Getting Older, Getting Better

One of my favorite sex nerds, Dr. