"We were sitting on a park bench and making out. I was in my 60s at the time. A young man of about 20 rode by on his bicycle and screamed ‘Gross!’”.
Fortunately both Francine Russo, who describes this incident, and the chap she was dating had a sense of humour and the two of them cracked up with laughter. It’s a pertinent illustration, though, of attitudes to “oldie sex”. If young people don’t like the idea of their parents having sex, the thought of their grandparents engaging in sexual frolics is, frankly, disgusting.
I’ve thought for some time now that in many ways it’s the last sexual taboo, the 21st century equivalent of what Oscar Wilde, in reference to homosexuality, called “the love that dare not speak its name”. And frankly that’s not good enough, certainly not for the “boomer” generation who grew up in an era of so-called sexual liberation.
For the fact is that people over 60 are having sex and, most likely, in greater numbers than ever before. With increasing divorce amongst couples in their 50s and 60s and new relationships being formed, there’s a lot of it about. Even if there aren’t the stats to tell us exactly what’s going on between the sheets, the fact that STDs are on the rise in the over-60s is evidence that hooking up in later life is the new norm.
And for couples in long-term relationships, often more reluctant to talk openly than the newly single, there are potions, pills and props that make it easier to sustain sexual intimacy.
As the author of an extremely useful, and indeed moving book Love After 50: How To Find It, Enjoy It and Keep It (Simon and Schuster) Francine Russo combines personal experience, thorough research and a passionate belief that we are sexual beings throughout our lifespan to provide a compelling argument for being open and honest about sex in later life.
“To the extent that people can have sex in a way that‘s comfortable for them, it should be encouraged at any age,” she says.
As a former editor of Cosmopolitan, I gleaned a great deal of my own sex education from the pages of the magazine I worked on in the 1970s and 1980s, and the focus was always on the gateway to good times in your 20s and 30s.
So it was a mighty surprise to me that it wasn’t until I met my current partner in my late 50s that I discovered the best sex of my life. I’d enjoyed sex some of the time, gone through periods when I pretty much lost interest – the usual passion-killers of the exhaustion of bringing up a small child and holding down a pressurised job – and then, with the relationship with the father of my son beginning to fail, finding it hard to equate bad feelings out of bed with sexual arousal in bed.
Well that may be it for my sex life, I thought, when my marriage came to an end. And yet 14 years into my relationship with my now not-new partner, and having recently turned 70, there’s still a sexual spark between us and it’s an aspect of our relationship that remains vitally important to both of us.
A report on Sexual Ageing in 2018, by Lauren Towler of the University of Southampton and Matija Sinkovic of the University of Zagreb, which involved a systematic review of a raft of research on the sexuality and sexual health of older adults, concluded that negative stereotypes regarding the sex lives of older adults over 60 persist, despite sexuality having been proven as a factor that improves quality of life. And despite new generations of older adults being increasingly liberal in attitudes towards sex and sexual behaviour than previous ones.
Good sex is good for us. It releases endorphins and oxytocin, the feel-good hormones that promote well-being and intimacy. It can aid relaxation, help boost the immune system, lower blood pressure and even improve cognitive function
According to the researchers, individuals who felt older than their years and had more negative feelings about ageing generally reported less interest in sex and a lower quality of sexual experiences than those who felt more positively about themselves and the ageing process. Which suggests to me that perhaps we should be devoting more time and energy to our intimate lives, rather than less, as the years go by. Unless, of course, you (and your partner if you have one) are both happy to be done with the whole business of sex, which is entirely your prerogative.
For sex educator Tracey Cox, author of Great Sex Starts at 50 (Murdoch Books), there are three great myths about sex in later life that need dispelling. The first is that sex naturally stops when you get older. “While the hormones that fuel spontaneous sex certainly do disappear, that doesn’t mean you can’t continue to have great sex until you’re in your 90s,” she asserts.
“The trick is to create desire – learn how to turn yourself on – rather than wait for desire to tap you on the shoulder like it did in the past.” The second is that old sex is somehow inferior to young sex. “Sex is often better for older couples in lots of senses,” she insists. “It’s less about mad thrusting and more about gentle, unhurried lovemaking that’s less penetration focused. Foreplay gets a promotion and that’s good news for everyone, men and women.” And, finally, the idea that you can’t be sexy if you’re older.
“What utter rubbish that is,” says Cox. “Sexiness isn’t youth and a taut body. It’s an aura, an attitude, a confidence in yourself, a cheekiness. Anyone can be sexy at any age: you just need to be curious, enthusiastic and enjoy sex.”
Of course not everyone, even us liberated Baby Boomers, is comfortable about sex. This was convincingly illustrated in the recent movie Good Luck Leo Grande, in which the protagonist, a widow and retired RE teacher in her 60s, played by Emma Thompson, employs a young sex worker, in what she regards as a vain hope of feeling true sexual pleasure for the first time in a life of disappointments.
