired of celibacy, the divorced US school teacher placed the following advertisement in the serious New York Review Of Books. "Before I turn 67, next March, I would like to have lots of sex with a man I like... If you want to talk first,Trollope works for me." Juska who had not dated for 42 years got 63 replies, and her book A Round-Heeled Woman, based on her encounters with some of the men who replied to her advertisement - the youngest being 34 and the oldest 82 - became an overnight best-seller.
Being sexy and interested in sex at an age when wrinkles and gravity have taken their toll certainly didnít rate a mention in popular culture in the past. Love interest and sex scenes were reserved for those with perfect bodies well below their supposed sell-by date. But now Juska isnít the only one to celebrate Third Age sexuality and the appeal of mature flesh. Nudity has come of late age on screen.
In Somethingís Gotta Give Jack Nicholson (another 67-year-old) plays ageing lothario Harry. He starts out pursuing the lissom Marin (Amanda Peet) but ends up falling for her mother Erica (Diane Keaton) who is also attracting the attention of Harryís doctor Keanu Reeves. Nicholson and Keaton are shown in the flesh, and for once it is flesh the way you expect fifty and sixty year old bodies to look, untouched by liposuction, nips, tucks or botox.
Somethingís Gotta Give isnít the first film to go frontal on the appeal of the past perfection body. Calendar Girls, with Helen Mirren and Julie Walters, based on a true story about the novelty appeal of partially-clothed WI ladies, became a box office success. The novelty of this previously taboo aspect of sexuality certainly grabbed the headlines and made money.But whatever the motivation, both films and book break the silence surrounding sexuality in later life and acknowledge older peopleís sex lives.
Third agers might well baulk at the idea of stripping off, advertising for lovers or even mentioning that they lead full and pleasurable lives in every sense But there is absolutely no reason why one shouldnít continue to enjoy sexuality in all its forms at sixty or seventy and beyond. However there are reasons why older people might be reticent on the subject, suggests sex therapist and author of Sexual Healing, Mary OíConor. "People donít talk about it. Most people assume that their parents donít do it, or havenít done it since the youngest child.was conceived And the parents donít talk about it to their children, as there have to be boundaries. But if you have had a healthy sex life, you are going to continue to have one. I donít think that age per se stops people having sex." Health, relationship problems or the fact that people didnít like sex in the first place are the most likely reasons for a waning sex life. Physiological changes do take place which mean - among other things - that arousal and performance may be slower As one older friend was fond of joking, "I now take all night doing what I used to do every night." The best insurance for continuing to have an enjoyable sex life is to have had a good one in the first place.
In her book OíConor, whose oldest client was 78 and who is frequently consulted by those in the 50-plus bracket wishing to improve their sex lives, talks about routine being the biggest passion killer. Instead of serving up a monotonous sexual menu, she suggests "seeking a little variety, changing the time of day, using a different room."
Given liberation from pregnancy and the freedom of the empty nest, says OíConor, "Itís the very time couples could be enjoying a new release of life in their relationship." Or, in a new one if they happen to be unattached. Of Juskaís experience, OíConor says "People tend to be more up front and in control of their sex lives. They tend to change partners more frequently and they keep their sex lives vibrant."
If older people get the message that they are ípast ití, they may well take on board the idea that it is not OK to be sexy at sixty, seventy or more. Just how potent (literally) that kind of message can be is demonstrated by a psychological trial reported in the International Journal of Ageing and Human Development, according to Professor Brian Lawlor, Professor of Psychiatry at St James Hospital. After a psycho-educational programme for family members of older people and people who work at a home for the older people, it was found there was a four-fold increase in sexual activity among the residents. "It was almost as though the older people needed permission," comments Professor Lawlor. "There is a strong psychological elementality." In other words, the saying that the mind is the bodyís biggest sexual organ is not wide of the mark.
Juskaís book and films like Somethingís Gotta Give confront two of the great myths about third age sex, according to Dervella Keegan of the Health Ageing Programme for the National Council on Ageing and Older People. One is that long-term partners no longer have sex lives. The other is that physical appearance rules out sexual attraction beyond a certain age. As a nation we have had years of denial about our sexuality. And the reproductive focus, rather than the nurturing aspect of sex, has been very much to the fore The Councilís health promotion strategy holds that older people should have their sexual needs and dysfunctions understood, and that these are just as important as every other aspect of health. Yet often older peopleís sex lives are not considered - they might not be warned of the side effects of a drug or offered a double bed in a nursing home.
The fact that a major survey - to be carried out by the ESRI for the Department of Health - into the nationís sexual habits will only survey those between the ages of 18 and 65 only serves to endorse the notion that older people donít have sex lives.
A Round-Heeled Woman refutes the idea that older women canít be sexually appealing. "Itís quite usual to have older men with younger women - usually older men whose power or money acts as an aphrodisiac," says OíConor. Older woman with younger men pairings have much less acceptance "Perhaps women are also much more self-conscious about their bodies, conscious of big bums or stretch marks," points out OíConor Most partners find that their self consciousness melts away in the throes of love making, and it would be a shame indeed if the myths about appearance and sexuality stood between older people and fulfilment. Having agonised over the appropriateness of her liason with 34-year-old Graham, Juska concludes "Graham has an old soul in a young body, I the reverse. We are a perfect fit"
The stereotype of sexless older people was something that the Southern Health Board set out to change in their workshop held last year; aimed at developing a sexual health strategy. Attitudes not dissimilar to those towards disabled people, Irish repression of sexuality and the fact that the sexuality of older people was simply not considered were seen as being among the main obstacles to sexual expression among older people.
There is no doubt that sex continues to matter. As one 60-year-old man put it in the Hite Report on Male Sexuality "Sex may not be the most important thing in the world, but without it everything loses its lustre. When work and companionship and learning and doing and sex all come together in a mutually reinforcing matrix, then God is in his Heaven and all is right with the world."
A Round-Heeled Woman My Late Life Adventures In Sex And Romance by Jane Juska is published by Chatto and Windus.