Women’s sexuality doesn’t die with age, but the level of their desire is diverse, says Margaret Jennings.
SHE seemed to have it all: a loving family, successful career and beautiful home.
Then Yvonne Carmichael jeopardised everything by having a torrid affair with a random stranger, ripping apart the cosy trajectory of her life.
Yvonne is the lead character in a BBC1 mini-series currently steaming up our TV screens, called Apple Tree Yard.
And while the storyline takes us from the joys of lust to the darkness of rape, it’s rare to see a 50-something female take centre stage in such scenes.
Midlife affairs are usually the reserve of testosterone-driven, crisis-ridden males — as if females have no such needs — or so the media world would have us believe.
Apple Tree Yard, a dramatised version of a novel by Amanda Coe, challenges pre-conceived ideas about middle-age sex.
It not only affirms that it’s OK for older women to be sexually expressive, it annihilates the myth that we become “invisible” and asexual just because we are ageing.
The four-part psychological thriller has prompted a lively debate on this issue and 50-year — old actress Emily Watson, who plays Yvonne, has commented: “Your sexuality doesn’t die with your age. You don’t have to apologise for it.”
The idea that our sexuality can be compartmentalised as non-existent, especially as we are living longer more vital lives, seems absurd.
While Yvonne’s torrid affair illustrates this explicitly, it also raises the issue of how our latent sexual urges are perfectly ripe to be reignited at this stage of life, depending on our circumstances and responses.
“Many women of 50 and beyond succumb to a flagging libido, more difficult arousal and maybe a stale, longtime relationship, by retreating from sex.
"Then they meet someone new and — bam — they feel the excitement that they thought they had left far behind,” says Joan Price, a US author and blogger on senior sexuality.
“They feel on fire. Their sex drive — which they thought was dormant — goes into overdrive. It can be quite an amazing and delicious experience. It can also be bewildering and guilt-filled, if a woman has an affair when she’s in a committed, monogamous relationship.”
Price, now 72, has first- hand experience of this herself: “I was 57 when I met the man who would become my husband and great love. I had been single for decades, with occasional relationships that didn’t go anywhere — and long dry spells.
"It was distressing, because I knew I was a vibrant, sexual being, but after menopause I seemed invisible to the men I met. Many women report that they feel the same. How glorious it is then, when we meet the right person and that person is as electrified as we are!”
The on-screen electricity between research scientist and grandmother-to-be Yvonne, and her handsome lover, Mark Costley (played by Ben Chaplin), is an endorsement of this passionate potential, but is there something missing in our relationship if we yearn to seek those sparks elsewhere?
Sex in relationships is not just about sex, but about the connect between a woman and her partner, says Lisa O’Hara, a couple counsellor with Dublin-based clinic Mind and Body Works.
“If lack of libido is an issue for a couple attending for counselling, it can be part of a wider discontent than just the sexual connection. There may be a loss of closeness in general and resentments by the woman towards the partner that have built up over years, which have gone unaddressed.
"If these are addressed in therapy and things improve, sex may be back once again.”
However, some of her midlife female clients do develop a stronger curiosity about their own desires and fantasies, once free of fear of pregnancy or of other lifestyle issues that had got in the way, says O’Hara.
“Some say ‘I’m out of here’. It totally depends on their unique circumstances and how they feel about themselves.”
The myth that we become less sexual as we age was recently explored in research among women aged 55 to 81, titled Sex, Desire and Pleasure: Considering the experiences of older Australian Women.
Research author Bianca Fileborn, a lecturer in the School of Social Sciences at the University of New South Wales, tells Feelgood: “One of the key findings from our research was that women are really diverse — there’s certainly not one way that older women are ‘doing’ sexuality and sexual desire in mid to later life.
“In fact quantitative research carried out in western countries pretty consistently shows that a significant number of older people remain sexually active — usually a majority — at least until they reach ‘deep’ old age, in their 80s and 90s. But even then, a large minority still have sex.