If her discovery of her sensual self was a joy for the audience to behold, the mere fact of devoting screen time to recognition of the fact that a woman in her 60s might still wish to seek sexual fulfilment felt like a great leap forward for older sex. As did the recent TV drama I Am Maria, in which Lesley Manville plays a woman turning 60 whose husband rejects her sexually and then embarks on a sexual liaison with a colleague.
But what about the men? Francine Russo is adamant that men have to get over the idea that it’s all about the erect penis. “When they can’t get an erection, or can’t count on getting one, they often lose interest in sex.” And yet it’s estimated that over half of all men between 50 and 70 have erectile dysfunction (ED).
What they need to understand and accept, Russo believes, is that things won’t happen in the same way as they did when they were younger, that it’s possible to have an orgasm without an erection. Maybe intercourse is off the cards, how about outercourse, then? These are the kind of honest conversations that can transform everything in older people’s sex lives, and one of the reasons why experts believe that even in very long-term relationships it’s possible to reignite sexual intimacy if there’s a willingness to be open and explore. For some a desire for sexual fulfilment leads to affairs.
Easy to condemn but I couldn’t bring myself to condemn the man who sought a relationship through the site Illicit Encounters, because his wife had a severe stroke and was wheelchair-bound. He would never leave her, he told me, and the woman he met via the website perfectly understood the situation. She was unhappy in her marriage, but didn’t want commitment, so it suited her.
For one married woman friend, who loved her husband but with whom sex had never been more than occasional and non-explosive, the approach of her 70th birthday triggered an urgent desire for a final sexual fling. She wrestled with guilt, but acted on her instinct. The affair made her feel young again. She looked in the mirror and for the first time in years liked what she saw. She felt enlivened, more interesting. Her husband noticed her spark, while never suspecting an affair, and began to respond more amorously. A curious win-win, triggered by an affair that was soon over.
According to one recent report, if you are single your sex life reaches its peak in your 60s. The eighth annual Singles in America survey in 2018 found single women having the best sex at 66 and men at 64.
For one friend, Fiona*, who met her partner Paul* eight years ago when she was 63 and he was 65, “Sex hasn’t drifted off at all, For 20 years I was in a marriage that produced two children, but with a man who was not interested in sex. After my divorce there were various short-lived relationships, and unsatisfactory sexual encounters, and then Paul came along.”
Fiona’s face lights up as she talks: “Sex can take place five, four, three days a week. It’s wonderful. Maybe we won’t have full intercourse more than twice a week but we can read one another. Certain times of day suit him better. I’m retired, he works part-time, there are no kids in the house, so why not? When he passes me in the house, he might touch my arm, or ask me to kiss him. When we walk together we walk hand-in-hand. If sex sometimes doesn’t work, we laugh about it and there’s nothing we can’t discuss.”
Paul feels the same. He describes the marriage to the mother of his two children as “an unholy alliance. We were incompatible on so many levels. Sex was mechanical. Of course for a relationship to work sexually both partners have to have a certain element of libido, and Fiona and I understand each other. As you get older you see what works and you experiment. You have to want to please one another. Either you’re a giver or you’re not.”
For Paul sex is life-enhancing and if men lack testosterone, he believes, they should take it, if they need Viagra, where’s the shame in that? “We age,” he says, “things change, but I honestly believe that in a good relationship good sex can last indefinitely. 40 years, why not?”
As if later life sex was enough for the squeamish to contend with, what about a shout-out for end-of life intimacy, too? And no I’m not kidding. Now that we’re all living longer there’s a big issue coming up around nursing homes, with men and women in their 80s and 90s sneaking into one another’s rooms.
We squirm, we wrinkle our noses and the care workers don’t know what to do. As long as it’s consensual, Let It Be, as Paul McCartney would say. Sex and the desire for it is a sign of being fully alive. I challenge anyone to say that’s not OK.
‘Sex is the difference between...’
Francine Russo, 75, author of Love After 50: How To Find It, Enjoy It and Keep It (Simon and Schuster), has been twice widowed. Her first husband died after 20 years of marriage, her second husband after 4. She has been living with her partner, Michael Harrington, 79, a musical comedy actor and voice coach, for six years.
I met Michael in the same way I met all the men I’ve been involved with after my first husband died, online, and I highly recommend it. The most important lesson I’ve learned through my 50s to my 70s is that the age of one night stands are over. I would never have sex with anyone until I felt I could trust them, felt comfortable enough to be certain that they’d be gentle, so I could say what I needed and not be judged.
