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.