SEX is for the young. That’s the message we are drip fed by the media.
And with their good looks and toned bodies at the peak of sexual condition, their freedom and lack of any real responsibility, how could it be any other way?
Who wants to even think about laid-back, grey-haired sex, right?
Wrong. As it happens it’s a target market for publishers and film producers.
Take Fifty Shades of Grey, the racy trilogy aimed at middle-aged female readers. The books topped best-seller lists around the world, selling more than 70 million copies. Or the 2012 movie Hope Springs, where Meryl Streep struggles to climb out of the mind-numbing rut of middle-aged celibacy she shares with husband Tommy Lee Jones.
Or It’s Complicated, where attempts by middle-aged Streep to re-ignite the spark with her ex-husband Alex Baldwin cause all sorts of crises.
Hope Springs was nominated for a Golden Globe and won a Peoples’ Choice award, while It’s Complicated (2009) grossed more than €$200m and won two Golden Globe nominations.
We live in a world where sex is portrayed in the media as a commodity of the beautiful young, but buy into that myth at your peril, warns sex therapist Eithne Bacuzzi.
“The media projects sex as between the young, sexy and slim, where sex is easy.
“If you think and believe sex ends at 50, then it can be a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
The popular perception of sex is young: Perfect bodies, oodles of instant desire and both partners effortlessly reaching orgasm, preferably together .
Yet, says Bacuzzi, this depiction of sex isn’t realistic at any age — it’s perfectly normal to enjoy ‘good enough’ healthy sex in middle age.
But, yes, she admits, you may have a battle with some bad press.
“There can be a feeling of embarrassment, that being a sexual being is not appropriate for someone in this age group. It’s a way of thinking.”
Middle-aged sex gets a bad press because in Ireland, we don’t see sex as a pleasure we’re entitled to enjoy or talk about, says psychotherapist Anne Colgan.
“It has a bad press simply because it has no press. The media is obsessed with youthful sex — the perception of sexy is young, attractive, firm bodies — and a lot of middle aged people are not like that any more.”
Not only does middle-aged sex fail the media criteria of ‘youthful’ sex, but many of us have an aversion to thinking about our parents’ sex lives — and that’s understandable, she says but it contributes to the push to keep over-50s sex underground.
Yet, over-50s sex can be something to really look forward to — because, possibly for the first time in years, you may have the time and energy to actually enjoy it.
A 2000 Harvard study of nearly 32,000 men aged over 53 found 50% of couples reported regular sexual activity.
The days of broken nights and one-on-one attention are long past and, if not completely independent, the kids are definitely self-sufficient. Gone are the days of juggling a career and babyhood, when pleasure was a full night’s sleep or finding a babysitter to let you slip out to the cinema for an hour or two.
Those aged over 50 are, in general, well-established at work, and, with the kids away at college or working, probably have more free time than they’ve enjoyed for years.
On top of that, for many women in their 50s, the menopause has ruled out the possibility of pregnancy.
One of the best things about middle age, says relationships counsellor Mary Kenny, is that you become more relaxed.
“One of the things I see as people get older is that their confidence increases and self-consciousness decreases.
“People lose a lot of their inhibitions about body image. Women in middle age tend to get more comfortable in their own skin and relax into themselves.”
Also, performance anxiety is often no longer the issue it was in a person’s 20s and 30s.
“When couples are relaxed with each other after many years, there’s a comfort factor that makes sex good, and possibly better than the self-conscious, anxiety-inducing sex that many 20-somethings endure.
“Performance anxiety is not as present as it would be for younger people on the dating scene — you know you’re with the person who loves you for what you are and that that person is not simply in the relationship on the basis of your body or good looks,” says Ms Kenny.
So, although a person might have less stamina and more responsibility than they had in their 20s, there’s a good chance they’re in a loving and comfortable relationship – and they’re still a sexual being with the capacity to enjoy a healthy sexual life.
This can be very liberating says Bacuzzi, who points to an established study, which found that someone with a healthy sex life who refuses to be “brainwashed into accepting the taboo around age” can really enjoy this period of their lives.
