Can we talk about sex beyond midlife? I remember as a kid when I first learned about human anatomy and “where babies come from” my reaction was ick! Gross! That can’t be true! Then puberty, my mom explained the burden of being a girl, and I was disgusted. Then in high school sex education class just as our hormones were surging, we got the scoop on our biology, but two things were missing from the lesson plan: emotional intimacy and aging. No one told us to think about what sex means in our lives. It was all about the mechanics. And no one mentioned how our lives change without those performance enhancing hormones. They gave us the first half of the story and left us unprepared for sex beyond midlife.
As a result, some of us approach sex in an aging body with a child’s reaction — ick! We are young as we ever were in our minds, and we don’t think aging bodies are sexy. But honestly, how we look doesn’t matter as much as how we think. Sex beyond midlife is a mind game, more complicated than playing Legos while doing push-ups, more like yoga than calisthenics. Intimacy is psychological. You can’t rush trust.
My grandmother was married in 1928 and she told me that her wedding night was the first time she had ever seen the adult male anatomy. My grandfather had to explain it to her, and she was humiliated. Realizing how unprepared she was made her angry. Fast forward 40 years to the era of sex-and-drugs-and-rock-n-roll, and she asked me what a lesbian was. When I explained to her that it was a woman who loves women, she refused to believe me, thought I was joking. She just couldn’t picture it. When I tried to tell her about oral sex, it was too much of a brain bomb. She got up and left the room. End of discussion. So much for educating old people about sex.
The recent movie, Being the Ricardos, about Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz making the TV series I Love Lucy, reveals that at the time, 1953, Lucille was pregnant, and had to fight to keep the TV show going because pregnant women were not allowed on TV and the word “pregnant” was forbidden by the censors. There is a direct line from my grandmother’s wedding night surprise to Lucille Ball’s demand to be seen in public pregnant. When sex is hidden and forbidden our ignorance becomes an obstacle to our wellness.
Now science is shining a light on the biology of sex beyond midlife to help us live well longer. Here are two edifying articles. January 12, 2022, in the New York Times, The Joys (and Challenges) of Sex After 70. And in the Times UK, January 11, 2022, How to live a longer, happier life: more sleep and more sex, by Rose Anne Kenny, professor of Medical Gerontology at Trinity College Dublin. Watch for her new book, Age Proof: The New Science of Living a Longer and Healthier Life.