Polly Walker, Jennifer Connelly, Monica Bellucci,…
Fans of Fifty Shades of Grey, the steamy novel that has recently hit the big screen, might be forgiven for thinking that great sex is synonymous with beauty, wealth – and crucially youth.
But the reality is very different. Some 80 per cent of sexually active men over 50 are apparently satisfied with their sex lives up until their ninth decade, according to a study published early this year by researchers at the University of Manchester. As women get older, the picture is even rosier. The study found that 85 per cent of sexually active women aged 50 to 69 are satisfied with their sex lives. Among the oldest group (79 plus), it’s a startling 90 per cent.
“There’s this misconception that sex belongs to young people,” says Age UK research fellow David Lee who compiled the report. “The reactions of the young to older people having sex range from humour and disgust to disbelief that the over 50s are having it at all. But our study breaks down these generational barriers. Even though the frequency of sexual activity declines as we grow older, sex remains an important part of our lives. It doesn’t stop or go away, it just changes.”
Derek Jacobi and Anne Reid in ‘Last Tango in Halifax’
On television, the stereotypes of older people as sexless beings with one foot in the grave are beginning to change. In BBC2’s hit drama Last Tango in Halifax, the actress Anne Reid plays a widow who finds love (and a proper sexual relationship) in her seventies with her childhood sweetheart. A recent documentary on Channel 4, My Granny the Escort, showed three mature prostitutes who prefer suspenders to secateurs (and have no problem attracting clients). Whether the series topples our ageist presumptions or offers a voyeuristic glimpse of a world we’d rather not know about, silver sex is very much alive.
Bobby Sington, a 63-year-old academic, has found a new lease of life post divorce. Despite his awareness that his libido isn’t what it was, he thinks he’s happier now than he was in his youth. “I’ve learnt that good sex isn’t all about gratification,” he says. “It’s about being in tune with the other person. And because I’m less obsessed with getting it, I can go more slowly and really enjoy the sensuality of it.”
Widowed singer Tatiana Sanders, 59, says she’s glad to be on the cusp of 60, even though available men are thin on the ground. “Sex was such a deep, dark secret in my twenties,” she says. “Nobody really talked about it. It felt nice but usually the man climaxed, then said goodnight and rolled over. Now men put much more effort into it.” Now her children have fled the nest, she likes the fact she can have sex for its own sake. “I’m not looking for a husband or someone to have children with anymore so I can be more light-hearted and laid-back,” she says. “I’ve discovered it’s possible to just have sex for fun.”
Photo: WireImage She believes that one of the cheering aspects of middle-aged sex is that men don’t expect her to look like a supermodel. “The lumps and bumps have got to all of us,” she says. “But I’m much more comfortable with myself now.” As Hollywood legend Jane Fonda, 77, right, once said: “If you want sex, you have to stay flexible, you have to stay healthy, and you have to feel OK about yourself.”
This greater self-acceptance is one of the perks of ageing, according to Notting Hill couples counsellor Tara Saglio. “By the time they’re older people have usually come to terms with many of their insecurities about body image,” she says. “They’re also likely to have less performance anxiety. The worries all men and women have – Am I boring in bed? Am I too fat? Too thin? Too hairy? – are less acute. And if they’re in a loving relationship, they’re more likely to feel confident about asking for what they want.”
But how about those of us who aren’t so confident in bed? Priya and Bob Tourkow run rural retreats focused on reconnecting with your partner. Priya, who also has a private practice in north London, is 65, Bob is 70. The pair, who have been together for 15 years (“We have sex – it’s wonderful”), say that age is no impediment to a deep and meaningful sex life. “Everything slows down whether you like it or not,” says Priya. “But as you get older sex has the potential to be a deeper, more loving experience without the franticness that young people experience. There’s a real magic in that.”
“Intimacy isn’t just sex,” adds Bob, “it’s all-encompassing. There’s so much to be gained by sex not being the main feature.”
Ultimately, successful lovemaking is about being relaxed and unselfconscious, says 85-year-old American sex educator, Betty Dodson. Her YouTube videos, which are very much on the racy end of the spectrum, reflect her conviction that age brings women the courage to show their partners what they like and share what they’ve learnt so far. Her vivid description of sexual inexperience – “You’re both out there in the dark fumbling” – perfectly encapsulates her view that sex among the spring chickens of this world is vastly overrated.
Chelsea-based psychosexual therapist Cate Mackenzie, who treats many people in their fifties and sixties, agrees that confidence is all when it comes to happiness in the bedroom. “It doesn’t matter two hoots how beautiful you are, what matters is inner confidence and that can grow as you get older,” she says. “If people feel good about themselves then that is sexy no matter what.”
Has EJ James’s blockbuster created undue pressures on the over fifties to be wild and wanton in the bedroom? “Maybe,” says Mackenzie. “But I also think it’s opened things up. People feel they now have permission to be playful and try out new things.” It’s opened doors for us to experiment sexually. And that’s a good thing, surely?
• On growing old disgracefully: Journalist India Knight’s zippy, rumbustious book In Your Prime covers the joys of mid-life, tackling everything from the menopause to Vi-Spring beds. It isn’t a sex book as such, more a manual designed to make women feel better – and more bouncy – with age
• On embracing the menopause (without the New Age nonsense): Former banker Jill Shaw Ruddock’s book The Second Half of Your Life explores everything from hormones to sex toys in a sensitive, serious-minded way
• On having earth-shattering sex after 50, never mind the lumps and bumps: US psychologist Dr David Schnarch, author of The Passionate Marriage, believes that the middle and later years are potentially a golden time sexually. “People are capable of much better sex and intimacy as they mature,” says Dr Schnarch. “Cellulite and sexual potential are highly correlated.”
• On medical matters: WebMD, the New York based corporation that provides health news and advice, covers some of the physiological changes that if left untreated can affect our enjoyment of sex as we age