The Invisibility of Aging

AGE, SEX AND CULTURE:
A CASE STUDY

When I asked my new client what had prompted our visit, she responded simply, “I’m distressed.”

“About something in particular?” I queried.

“No, that’s part of the problem,” she lamented. And then she told me her story.

“The other day I was introduced to a man about my same age. When I commented on his striking grey hair, he responded, with what I’m sure he thought was a compliment, that he supposed I “probably used to be a ‘real looker’.” Used to be? That remark unleashed a torrent of thoughts that have boiled into a sort of impotent frustration.

I’m in my sixties. I’m still the same woman I was when I could command notice, but now people look at me as simply old, if they look at me at all. Somehow I became invisible, and the more I think about that, the angrier become.”

I validated her experience, adding that many women first note these societal attitudes when we are called ‘ma’am’ or offered a seat on a bus. We perceive different treatment in restaurants and stores. We see other women our age in the media only if they’re selling skin cream or step-in tubs, symbols of withering and helplessness.

Then we looked in the mirror. The woman looking back at us has indeed faded. Skin grows loose, hair pale, and body soft.

“And I’m seen as sexless,” she complained.

“The older I’ve gotten, the better I am at sex. Sure, I sometimes need to apply extra cream or lube before any sex that involves penetration, but I’ve learned how to show up for sex. I know what I like and how to ask for it and my partner responds languidly and perceptively. It wasn’t like that in the beginning— our sexual confidence and power were earned! Neither of us had the information we needed early on. It was only with time and practice that we knew each other well enough to become really great lovers, to learn how to be truly intimate”.

“You’re so right,” I agreed. “It’s difficult enough for women to resist society’s disapproval of our sexuality, called slut shaming. We’re supposed to be sexy, but not sexual. When we layer on the attitude that we’re not sexually interesting–or interested–because we’re older, it makes maintaining our sexual identity that much harder. And when you’re actually feeling smokin’ hot, it’s frustrating and maddening.”

My client is not alone in her lament. Older couples enjoy their sexual proficiency, and research (Kleinplatz) proves this is so. Long term loving couples report that sex just keeps getting better and better.

Still, the loss of public recognition of us as sexually potent women robs of us of an important part of our identity, our self esteem. Our grief about this loss is denied publicly. If we complain about losing the elasticity in our skin, or those intractable five kilos added with menopause, we’ll be told we look just fine “for our age.” Does no one understand our sorrow?

It is difficult to change, to age, to watch one’s vitality ebb. We need confirmation of this transition, acknowledgement of our grief at losing what was and accepting what is now.

“Yes,” she nodded. “Like everyone else, I grieve the loss of my youth.  And I suppose my frustration at being seeing differently won’t change cultural norms. I’m glad to know the belief that sex evaporates when wrinkles arrive is false. I want great sex till I die. I suppose I should start seeing every new wrinkle as an indicator of all the great sex I’m having!”

The session ended with a recap: although society doesn’t acknowledge that, with age, sex grows ripe and full, this lack of recognition is surely outweighed by sexual satisfaction grown only with time and practice. In all, it’s not such a bad trade.

 

 

Sex Changes with Aging

Dear Dr Ren/Bloom,

I’ve been married over three decadues, and over those years my husband and I have developed a fulfilling sexual relationship. Ironically, now that we’ve gotten really good at this, age is throwing us some curves. My husband now has some trouble maintaining his erections, and my vagina becomes easily irritated during intercourse.

What can we do to help overcome these obstacles to great sex?

Older but Determined

Dear Older but Determined,

It’s true that getting older gives with one hand and takes with the other. While we enjoy the benefits of learned intimacy and performance skills, our bodies fall prey to decline. You are wise to be seeking remedies, as there are many.

Regarding your husband’s less reliable erections, reassure him that this change does not indicate his failure to be a good lover. Explore the delights of sensual touch and reconsider the requirement of intercourse in defining what good sex means to you both. Intercourse and orgasm may no longer be so tightly linked, though both can continue to be enjoyable. You should also consider alternative solutions, such as last longer in bed pills. Depending on your age and condition you’ll have to find the best fit, but once you find right ones that issue could be taken care of completely.

Long term happy couples who report ever-deepening sexual connection tell us that they attribute this success to two primary elements, keeping sex a priority and laughter. Yes, laughter! They celebrate every opportunity to have fun together sexually and otherwise. And they make sure the pressures of daily life don’t interfere with their private time together. It proves to be a winning combination.

With all this going for you, don’t let the changes of age dampen your spirits or your enjoyment. Your husband can find help for his flagging erections by using a cock ring which traps blood in the penis. Add to the fun by choosing one that adds vibrations. It will boost pleasure and performance in an unobtrusive, fun way, and you’ll both benefit.

Your growing vaginal discomfort is likely caused by the thinning tissues and decreasing lubrication brought about by menopause and declining hormone levels. Keep lubricant handy and use it liberally.

Those delicate tissues require ongoing ‘exercise’ to stay healthy. If you appreciate more penetration than you may now receive from intercourse alone, treat yourself to a dildo designed for older women, one that is firm yet pliable, and smooth in texture. You can use this for solo sex, or your husband can use it with you when his erections flag at inopportune moments. This will keep your genital tissues active and healthy and relieve any pressure your partner may feel regarding his erections.

Perhaps most importantly, remember that changes to your bodies will continue. We need to develop and maintain a certain sense of humour and philosophical attitude about the loss of our robust youth. However, you have already discovered the compensation of vulnerability, intimacy and trust in your decades-long sexual relationship. That openness and experimental attitude will do you well as you learn to accommodate the obstacles that aging bodies can set before us.

Don’t let embarrassment silence you. Keep talking openly with your partner about how sex works—and doesn’t. Solve the issues as they arise, together. With good communication, an experimental attitude, and sex toys designed for your particular needs, there’s no reason you two can’t continue to enjoy great sex for the rest of your lives!