Sex in the sixties: We're under the sheets, not over the hill

In the world according to Hollywood, no one seems to have sex after the age of 30. But, of course, oldies do it too, and now directors are taking on the previously taboo subject of middle-aged sexuality

There are certain commonplace events that rarely make it into screenplays. Characters in films don't drive in circles looking for a parking space, nip to the corner shop for loo roll or – with the dishonourable exception of Woody Allen – have sex if they're over 50.

While parking is a viable, if boring, topic for real-life small talk, according to Age UK, the sexuality of older people is as unmentionable off-screen as it is on. "Our research has shown that while advertisers and the media promote sexualised representations of younger people, sex and older age is widely viewed as a taboo subject," says Michelle Mitchell, the charity's director general. "We found that many people are often reluctant to even acknowledge that sexuality in older age exists."

Or so it was. This week on general release is at cinemas is Hope Springs, a mainstream comedy-drama starring Oscar winners Meryl Streep (a ravishing 63) and Tommy Lee Jones (a youthful 66) as a couple who go on a week-long sex therapy retreat in hopes of restoring intimacy to their 31-year marriage. They discuss foreplay, threesomes with a neighbour and attempt fellatio in the back row of the cinema. In other words, it's absolutely filthy. But it's also an intelligent, brave and genuinely moving account of a grown-up sexual relationship.

So how did an anti-ageist cultural revolution get started in Hollywood, the Cult of Youth's holiest city? Simple box-office economics, says Joel Hopkins, writer-director of the 2007 romantic comedy Last Chance Harvey, "All this buzz feels completely obvious to me. My parents go to the cinema probably once a week. They go way more than I do. I've got small kids." Hopkins is now in post-production on The Love Punch, a romantic caper starring Emma Thompson (sprightly at 53) and Pierce Brosnan (a distinguished 59) as a divorced couple who team up to steal back their pension fund. It's a "fun and sexy" film, he says, but not over the top. "I don't know if this is true, but I think that older audiences are a bit more aware of when sex is gratuitous, when it's not integral to the story, but if it is, then they're fine with it."

From the dawn of the blockbuster era, the most bankable movie-going demographic has been about 40 years younger than Hopkins' target audience. The 18-24 year-old Slightly Nerdy Young Male queued round the block for Star Wars in the 1970s, quoted Top Gun in the 1980s, and collected Lord of The Rings memorabilia in the early 2000s. By 2010, however, he'd started downloading films straight to his laptop. An ageing population stepped in to fill empty cinema seats and Hollywood has been unashamedly courting "the grey pound" ever since.

British filmmakers have proved particularly successful at delivering mature cinema for mature moviegoers. The King's Speech is often cited as an example of the grey pound in action and last year's The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, about the romantic escapes in an ex-pat retirement opened with an impressive £2.2m at the UK box office.

Yet while mainstream rom coms, such as Nancy Meyer's Something's Gotta Give (2003) and It's Complicated (2009) have successfully cashed in on the underserved over-50s audience, sex in these films is usually either the butt of a joke or depicted in patronisingly cosy terms. Unblushing realism has remained the preserve of boundary-pushing arthouse fare such as Germany's 2008 film Cloud 9. "Up to now we've had a link between youth and sexuality," says Susan Quilliam, consumer correspondent at The Journal of Family Planning and author of the updated 2008 edition of The Joy of Sex. "You get the image that only celebrities under the age of 30 are swinging from the chandeliers and the rest of us are drinking our cocoa and going to bed."

The guardians of our sexual health would beg to differ with that stereotype. Rising divorce rates and longer lives have led to a statistical spike in baby boomers, old enough to know better when it comes to safe sex. Between 2000 and 2009, 45-64 year-olds saw the biggest rise in biggest rise in syphilis, herpes, chlamydia and genital warts of any age group. They also saw the second-biggest rise in gonorrhoea cases, beaten only by the over 65s.

Part of the reason for this rise, says Quilliam, is the media's reluctance to acknowledge the existence of sex after 50. "The depictions of sexuality with older people are usually within the context of committed relationships and although I'm not suggesting that they whip out a condom on screen at every opportunity, if it were brought into the open in a sensible, well-scripted conversation, it would help a lot."

Industry assumptions about what mature audiences want to see are now changing says Jamie Schwartz, senior vice president of marketing at Momentum Pictures. "Older audiences aren't prudish about sex in films at all. The 'no sex please, we're British' attitude is a thing of the past." Momentum are the distribution company behind Hope Springs, Last Chance Harvey and Quartet, Dustin Hoffman's first directorial effort for more than 30 years, about a home for retired opera singers. "When we spoke to people who'd seen [Hope Springs], they loved the cheekiness and humour," says Schwartz. "'The saucier the better' as someone said in a research group."

If anyone is blushing at the prospect of Lady Thatcher and Men In Black's Agent K enjoying a passionate snog, then, it's not the over 50s, but Slightly Nerdy Young Male again. Fortunately for fans of nuanced drama, the film industry is no longer very interested in what he thinks.

So will movies such as Hope Springs herald the dawn of a new age of sexual permissiveness? Like a true Hollywood realist, Hope Springs director David Frankel is only very cautiously optimistic. "Probably not. Nobody ever really wants to think of older people having sex, even older people. But we'll all be older people one day and we'll all still want to have sex, won't we? So it's nice to see a movie that offers a glimpse of that possibility."

 

Follow @MissEllenEJones

 

Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

classical
Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine