A Late Valentine for Late Bloomers
February, with its hearts and flowers, is a great month to consider what each of us wants romantically, sensually, and sexually. After all, we are born to be creative and sensual. It’s no surprise that studies show that sex after sixty is good for us. It improves our heart health, lowers our stress, and promotes our well-being in many other ways, from decreased pain to better sleep. As Maggie Kuhn, founder of the Gray Panthers, famously proclaimed, “Learning and sex until rigor mortis.”
A woman may become more attuned to her desires at midlife, right about the time that her sexuality is ignored or reviled in Western culture. Consider the British program How Not to Get Old, which shames women past menopause who choose to claim their beauty. And remember the negative examples of midlife Disney villains like Maleficent and Ursula. The erotic power of women past menopause has long been stigmatized rather than celebrated. Society bids us be quiet just when we have plenty to say. It’s past time for that to change.
The good news is that we are seeing a shift in media portrayals. Emma Thompson’s 2022 movie, Good Luck to You, Leo Grande, is an intimate exploration of a woman in her sixties claiming her own pleasure for the first time. And the advent of the “Seasoned Romance” enables older writers to publish stories about characters their own age, instead of camouflaging their hard-won erotic knowledge in characters in their twenties.
For women of every age—younger women pushed into sexual behavior too early, and older women discouraged from claiming their sexuality—the key is agency: claiming ownership of our erotic power. And to make that happen, paying attention to our desires is as essential after sixty as it is in our youth.
So how best to navigate this erotic landscape? Start by noticing what brings us joy. Our inner vitality, entwined with the erotic, is ours throughout our lives. Our libidinal energy has nothing to do with anyone else’s opinion. How we respond to music, stars, and trees is something each of us owns. Some women past midlife express our vitality in ways that are sensual rather than sexual. When we dance, when we paint, we connect with our sensual nature and with life itself. The choices each woman makes are subject to change as she follows her bliss.
Be Your Own Valentine
Betty Dodson, the lifelong masturbation warrior, famously said that a woman’s most reliable sexual partner is herself. The quest for the perfect vibrator for older women made a big splash in the television show Grace and Frankie in 2017. The main characters create a sex toy aptly named “Menage a Moi.” How great that a television show focused on postmenopausal women developing a sex toy with lots of helpful features: glow-in-the-dark controls, easy to reposition, lightweight, and a soft grip gel sleeve.
Joan Price, who writes extensively about senior sexuality, points out that real toys can have even more features than the fictional “Menage a Moi.” These include rechargeable batteries, multiple vibration speeds, and being waterproof for use in the tub or shower. Safe, medical grade materials are important; it is a good idea to look for CE marking on sex toys. For women with arthritis, ease of use is another consideration.
Standard vibrators are not the whole story. Toys with suction, especially for the clitoris, can be a great addition to the toy bag of the sexy older woman. These toys, called “air pulse” or “clitoral suction” vibrators, provide a different sensation that is out of keeping with their appearance (which is something like a banana slug with one end cut off).
And be sure to choose lubricants that promote your enjoyment, whether you are having sex solo or with a partner. While lube is great at any time in life, it is especially helpful after menopause. Lubricants, too, differ from one another. Silicone lube may be gentler for sensitive older genitals (although not advised when using a silicone toy). The moisturizing effects of lubricants with aloe vera can be helpful (unless you’re allergic). Certain ingredients, such as glycerin and petroleum jelly, are best avoided to minimize the risk of a urinary tract or vaginal infection. Also consider whether HRT may be right for you, for many health reasons as well as sexual enjoyment.
Reclaiming Sexuality after Trauma
The effects of sexual abuse can influence our experience of sexuality for years, even decades. Survivors may be discouraged from speaking the truth of what happened and may find it difficult to acknowledge the abuse even to themselves. The #metoo movement was the beginning of survivors finding a collective voice. Yet even in that movement, stories of incest were rare; perhaps the voices of incest survivors are even harder to hear. And yet we know that finding our voice is a powerful part of healing and reclaiming our joy.
In her book, Writing Ourselves Whole: Using the Power of Your Own Creativity to Recover and Heal from Sexual Trauma, author Jen Cross tells us that when people write their stories of abuse, they break the silence they have carried and acknowledge each other as creative beings. Writing freely has the power to transform us, to bring us back to our own desires.
Women who have worked on abuse issues through therapy, through writing and other modalities, may come home to our bodies after midlife. Not that we are unchanged by our experiences, but rather that we have reclaimed ourselves. We mourn the years we lost, but rejoice in the freedom to begin again. And when we gain that freedom, the women who are “late bloomers” have more opportunities to find romantic and sexual partners than did survivors in the past.
Finding a Partner after Midlife
In her book Romance Redux, Laura Stassi writes that there are three main ways to meet new people after midlife:
- In real life, through doing things you love, like taking a class or going to church,
- By reviving connections with someone you knew in your youth,
- Or through an online dating service.
Meeting someone in real life has big advantages. You come to know the person gradually, as friends, so that you know who you are dealing with before a friendship becomes a romance. And if you are doing something you love, whether it’s oil painting or restoring cars, the time is well spent whether you meet someone or not.
Reconnecting with someone from decades ago is more common in the age of the internet. There were always high school and college reunions, but with social media, more of us are finding friends and former lovers we have not seen in decades. We revive friendships, and sometimes romance, with people we remember from long ago.
But the biggest change in the dating lives of women after midlife is the advent of online dating, a source of many possibilities. The cautionary tales are out there about women scammed by unscrupulous dates who claim to fall in love and prey on women’s wishes to find a partner. All the common sense rules apply: Meet in a public place. Get to know the person well before giving personal information, getting into their car, going to their home or inviting them to yours. Never give money to someone you’re dating. Even those who are not overt scammers may misrepresent their background or intentions. And just as in everyday life, some on these sites harbor prejudice against older women, women of size, women of color. Online dating requires a skeptical nature and a tough skin.
On the other hand, there are real people online who are well intentioned and honest about what they seek, whether a long-term relationship or a one-night stand; a monogamous or polyamorous arrangement; and whether they are gay, straight or bisexual. Be sure that you understand your own goals so that you can find potential partners who are sympatico, with the understanding that what you want (and what others want) can change with time.
Ageism in Dating
To be comfortable with dating after sixty requires that we heal our Inner Ageist. We may think we accept our bodies, but what comes up when we allow a new lover to see our breasts, our bellies, as they are now? And when we meet someone new and begin to cultivate physical intimacy, how will we feel about the evidence of age on that person’s physique?
Think about this ahead of time. Appreciate your own naked body, tell yourself what you like about it. And when the time comes, look for what you like about your new lover’s body. They have swum in the cultural ageist soup all their lives too. Tell them what appeals to you about what you see.
Sexual Expression in Long-Term Relationships
Relationships meet our needs for security and for passionate connection—two powerful human needs that are somewhat contradictory. When we first meet a prospective partner, passion is foremost. The unknown is captivating; it spurs us to explore. Fast forward twenty or forty years of domestic life, and novelty has largely been replaced by security. We know how kind our partner is, how steadfast, and we also know their habits, their bodily functions, and their foibles.
To maintain passion requires that we see our partners once again as new. This may mean sitting in the audience when they give a talk, observing how engaged others are in what our lover has to say. Or it may require spending the occasional weekend apart, coming together again to share adventure stories.
Those of us in long-term relationships are in them for a reason. Something about the other person entices us. Underneath the domestic routines of days and years, that extraordinary human being is with us, still present, still sexy. We love them, yes, and we can rediscover their sublime nature and keep our passion alive.
Like all of us now in our sixties and seventies, older Lesbians grew up at a time when sexual behavior by unmarried young women was shamed and shunned. In addition to that socialization, Lesbians of our generation came of age when being gay was widely regarded as the result of mental health issues. Many Lesbians now in their sixties and seventies were caretakers for gay men with AIDS. Many were part of the movement to extend marriage rights to LGTBQ+ Americans. Pride in Lesbian identity required a long struggle.
For these women, many of whom maintain close and loving relationships for decades, novelty and separateness can be important. Making a sex date and anticipating the joy ahead, adding toys to sex play, and beginning with slow dancing can all add romance to the occasion.
Choices in Our Sixties
It is no secret that there are more women than men in our sixties, and that discrepancy grows larger the longer we live. For those of us whose history is heterosexual, finding a partner in our sixties may require creative approaches. Which approach works best is different for different women, and for each of us over time.
- Perseverance: The old saying is true: You really must kiss a lot of frogs to find a prince. But kissing frogs can be fun if you only kiss the ones with prince potential.
- Curiosity: Date someone outside your comfort zone to find out where your comfort zone really is. Perhaps you wonder whether you might be bisexual. Consider dating women and see what that experience is like. Perhaps you are curious about polyamory and are ready to date someone in an open relationship. If you’ve always dated people in the professions, consider dating someone in the trades (or vice versa). Dating someone unexpected can bring much novelty to a friendship.
We live longer than ever and have more choices than ever. After age sixty we have outlived the possibility of pregnancy and, for most of us, the children are grown and fledged. Whether we have long been sexually engaged or are just now blooming into sexual life, sensuality and sexuality can be a fabulous part of our juicy lives after sixty.
Valentine’s Day: Let’s celebrate all year. It’s not just for February any more.