“Another key finding for us was that women’s desire for sex didn’t depend necessarily on how older they were, but what else was going on their lives that influenced them.”
Irish sexologist Emily Power Smith says she knows women of all ages who, although they’re living with chronic illness and pain, are “determined to find ways to feel sexual”.
“Women who enjoy sex will have sexual desire right to the end of their lives and will find creative ways to keep that spark. But I also work with a number of women in their 50s and above, who want to know what all the fuss is about, because they could quite easily never have sex again.
"Inevitably it transpires that they have never really enjoyed sex. As they begin to discover their ability to feel sexual pleasure and arousal, their drives tend to increase.”
ONCE we are leading healthy lives low libido seems more related to the kind of sex we are having, rather than our age, she says.
“I know many young fertile women who hate sex and many older women, post menopause, who love it. Increasingly, there is research to show that older women embarking on new relationships report no reduction whatsoever in their sexual desire.”
Whatever about the complex rich reality of older women’s everyday sex lives, the screening of Apple Tree Yard may nudge the film and media world towards a more rounded representation of the mature female in all her sensual glory.
And perhaps even encourage women to explore their own sexuality more.
There is a growing posse of sexy women in their 50s and older decades, gracing the fashion and beauty world, in recent times, apart from the fact that some of the original supermodels of the ’90s, such as Cindy Crawford, Elle Macpherson and Linda Evangelista are already past the half century mark.
This year’s Pirelli calendar also sees photographer Peter Lindbergh tap into the zeitgeist, describing the make-up free portraits of his subjects as a “cry against perfection and youth”.
Some of the high-achieving women he chose to feature were actresses Julianne Moore, 56, Charlotte Rampling, 70, and Helen Mirren, 71.
However, despite this celebration of our vitality as we age, we still may have some catching up to do as individuals, says Power Smith.
“Women do a lot of self-policing when it comes to behaviour, dress and dating over a certain age. I think we are so conditioned to believe our lives are over once we’re 50 — though this is changing slowly — we get very troubled at the thought of our peers wearing short skirts, or dating younger people. But the rules don’t serve us. They never did.
“Only now some of us have the financial freedom, confidence and ability to create new norms. So come on! Let’s break some rules!”
Apple Tree Yard, BBC One, Sunday February 5, 9pm
Senior sexpert, author and blogger, Joan Price, gives us these 10 tips for hot sex after 50:
1. Slo-o- o-w- w down. It takes longer for us to warm up, and this intensifies as we get older. Make the warm-up phase of sex play last hours... or days.
2. Appreciate, decorate, and celebrate your body. Jewellery, lingerie, feathers, fringe, silk, velvet, massage oil, candlelight — whatever looks good and feels good. If you know you look sexy, you’ll feel sexy.
3. Learn what you like. Explore, experiment. If you’re partnered, communicate what you like.
4. Do sexy things on your own to get in the mood long before you get naked. Work out. Swim. Dance. Fantasise a sexy scene. Spend some time humming with a vibrator, reading erotica, or watching porn — or all of these.
5. Have sex during high energy times, when your arousal is strongest, whether solo or partnered.
6. If you’re partnered, kiss and kiss. Kiss sweetly, passionately, quickly, slowly, contentedly, hungrily, lightly. All kinds of kisses help you bond with your partner, warm up, and enjoy the moment.
7. Explore sex toys and other erotic helpers, alone and/or with a partner. Lucky for us that sex toys are easy to find, fun to try, and wow, do they work!
8. Use a silky lubricant. There are many different lubricants made specifically for sex that feel great and enhance (or bring back) the joy of friction. Make applying lubricant an erotic part of sex play.
9. Enjoy the afterglow. If you’re partnered, indulge in quality snuggle time.
Solo, don’t get back to your daily life right away — bask in your feelings of wellbeing.
10. Laugh a lot. Laughter is joyful, ageless — and sexy.
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