After 50, men as well as women feel vulnerable. That said, intimacy and trusting can lead to the best sex ever. I’m someone who has always been interested in sex. I’m a toucher. I touch all the time. We snuggle for a nap every day. We have told each other the places we want to be touched and it makes us scream in ecstasy.
When I was younger it was all about me, and I thought it was a man’s job to give me pleasure. But the wonderful thing is that as men and women get older together they become more sexually alike. And although they may be embarrassed to say it men need more foreplay, too. And so having become much less selfish I’ve learned to explore and find out what my partner likes and it’s a turn on for me as well.
Cuddling, physical touch and affection is important at any age and that’s what makes you a couple. It’s the difference between being a couple and being friends.
Older sex is a whole new frontier of pleasure. Women can help men to have sex in ways they don’t think they can have sex. And when it doesn’t work you can laugh about it. And as one man said to me as long as you have fingers and a tongue you can never be impotent. If you can give pleasure you are a potent man. And when it doesn’t work you can laugh about it. Say, hey, that was fun to try, now let’s go and have brunch.
‘I find sex relaxing now’
Entrepreneur Suzanne Noble, 61, hosts the podcast Sex Advice for Seniors with her partner Peter Marriott, also 62. She has two adult sons, 30 and 28 and lives in London. Peter Marriott, 62, is a retired university lecturer and lives in Oxford. He has have two boys from my first marriage, who are in their thirties, and a daughter from his second marriage who is at university.
After my marriage ended, at forty, I enjoyed a period of sexual exploration. It was a daring and experimental time.
Then in my fifties, menopause hit and my libido dropped to the floor.bI put on weight and that affected my confidence. I had a variety of boyfriends but it didn’t feel fair to subject them to sleeping next to someone who is dripping with sweat – it wasn’t very attractive.
I grieved for my lost sex drive so I’m happy it’s returned, albeit with less intensity. Sex doesn’t have the same urgency that it did when I was in my 40s – I find sex very relaxing now, it’s a way of being intimate and having good fun. Being intimate doesn’t have to be about penetrative sex – it can involve massage or touch.
I met Peter on Facebook. We started the podcast as a way of addressing all older people’s questions about sex and relationships, which often those same people don’t know how or who to ask. We talk about lube and Viagra and are very honest. The response has been great – we’ve hit on something; people want to hear two crazy old people talking about sex! My older son works in social media marketing and he got me on TikTok – our videos have had two million views.
My kids roll their eyes at it but no more than they do about other things I do.
Sex is still taboo as I suspect many people, especially younger ones, find the idea of older people still doing it a bit “ick”.
There can be a lot of oneupmanship when it comes to sex: people saying “Well, I can have multiple orgasms” or “I can still have sex five times a day!” – but it’s not a competition. Lots of people are happy not to be having sex at all and that’s OK.
It’s never too late but equally finding somebody can be a challenge. I believe that we have to stop box ticking. Many women have an endless list of requirements – we need to be kind to ourselves and to others.
‘I am having more sex now than I did before’
I am having much more sex now than I had as a teenager. I joined the army at 16 and only got to grips with sex after that. I got married at 22 to one of the first women I’d slept with and when that marriage ended I got married again for 20 years before separating, amicably, two years ago.
I was sheltered in some ways – I’m catching up now.
Suzanne and I met on Facebook. Sex is very different now – it’s sex without the worries. When I was younger I was always worried about procreation and monogamy, but Suzanne and I are both open to seeing other people. We see each other once a week and we just have fun together.
I am much more experimental. Nothing is taboo, there are no holds barred.
Physically I take much longer to orgasm than I used to but I have learned not to chase the orgasm – sometimes I have one and sometimes I don’t. Either way it’s great. As you get older you are just happy to get it up!
I went on a tantric workshop a few years ago and the main thing I took from it was learning how to enjoy the sensations of every touch.
I’ve had a tough time – I had cancer and was diagnosed with MS. Despite mobility problems my sex life is not affected, I am just as virile as I ever was.
I’ve learned so much in the last couple of years. I am more considerate and better informed. Many men don’t know what we’re doing – we don’t know what works for women, so on the podcast we talk about different techniques and we talk honestly about emotions and feelings.
When you are younger there is so much male bravado but as I’ve got older I’m able to be more honest about who I really am.
‘Sex gets better the older you get’
Cindy Galllop, 62, is home counties-born, Oxford-educated advertising consultant and CEO and founder of MakeLoveNotPorn, a social sex platform, where couples share videos of themselves having ‘real world’ sex.
I date younger men casually and recreationally for sex – and have been doing so happily for 20 years. I am deliberately public about this because I believe everyone should be free to design the relationship model that works for them.
I meet men on Cougar Dating sites – which match older women with younger men – and I’m inundated with messages.
