“Oh my god, if my husband had seen me wearing those he would have been grabbing my ass so hard!”
We’ve just watched a svelte young woman walk by, with three large jaunty pineapples printed on the back of her tights.
“Do you miss that part of life?”
“Do I ever! Are you kidding? But now I like the young men. I had an old one, enough already, but now it’s the young men. I think about them, I look at them. Boy do I look at them! But I’m too old now, what’re they going to do with me?”
Whoa! Marsha has suddenly sprung to life, after talking and talking morosely about all her ailments and her diminished life. She’s 91, short and shapeless. She walks slowly with a cane, wincing with each step. Her face is lined and splotched and puffy, her rheumy eyes almost hidden, her teeth yellow. She has lived alone since her husband died, 22 years ago.
She’s the first OPLA I’ve talked with who has owned up to still having sexual feelings and interests. I mention this to her.
“God I know! We’re s’posed to shut down and shut up and just make nice once we get old. We’re not s’posed to have any feelings at all any more, we’re nobodies.”
Now she’s animated, her face lively, her eyes sparkling, she’s full of mischief. She’s beautiful.
My interview with Marsha got me thinking about sex and the aged. It had been on my mind since the other day when I heard about group sessions being held to discuss “all aspects of sex,” offered by the Unitarian church “for people of all ages,18 to 65.” I figured that must be the cut-off point for socially acceptable sexual urges, and I’d been stewing about that. Is that what everyone thinks? That that part of us dies and is no more, once we hit 65? Or is it just another way in which we gradually disappear the elderly, part by part? Of course, there’s always the chance the Unitarians think that by 65 we’ve mastered that aspect of our lives and have no further questions.
My three daughters are all in their 50s now, all of them accomplished wise strong women. Yet I still am filled with the motherly drive to encourage them, protect them, help them on their way, even though they clearly no longer need that kind of mothering. What can I offer them at this point in their lives? What might be helpful?
I think one of the things I can do is show them what they realistically can expect in the years up ahead. Mostly what we learn about this stage of life, directly or indirectly, is negative, and it comes at us from all directions: old age means no longer being able to think clearly and creatively, old age means no longer being worth looking at, old age means aches and pains, old age means no sexual pleasure, old age means diminishment of everything we’ve enjoyed up until then. It’s all about loss, incapacity, pain. And some of that, of course, is valid, it’s part of the story. But damn, it’s not the whole story, and I want my daughters to know the whole story.
So back to the sexual part of aging. What will counteract all the messages that tell us that that part of our selves atrophies and is no more? What can I report to them of my own experience? Because I think that’s one thing that is needed, more first-hand accounts from the trenches. Functioning, vibrant older people are becoming a little bit more visible. But the pleasures of the flesh, for this age group alone, remain a taboo topic.
What can I report to my daughters of my own experience? I can assure them that the sexual part of me did not disappear fifteen years ago when I turned 65. But it did start to change, and that changing continues to the present. As with so many other things, the changes have been towards slowing down. The urges are less frequent, the pleasures more intense. From my close friends I’ve learned that this is not an unusual development. We laugh together about our former lustiness, evoking all sorts of wild memories, but we agree: we don’t have that kind of energy any more, it’s different now. And we’re thankful that the expression of our urges has changed to fit that difference.
Now here’s the really surprising news, for me anyway: old age may be the best time for orgasms, at least for some of us women. Orgasms are such an extraordinary feature of our bodies, aren’t they? Especially for women, since as lures towards procreation they really aren’t necessary. Perhaps they were granted as a compensation for the pain of childbirth. But what a surprise to have them last through old age, and even intensify. My friends and I had no idea that this was up ahead for us.
Yes, there are plenty of other factors that may affect our sexuality, but here it is, here’s what I want my daughters to know: aging itself is definitely not a death-knell for sexual pleasure.
Ninety-one year old Marsha drew the line at talking about it, but I suspect that now and then she smiles happily, dreaming of young men.
P.S. About that night in the Telluride Library: what would you have done? Would you have stayed? As the footsteps on the stairs came closer, a picture flashed across my mind: me in the huge scary dark unfamiliar building, with all the doors locked so that I couldn’t get out. I walked towards the stairs and smiled: “I’m just leaving.”