Will you still need me when I'm 64?

Viagra and hip replacements offer solutions to some of the practical difficulties of sex over 60. But for senior citizens, brought up at a time when everybody had sex but nobody talked about it, old habits die hard
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The Independent Online

To be asked to speak for an entire senior generation is deeply alarming, particularly when the subject to be spoken of is sex. It is the subject that makes exposition of views so complicated. First because of the very different culture in which today's 65-pluses originally found their sexual feet, and second because of the very different individual responses there are to matters of sex, which is of course something that is shared with people of all ages.

To be asked to speak for an entire senior generation is deeply alarming, particularly when the subject to be spoken of is sex. It is the subject that makes exposition of views so complicated. First because of the very different culture in which today's 65-pluses originally found their sexual feet, and second because of the very different individual responses there are to matters of sex, which is of course something that is shared with people of all ages.

Consider the cultural differences. Philip Larkin wrote "sexual intercourse began in nineteen sixty-three (Which was rather late for me) Between the end of the Chatterley ban and the Beatles' first LP". The most important part of that celebrated verse is the bit about it being late for Larkin.

It was late for all the people who had reached adulthood before the Sixties explosion of sexual frenzy. We inevitably have a very different way of dealing with and speaking of sexuality from those who went through that. For my own part I spent the Sixties at belly level, either pregnant or wiping the nose of a groin-high child. That I was sexually busy can't be denied (the evidence phones me at regular intervals and brings its own children to visit) but flower power, making love rather than war, and generally whooping it up at the sexual barricades was not on my agenda. I had neither the time nor the energy; and to tell the truth there wasn't much flower power and so forth around in my leafy suburb, or anybody else's for that matter. For most of us the sexual revolution amounted to little more than a few muffled rumbles from far away in the southeast metropolitan area.

By and large today's over-65s grew up in a world where sex was not spoken of much, if at all in some households, where sexually explicit jokes were considered a totally male preserve and public displays of sexual interest irredeemably vulgar.

As a child, in 1940, I can remember asking the "auntie" on whom I was billeted as an evacuee the meaning of something I had read in the newspaper: VD. She at once complained to the billeting officer that I was a disgustingly dirty-minded child and that she wanted me removed forthwith. I was shifted that very night, though I had no idea why at the time, but was told in no uncertain terms the next day at school and well punished for it. (I was aged nine, by the way.)

This does not mean, of course, that pre-1963, people were not involving themselves in sexual activity. The war sent a number of conventions flying (when a bomb could kill you tomorrow, why hang about?) although it left the guilt and sense of dirtiness intact. People had sex, sometimes had babies, often got infections, but they didn't talk about it.

And attitudes like that leave their mark for ever. I tried hard for the purpose of this article to persuade some of my contemporaries to go on the record about their current sex lives and most of them closed up like Venus flytraps. "Private!" they said. "You ought to know better than to ask me," they said. And I was reminded of how much opprobrium I received from some people in my own age group for the work I used to do in sex education via agony columns and books. But, fortunately, I was able to find a few people who would talk to me honestly, though even they demanded anonymity. So, false names from here on.

Jennifer, 69, married for the second time following a divorce 23 years ago. She agreed to talk to me only because we have known each other for years, but even so she was unwilling. All she would say about the breakdown of her first marriage was that the problem was money, not sex.

"I couldn't make love with someone who was lying to me about debts and robbing my kids of their security."

She went on to say that in her present marriage everything is perfectly satisfactory because she can trust her husband Steven financially, but admits there is little passion in her feelings. She only makes love to please him, because she is grateful to him. When I asked about frequency she said, "Oh, do me a favour! More on holiday than at home, I suppose. Say once a month if you have to have a number, which isn't bad. He's 75 years old."

Peter, 70, has been married to Mary, a year older, for 47 years. He is an icon of faithfulness. He has never strayed from the marital bed, though he adds a little defensively that of course he saw women he fancied, but "I never did anything about it. Why bother? I think real variety in sex comes not from having lots of partners but from being with someone who knows what makes you tick and vice versa. Lots of experiments for us, I can tell you."

Margaret, 65, has been married to John who is four years older, for 41 years. As an old acquaintance, I knew, as many of her other friends did, that John used to have affairs with other women and also that Margaret knew too, but that it suited her to ignore it. There were similar marriages in our suburb and they provided plenty of cosy local gossip. When I asked Margaret now, after all these years, why she had been so accommodating she said, "What could I have done? I had three children and no job of my own and he was a good father. I settled for him being the chap he is. You can't change people and I took him for better or worse, didn't I?"

She added with a certain degree of satisfaction, "Anyway, it was never more than bit of mucking about with him - he always came home afterwards. Now, since he's had his prostate done he has to get Viagra from his doctor and he'd be too embarrassed to use it with anyone but me, so it all works out in the end."

James and Richard, aged 71 and 74, have been together for 50 years. Being a gay couple wasn't easy because when they first moved in together what they were doing was illegal. People "looked sideways" at men sharing a home so they took in lodgers to cover up. Otherwise, they said, they lived like "The rest of our respectable married neighbours. Neither of us ever had affairs because it was risky enough doing what we were doing and we didn't want to take any more chances, and by the time it would have been OK, after 1957 and Wolfenden, we'd got into settled habits."

I asked whether sex was still important and they fell about. "Our sex life is lovely. Not as bouncy as it was, you know, but we have a lot of fun and we're together and that's what really matters."

There were others who talked of problems with arthritis and other disabilities and as many who spoke gratefully of the benefits of modern pharmacology, knowing the value of HRT as well as Viagra. (For some of us the intervention of medical science in our sex lives is a cause for levity; my husband stood beside our bed one night, and looked down at me with my glasses on my nose, reading happily though the radio was on very loud since I had removed my hearing aids, and said "Look at you! What with your pacemaker and your artificial knees and all the rest of it I don't know whether to plug in or switch off...")

There is no doubt in my mind that all over the country people in my age range are having satisfying sex lives on their own terms. That may not mean genital contact or explosive orgasms; it may well consist primarily of the things they did when they were very young, like kissing, curling up close together skin to skin, caressing and petting, all of which can be deeply enjoyable and is a hell of a lot less athletic.

But there are also a great many more who have lost their dear domestic companions and so had virtually all physical satisfaction removed from their lives. Widowhood and late marriage break-up leaves members of both sexes cut off from companionable sex and, although as Woody Allen says "Don't knock masturbation. It's sex with someone you love", it's a poor substitute for a breathing person beside you. Unless they are able to marry again, which can be complicated for people over 65, the last years can be sexually bleak.

Because being old doesn't mean you lose your interest in sex. For humans it is for recreation as well as procreation and the taste and deep need for it lasts forever, as the great Edwardian actress, Mrs Patrick Campbell, pointed out to a young woman a hundred or more years ago, when asked when sex stopped being important to women. Mrs PC was by then over 70 and she looked at the impertinent young thing and said sweetly "My dear, you'll have to ask someone much older than I am."

Remarriage needs to be encouraged amongst older people. It isn't easy. They have to find each other first, and then cope with social disapproval. We're all likely to live much longer than previous generations did, so it's an important issue, not only for those of us who are already old, but those of you galloping this way.

Think about it. Because believe me, 70th birthdays arrive amazingly quickly.

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