I am someone who has never wanted to be married or have children. I adore being single and cannot wait to die alone. And I date younger men for sex. That’s because I don’t want a relationship, I want lots of stamina and very short recovery periods. I highly recommend this dating approach to other older women.
There are many factors that go into ensuring that you have great sex in your later years – a really important one is that I don’t give a damn what anybody thinks about my body. I am happier with the way I look at this point in my life than I ever was before. My body is no one’s definition of aspirational but I think I look great and there are a tonne of men who agree. I have never been told I am beautiful as often as I have since dating younger men.
My message to older women is that no matter how large you think you are, how wrinkled you think you are, you are hot as hell and there are absolutely people who will see that. What makes you hot and desirable and sexy is you, the individual you are, that’s what your lovers are attracted to. That’s why MakeLoveNotPorn is so important, because we celebrate real world everything – seeing people who are nobody’s idea of aspirational body types, getting turned on by each other, desiring each other and having an amazing time in bed is hugely reassuring.
I was incredibly lucky with the menopause. At the age of 50, my periods stopped. That was it. No hot flushes, no mood swings, no symptoms of any other kind. And no impact on my sex drive. Older women who are not feeling sexual often think there’s something wrong with them – but usually something is wrong with the sex they are having.
I can’t say this enough: lube, lube, lube. There is no such thing as too much lube. It makes everything better in bed.
Viagra wouldn’t need to exist if everyone was educated that great sex is not is all about penetration. There are many other wonderful ways you can enjoy yourselves. Honestly, I find that sex just gets better the older you get.
‘Sex keeps wrinkles away’
John Campbell is 76 and Dr Annie Campbell is 74. They have been together for nine years after meeting in August 2013 on a dating website called Spiritual Singles. Annie’s first husband of 27 years died after an 18-month battle with cancer and she later suffered the bereavement of her second husband. John has been divorced twice. His second marriage lasted for 27 years.
The first time we met, in a London coffee bar, I happened to brush John’s hands and it was like an electric shock. We’ve been together ever since, almost 24/7 for nine years.
At that point I’d had good sex but John told me that he made love a different way – a way called Slow Sex, where there are no goals or expectations, and each partner focuses on their own sensations.
It sounds counterintuitive to not think about trying to arouse the other person but I have never experienced anything remotely as good. I will never go back to the old way.
The most effective way a woman is aroused is through her breasts, if John massages them for a long time it creates an aliveness in my body – I get multiple orgasms over my whole body. It’s so difficult to put that pleasure into words. It’s ineffable.
Conventional sex can be very rough. As a neuroscientist I understand that when you make love with a lot of friction you are triggering the fight or flight mechanism, you are also triggering the addiction circuits so you have to have more of the same thing to get the same pleasure.
Eventually people get bored, which usually happens after three or four years. That’s when sex drops off. Our way of making love triggers the tend and befriend circuits creating oxytocin circuits, which actually cements relationships. And oxytocin creates collagen – I swear I’ve got less wrinkles now than when we first met!
I think you can have sex at any age, so long as you can manage to move yourselves together in some way. John has a bad hip at the moment but we make it work. We always enjoy the feeling of each other’s naked bodies.
‘We make love every morning’
I grew up with a lot of shame around my sexuality. I got very teased about a slight curve in my penis which became a full-blown neurosis for me. I was terrified that any woman would also ridicule me and reject me. So I began drinking alcohol to ease my fear when going on a date. I never had sex without having a little drink. I was terrified.
After my second marriage ended I was lucky enough to meet a woman who showed me another way of making love. I was 67 and I thought there was something wrong with me – I was experiencing erectile dysfunction just because I couldn’t get an erection like I used to when I was eighteen. I went to see a so-called sexual expert and he said, you need to take testosterone gel and Viagra and I did all of that.
Then I met this woman and she told me to relax, that there was nothing I needed to do to please her and that all that mattered was that I focus on my own feelings and sensations and she would do the same. It was like somebody had lifted a 100kg weight off my shoulders. It completely blew my mind. I knew it was never going to be a long term relationship but we had a wonderful time and I now knew a different way of having sex. Then I met Annie. We make love every morning. We also don’t need to be in the mood – we just decide to make love and the mood develops.
We don’t argue or fight. We hear couples say that they don’t have sex because they are fighting but we think they are fighting because they are not having sufficient or satisfactory sex.
It used to be that after sex, no matter how good it was, I always felt a bit let-down. Now I never feel let down – and I don’t need any help; no alcohol or Viagra.
We laugh a lot in our love-making. We also share appreciations where we will look into each other’s eyes and say what we love about each other.
A couple of years ago we made a movie to show that you are never too old to make love. We didn’t realise how much publicity it would get and we received a lot of interest as a result.
We are very comfortable with nakedness and have no shame, though that took years for me to shed. We now work with couples of all ages to do the same.