By Basil Gala, Ph.D.
In Search of Meaning
The television series “Sex and the City” depicts the lives of New York women in their late thirties and early forties, starring Sarah Jessica Parker, a woman of considerable sex appeal of the sophisticated type. The film, of the same name, and the series have met with substantial critical and box office success. It is time for script writers and film makers now to produce “Sex and the Senior.” I don’t mean anything like “Dirty Old Men,” where the sexual proclivities of the old are held up for ridicule and laughter, but more like “Terms of Endearment,” a realistic treatment of the conflicts between men and women in middle and old age, funny conflicts, also tragic. Surely romantic love and sex are primarily for the young, Tristan and Isolde pairs, who usually marry after a few years of fooling around, producing the next generation; but today gray pride allows for older people the need and the right to enjoy love and sex, if they are up to it, for simple recreation; or, as in love birds, to foster affection and cooperation for couples in their roles demanded by family and society, to whatever extent they are able to perform these roles; for example, as grandparents, or new parents, if the woman is young enough and the man still potent.
Impecunious but ambitious younger women often marry older men who are famous or wealthy; such a marriage takes care of her needs and luxuries, her children are looked after properly, the old husband is less likely to stray, leaving her to survive on welfare; also, if he dies before she does, a likely event, she will be wealthy herself to have her choice among younger men for a new husband. Thus rich old men sometimes continue to have children. My own grandfather on my mother’s side married for the third time in his seventies a widow in her forties with children. She got pregnant but the children shamed them in aborting the child. Bing Crosby raised a second family with Kathryn. “The Odd Couple” star Tony Randall married a woman in her twenties; he was in his seventies and had two children, who sadly became orphans, but wealthy ones. Billionaire Rupert Murdock of News Corporation is raising a second family, while his older sons are taking over the reins of his empire.
Today seniors are not criticized as much for wanting love and sex, even marriage and children; we’re in a liberation movement. The problem for seniors is not public criticism but private inclination. Often, due to age or illness, older people simply do not care for sex. Erections for the men are not that important in a relationship, in spite of the advertising for Viagra and Cialis. Even without an erection, a man can satisfy a receptive woman if he desires to do so; consider how lesbians make love to each other. He may not have the libido to care enough to do it, or his partner may not be attractive enough to excite him.
As we age we become less attractive, even with cosmetics, liposuction, diet and exercise. Some old people, full of wrinkles, are beautiful when they display a unique character etched on their bodies, like gnarled olive trees which have born fruit for hundreds of years. That is not the sort of beauty that stimulates sexual passion. A man’s libido is not raised by such beauty so he can perform in bed as men are expected to perform.
For older women the problem of finding a willing sexual partner is more difficult; men die younger so fewer of them are available in their age group for sex, and even fewer care to engage in it or are able to do it. In recent years some women go to poor African or Asian countries for sex with younger men who are willing to love them for money. For men, commercial sex has been around for a long time in poor countries or rich ones; sex workers are available to take care of your sexual needs, if you have any and if you want that kind of quick entertainment.
A more lasting partnership may emerge between an old wealthy person and a young one who needs financial support to get educated or simply to get ahead and survive. It’s not exactly prostitution if they like each other and both realize it’s a temporary relationship until the young person has advanced or the old person has died or lost interest in sex. When my dad was in his sixties and separated from my mother, he was approached by poor young women, who wanted that kind of relationship, but he declined; he thought such activity was undignified and dangerous. He liked to point out to old friends who got involved with young women, losing their money, health, and even their lives prematurely. A few years later, while walking in Hollywood streets for exercise, women would stop him and ask him if he wanted a date. He declined again but was puzzled that such women would offer their services to an old, obviously respectable man. Now, my mother started wearing a black dress and shawl when she turned fifty; even then she was very charming and vivacious, and when living alone, she got offers from older men for sex or marriage until she became too old and decrepit. She always declined these propositions, but she liked to brag about them.
Clearly my dad and mom were biased against senior sex, even for themselves, where most people turn a blind eye. Such a bias was prevalent in their time but is now fading. We have a way to go before this bias disappears, as we do with race prejudice; we’ll get there eventually as people realize old people are just old, not dead to the world while their bodies are still alive.
What is not fitting or proper is for old women to dress up and behave like chicks, or old men with wigs and pork bellies to strut around like young bucks. Being honest and acting your age is proper, without limiting yourself in behavior as long as you are decent and fair to others. Your partner, as old as you are or younger, should benefit from the relationship. You should promote the life of your young partners and be prepared to let go of them when they are ready to fly on their own or to other lovers. Engage in safe sex as much as you want without shame for your age; don’t let your children, relatives, or friends make you feel you are doing something wrong just because you are old.
Old or not, most of us need sex for happiness and health as long as it is safe. Sexuality goes back billions of years in our ancestors, plants first, then animals, a basic tool of evolution, mixing genes to produce new varieties of beings. Sex in plants is seen in their flowering to attract insects for pollination; in animals, displays with color and sound are often used to attract a partner for reproduction: the female becomes receptive during heat, the male courts her and mounts, ejaculates quickly–for most species coupling is all over in a minute or two. Different behavior is seen in animals that mate for life, such as penguins and other birds, when both parents are needed for the successful rearing and survival of the offspring–and in humans for similar reasons. Couples continue to court each other, kissing and fondling. Parents stay together for the sake of the children. Some couples stay together for the sake of the grandchildren, also a good reason. My parents eventually got together again for the sake of their family and lived unhappily with each other until their ends in their nineties.
Other human couples stay together because they like each other as partners in life, loving each other till the end, or remain wedded because of habit, fear of being alone, lack of adventurous spirit, many reasons. Most such arrangements usually do not involve any sexual activity. One day one partner dies, or walks away, and an old person is left alone to fend for happiness. That person may desire sex still and seek it, but cannot find it in decent contacts–a difficult challenge.
What can we advise such a person? Reach out and touch someone if you like or love them; it’s worth the trouble and the risk; it’s part of the challenge of staying alive–and living–as we age.