Lifestyle features

‘The greatness of love and affection doesn’t need to change in later life:’ Why we shouldn’t overlook longing and lust as people age

As relationship charity Relate launches a new champaign to celebrate the joy of sex in later life, Lynn Enright meets the older couples still enjoying intimacy

Tuesday 27 April 2021 15:44
Older couple embracing passionately
Older couple embracing passionately

ynne throws her head back as George nuzzles her neck. Seen from the waist up, they are both naked, their chests pressed into each other, Lynne’s face alive with longing.

It is an image that will surely prompt conversation because while it is quite unremarkable to see naked or nearly naked people in stylised advertising imagery, we’re still not used to seeing older subjects portrayed this way. Lynne and George have been married for 53 years and are participants in a new campaign created in a collaboration with the relationship support organisation Relate and the advertising giant Ogilvy.

The photographs – featuring five couples and one woman shot by the renowned British photographer Rankin – aim to get us talking about a subject that’s usually taboo: sex in older age. Speaking about the project, Rankin says: “The greatness of love and affection – the very things we can’t stop writing books, films, and pop songs about – doesn’t need to change as we find our later years.” He is, of course, correct but the problem is convincing other people of that. Older people continue to love and lust for each other in their seventies, eighties and nineties – but they do so in a society that likes to pretend that they don’t.

According to new research released alongside the imagery, two-thirds of over 65s say sex and intimacy for their age group is rarely or never represented in media compared to a fifth of 18 to 24-year-olds. Meanwhile, fewer than 10 per cent of people aged over 65 think society is comfortable with talking about sex and intimacy in people aged over 60.

Lynne agrees that the “younger generation” can be squeamish. “For instance, my son … he’ll think ‘Oh my God, they’re too old for that.’ But he doesn’t realise that’s the time you should enjoy it more. Because as you get older you just do the things that you were too embarrassed to do. As we get older, we get more experimental because you’re fed up of having rice and peas every day. You need to spice it up.”

Ammanda Major, a psychosexual therapist at Relate who has worked on the campaign, says that the imagery will address the “chicken-and-egg problem of invisibility” for older people and sex: “As people get older, they become a bit more invisible and that leads to problems with intimacy or indeed sex itself.”

There are serious health risks connected to our reluctance to talk about older people having sex: between 2014 and 2018 there was a 23 per cent increase in diagnoses of STIs among both men and women aged 65-plus, even as they declined in twenty somethings. Meanwhile, a 2019 study showed that men who reported a decline in sexual desire were more likely to go on to develop cancer or other chronic illnesses.  

Fewer than 10 per cent of people aged over 65 think society is comfortable with talking about sex and intimacy in people aged over 60

The new campaign, Major tells The Independent, allows “people feel that they now have more of a right to talk about stuff, whether it’s going well, in which case that continues to raise the profile, or whether it gives people the confidence to say, ‘You know what, I actually would like something different in our relationship. And I would like I would like to be able to talk about that more openly.’”

A good sex life is often beneficial to overall wellbeing, she points out. “Being unhappy because you feel disconnected from your partner as you get older can have real impact on your emotional, mental and physical wellbeing.”

As you get older you just do the things that you were too embarrassed to do

In the videos that accompany the imagery, the subjects sit in their dressing gowns discussing sex – and it becomes obvious that a fulfilling sex life doesn’t necessarily mean penetrative sex with powerful orgasms. Eighty-three-year-old Bille jokes about the viagra that is now integral to his and his partner Cora’s sexual relationship but Margaret, a widow, appears alone reflecting on the loss of her husband. “I sleep still in the same bed, in a double bed, but I have a bolster down the side of me so that when I go to sleep I feel he is there,” she explains. In the imagery, Margaret appears alongside the caption “You’re never too old to play with toys.”

Mark and Andrew, meanwhile, discuss the varied nature of intimacy. For them, being close is about lying in bed reading with your feet touching as much as it is about “you know, banging each other’s brains out”.

“Often, in the media, a lot of emphasis is on performance-related stuff to do with sex,” says Major. “What we’re doing is showing that while that might be very important to some people, equally for many people that connection hasn’t got to be some magnificent sex. It can be being with someone who wants to be with you, who wants to feel close to you. Often it is those things that make people feel connected. Intimacy doesn’t have to be about, and often isn’t about, rampant sex.”

Billie and Cora for the Relate campaign

Sex is sometimes different in older age, she acknowledges – “Your body has taken on maturity so yes, it may look different. Yes, your erections may not be as fast and hard as they were 25 or 30 years ago” – but that shouldn’t mean that it’s less important or satisfying.

Quite often, sex actually gets better as we age. “For a lot of women, there’s a freedom to the menopause,” says Major. “It’s not unusual to talk to women and find that they feel a greater sense of sexual maturity as they get into their older years because they have more time and they are more familiar with what they want for themselves.”

For a lot of women, there’s a sexual freedom to the menopause

Reflecting on her sex life with Roger, Chrissie says, “A lot of people feel that older people are past it, that they don’t have the inner feelings of love and touch that you have when you’re younger. But, in fact, it has surprised us both that you do maintain exactly those same feelings and you want to touch each other.”

Major objects to the images being described as “sexy” – “Sexy is such a personal thing for people; what is sexy is very difficult to determine,” she points out – but it is certainly true to say that they are arresting and powerful. In the striking black and white images, there are mastectomy scars, wrinkles, white hairs and folds of loose flesh; there is heat, passion and joy. Created with an intimacy coach, they portray the reality of longing, love and lust in bodies that are too often overlooked and ignored.

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