Knockin' Vintage Boots
Do you remember how everyone drooled over 61-year-old Helen Mirren at this year's Oscars, using adjectives usually reserved for women a third her age, like hot, sexy, and playful? The actress worked it, showing some cleavage and even admitting afterwards to going pantiless at the award ceremony. One blogger wrote: "To anyone whose body did not shiver with glee, there must be something wrong with you and your sexual organs. Face it. A pantiless Helen Mirren is like the cherry on top of a sexy ice cream sundae."
Only recently has mainstream society embraced the concept of mature women as sexual: Witness cougars (older women who pursue/date/fuck only younger men), MILFs ("mothers I'd like to fuck"), and Desperate Housewives. While these categories have been embraced and become part of our popular vernacular, they are generally portrayed as women in their forties. Mainstream media would have us believe that after 45, women stop being sexy. And past 60? Well, that's just old, right? (Old being the opposite of young, young being sexy, and sexy being young.) People are living longer, healthier lives so why shouldn't their sex lives keep on going? And why are we so afraid to imagine that they do?
"It's much easier to think about Grandma baking cookies than having sex," says Lauren Taylor, a professor at Columbia School of Social Work and a clinical social worker who does individual and group therapy. She works almost exclusively with people over 60 at the Service Program for Older People (spop.org), a clinic on the Upper West Side. "In approaching the subject of sex with older people, almost all of them feel tremendously relieved to be talking about it because no one else willnot their doctors, not their families; no one wants to talk about it."
Taylor has found that nearly all her female clients are still interested in having some kind of sexual relationshipeven those in their eighties: "The oldest woman in my women's group is 89, and she was recently talking about the fact that she's been very lucky all of her life that she's been able to masturbate and give herself pleasure. As recently as two weeks ago, she said she had a fantastic orgasm." The biggest hurdle, says Taylor, is not getting older folks to open up about sex, but rather getting them to think beyond intercourse. As people get older, their minds may stay hot to trot, but inevitably for many, their bodies fall behind; they must confront real physical issues like arthritis, limited mobility, erectile difficulties, and vaginal dryness and pain. Although Viagra has made it possible for many men to solve their erection problems, Taylor believes it has also put the emphasis on intercourse as the most desirableor onlydefinition of sex. She says if seniors can think beyond intercourse, the issue of "performance" doesn't have to take center stage.
Betty Dodson (bettydodson.com) concurs: "We have to stop thinking that sex is only penis-vagina intercourse. Masturbation is sex for the older generation; plus there's oral sex, shared hand jobs, sex toys, and lots more to do." Dodsonan artist, sex educator, and author of Sex for One and Orgasms for Two, known as the "Mother of Masturbation" for her groundbreaking work on women and self-pleasurecontinues to be sexually active at 77. "My seventies have been one of the best decades of my life. I'm healthy, I'm creative, I'm enjoying life, I'm sharing it with people, and I'm having great orgasms," she recently told me on the phone from British Columbia, where she's the keynote speaker at the Victoria Erotica Festival of Film and Arts. She admits that having a much younger lover (Eric, now 30, who's been with her for eight years) has kept her young, but that is just one of the many ways she defies the cultural stereotype that older women shouldn't be or aren't sexual.
In a review of Deirdre Fishel's documentary Still Doing It: The Intimate Lives of Women Over 65 (stilldoingit.com), Chris Parry, a reviewer for efilmcritic.com, wrote about seeing older women naked: "Personally, I can deal with seeing older flesh on-screen, and nothing shown is in any way done for the sake of titillation, but it's just toooo [sic] in your face." His response echoes common sentiments of fear and disgust surrounding older people's sexuality. "At what age do you plan to retire your genitals?" That's what Joan Price (joanprice.com) asks those who consider sexy seniors "icky." Price, author of Better Than I Ever Expected: Straight Talk About Sex After Sixty, says, "The main misconception is that seniors are either asexual, pathetic, or ludicrous because they're still interested in sex." She was so frustrated with the lack of positive images and information, she wrote a book about what she calls "ageless sexuality." Price tackles a myriad of subjects from serious issues like dealing with painful intercourse to spicy stories of threesomes.
Price's book and accompanying blog (betterthanieverexpected.blogspot.com), Dodson's work, and Fishel's documentary have all kick-started a much needed dialogue. They not only prove that seniors do in fact have fulfilling sex lives, they can also empower older folks to get busy. However, there is a serious lack of resources for the complex sexual issues facing people over 60, including illness and disability, hormonal changes, a decrease in libido and arousal, and the effect of common medications, not too mention coping with major changes to the vagina post-menopause, including dryness, atrophy, and a thinning of the tissue that can cause tearing, discomfort, and pain.
"I'd love to see research done on the sexuality of aging women, " says Dodson. "As our biological urges retreat and our hormones diminish, many women report that they still want sex emotionally, but they wish their physiological responses were a match for the emotional desire. Sex is such an important part of intimacy and bonding, of touching and feeling connected with a partner, of accepting our bodies and the wonderful physicality of which we're capable." Like many women, in her mid-fifties, Betty Dodson began to experience a thinning of the vaginal tissue. Her solution? "It's not all about the vagina! So I switched over to anal penetration. No thinning in the rectumthat's one sturdy organ." Go, Betty, go.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.