Relationships Ireland therapist Bernadette Ryan points to American research which shows that middle-aged couples can have a more frequent and satisfying sex life than younger couples — simply because they’re not competing with the mythical notion about what sex “has” to be like.
Middle aged sex can potentially be the best of your life, adds Colgan. “You’ve probably reached a stage in your life where you have more time and possibly a bit more money to buy nice clothes or have a massage.
“Work is a bit more established and there’s more time to go together for walks. In other words, the environmental circumstances can be more conducive to having a good physical relationship.”
However there may be a few issues to deal with first, say the experts.
If you’re an empty nester who’s spent the last few decades focused on your children, you may have lost sight of your relationship.
“I think the message is never to lose the connection in or out of the bedroom,” says Bacuzzi, who stresses the importance of maintaining physical and emotional connections.
And then there’s the menopause.
“Hormones start to shift to facilitate the menopause and this can affect a woman emotionally, mentally and physically,” says Ryan. “The shift can begin at this age and can have a huge impact on women.”
Their moods may become more volatile she says and they will be less likely to have impromptu sex.
“Menopause can dilute your sex drive, while men too can experience a loss of libido which can be a result of anything from stress to [being] overweight, illness or a side-effect of medication.
Also, says Kenny some people do lose confidence in their looks and develop issues around body image as they get older.
“They may go for Botox and body tucks — they feel they have to get their body back to how it looked, and can go to great pains and expense to achieve that,” she warns.
It’s all to do with a fear of getting old, says Ryan.
“The ageing process challenges us to live our own truth and be comfortable in our own skins,” she says, adding that society tends to judge ageing as if it’s a crime.
For men too, middle age can bring its challenges — sometimes they start to see the end of the road, says Ryan.
“They can look at their lives and feel they’ve been going in the wrong direction. Some men regret having worked too much and not having paid sufficient attention to families and children and partner. That can all start rattling around in mid-life.”
Men may also face the bogey-man of erectile dysfunction, the advent of which, says Bacuzzi, can be “as if someone died”.
“Men may invest their maleness in work and sexual ability and when the erection starts to fade at any stage it can be catastrophic.”
However, she says, if they’re realistic and accept that erectile dysfunction will happen occasionally, they may find themselves more open to sex other than traditional penetrative sex. Why not, she says, be creative and try Tantric sex or mutual masturbation.
For those who are playing the field, there are significant drawbacks to consider: a British Medical Journal study last year showed that 80% of 50-to-90-year-olds are sexually active, but it pointed to sharp increases in the number of sexually-transmitted infections, such as syphilis, chlamydia, gonorrhoea, and genital herpes, in this age group.
However, you don’t have to seek intimacy outside your relationship — a couple who may have lost sight of each other in the chaos of work and child-rearing can re-kindle their sex life and again enjoy the close intimacy of their earlier days if they had a strong bond to begin with.
“The emotional closeness has to be re-charted... and, if they succeed in that, it can be very good,” says Bacuzzi.
Another issue which may have to be faced is illness, for example a bypass operation or an hysterectomy she says.
“We want to encourage couples to come in for counselling around the issue of illness.”
Having a good sex life in middle age has a lot more to do with personality and outlook than with age, says Bacuzzi.
“Personality is a very important component. It affects what you believe to be possible sexually — and what you believe to be possible sexually can affect your sex drive.
“If you think menopause is the end, it can be the end, but if you think it is time for liberation then it can be.”
Get some kicks still
Want to keep the zest in your relationship as you age? Here are some tips.
* Give time and energy to sex.
* Make good sex a priority. If you’re experiencing a loss of libido, or erectile dysfunction, consider sensual techniques such as Tantric sex, which is not just about physical release but about deepening the sensual experience and emotional connection.
* Take pleasure in the strength and wellbeing of your body. Take care of yourself physically and give time to yourself.
* Eat well and exercise regularly. Take part in some physical activity such as walking.
* Do things you enjoy together and have fun together.
* Communicate about how you feel. If you’re having problems with sex discuss what may be at the root of it. It can be about unhappiness in your job or a frustration around life goals.
* Try to be real about what’s happening — if you have a problem with libido or going through the menopause do something about it. Don’t assume great sex happens automatically.
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