Sex after forty? Don't make me laugh

The generation that once celebrated its sexual freedom has developed a middle-aged paunch and an exhausting daily grind. Now all they want to do is climb under the covers. Maureen Freely finds her friends caught between a longing for youthful, athletic sex and the lure of a quiet night in
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The Independent Online

Last night, I had three orgasms. The second one lasted for 19 minutes. We went through a whole bottle of Mantra. Tonight, we're going to see how it goes with Fantasy Blue. And if we have any time left over, we might do that thing with the champagne bottle that worked such wonders in Tenerife. I made that up, of course. But according to the scientists of sex, it should be true. I'm 48 years old. I'm supposed to be at the peak of my powers.

Last night, I had three orgasms. The second one lasted for 19 minutes. We went through a whole bottle of Mantra. Tonight, we're going to see how it goes with Fantasy Blue. And if we have any time left over, we might do that thing with the champagne bottle that worked such wonders in Tenerife. I made that up, of course. But according to the scientists of sex, it should be true. I'm 48 years old. I'm supposed to be at the peak of my powers.

So please, would someone tell me what I'm doing wrong? It's just so dispiriting to have to read about what other women my age have achieved under laboratory conditions, but never to know exactly why. Was it the white coats? The one-way mirror? The chance to spend the whole day in bed and get paid for it?

Other nagging questions: who paid for the babysitter? When they staggered home gasping, did their families mind that supper was still in the freezer? Did they walk around in a purple haze for days, or did the afterglow fade while they were loading the dishwasher? If you ask me, it's not physiology that stands in the way of perfect pleasure after 40, it's everything else.

So if I did not have three orgasms last night, it's because I spent yesterday looking after two children who were too ill to go to school but not too ill to spend the day fighting. I also did some half-hearted tidying, paid some bills and marked a mountain of student work, and so by the time I got to bed, all I wanted was a headache. Is this typical, or is there something wrong with me? I took my question to a friend who is a relationship therapist.

She smiled, and said my problem was that I was using "totally the wrong yardstick". I was giving myself performance anxiety when really, by my age, I should have come to think of sex as a beautiful art. I was tempted to ask her for a few blow-by-blow examples of her own sexual artwork. If time didn't matter, did that mean she had found a way to make a three-minute wonder meaningful?

In the end, I chickened out and asked nothing. This is pretty funny when you think about it. Here we are, the generation that brought you the sexual revolution, the ones who taught you to flaunt your bodies and celebrate your passions and celebrate them polymorphously forever. But now that our own bodies are not quite as glorious as they were, we've most of us retreated into the most dishonest sort of nervy silence. Take these friends I met for a drink the other night. Anyone eavesdropping on our table would have thought we didn't have a taboo in the world. For hours we'd been talking, and with wit, daring and erudition, about sex workers, sex education, sex on the internet, sex and health, sex and fashion, sex and you name it. Not once had anyone blushed. All this changed when I asked them if they could tell me if sex had been different for them since turning 40.

"Sex? What's that?" one of the women said. The other women laughed, but too fast, too loud. The men all flinched. The oldest member of the group kept her poise and praised the poignancy of sex after 40: "The intimation of mortality can be so poignant when you still have your health. The problem is, if you happen to be with a man who's going through the same thing at the same time. Then it's YOU who are the intimation of mortality. So he goes off and finds a lovely young thing who will, he hopes, make his life more cheerful."

When I got home, I made the mistake of asking my partner the question that had cleared the wine bar. His first response was: "Sex? What's that?" After I didn't laugh, he said: "Well, I'll tell you one good thing. It's easier, because there aren't the temptations." Meaning? "Well, in your twenties you're full of hormones and so when an opportunity arises, you jump at it. But now, most of the time, I couldn't be bothered."

" Most of the time?" I said. "What the hell do you mean by that?"

"Well, there aren't as many opportunities either," he said, backstepping a little too swiftly. Then he made things even worse by saying that sex after 40 in a steady relationship was "comfortable".

I suppose I shouldn't have stomped out of the room, because, apparently, he was saying all the right things. Comfort is, apparently, what we're meant to be after. You're meant to have mastered your urges by now, tamed them into a manageable set of habits or, at the very least, subliminated them into a love for interior decoration and violins. (According to The Independent's survey - see The Virginia Ironside Report below) - of all the people who said they were not having sex, it was those in their forties and fifties who claimed that they didn't miss it.) You're supposed to know what you like, be at home in your own body.

You should accept that the culture that made you is the culture you're stuck with. After deriving so many benefits from white, heterosexual middle-classness, you are meant to accept the downside with good grace. If women your age in other less prudish parts of the world are having a better time in bed than you are, you should be cheering them. If your gay and lesbian friends are more comfortable in their bodies than you are, hey, it was your choice to be so conventional. If you don't like it, maybe you should review your options.

That's the idea, anyway. But I'm far from being the only one who's uncomfortable about all those people out there who are getting MORE THAN THEIR FAIR SHARE. At my gym, outside the gates of my children's school, in the changing rooms of Whistles, in the dairy department at Waitrose, everywhere I go, practically, I see women my age on passion patrol. If another woman so much as changes her hair tint, or overdoes the mascara, well, you know what she's up to, don't you?

I spent a chunk of my thirties unattached. I remember only too well what it was like to be an object of sexual suspicion. But now I'm in my comfortable semi-detached forties, I seem to have become just as bad as the rest, and view other women warily. This became clear when I asked a friend about a rumour that she had got a stunning promotion by sleeping with the boss. "Do you know what they worst thing is?" she sobbed after I'd apologised. "It's that you thought I'd stoop so low, to have an affair with a man who walks like a duck, has a face like a turtle and Elvis Presley hair."

My friend, who is 45, is thin and pretty. The women who spread the rumour are (she reminded me) not thin and not pretty and "you can tell by the way they walk that they haven't come since the early 1980s".

Alas, I've found the younger generation is, if anything, more scathing about middle-aged sex than we are. Here are a couple of gems from my writing students: "She looked into the mirror at the sea of wrinkles where once there had been beauty. Her marriage was a shambles, but now it was too late to find new love." And: "He adjusted his seven remaining hairs before entering the student bar in search of fresh meat."

A few years ago, the 20-year-old who wrote those last words came to me in tears, to tell me that his own sex life was ruined, as he had started losing hair himself. I tried to comfort him by saying that I had lots of bald friends, and that most of them had full and happy sex lives. He looked at me with horror. "They do?" he gasped. "How?"

Even if propriety had allowed, I'm not sure I could have told him. This is not just because comfortable people my age give so little away. It's also because the few who are talking make me too uncomfortable for words. Take this friend of mine who has finally come out of her post-divorce fog to discover that men half her age are falling all over her. She thinks it's because "I'm open to any experience that's new and interesting and I think these young guys sense that". Last week, she went on a naked retreat with the best one yet. "And let me tell you, it did my ego no harm to have all these other harpies my age look with such envy at this Apollo who had his arm around me. If looks could kill!" Another thing that did her good, she said, was seeing how much better her body was than those of her jealous detractors. She knows it can't last, "but that's all the more reason to waste no time. At our age, none of us can afford to sit at home and be a prude." What's standing between me and unlimited pleasure, she says, is not housework, or comfort. It's fear of ridicule.

But it's a real fear. If you don't have the right sort of body, people laugh. So you go out and have a lovely time, darling. Enjoy your intimations of mortality. If you see mine, go ahead and enjoy them, too. If you need me, you know where to find me. I'll be with 99.99 per cent of my age cohort, cowering under my covers at home.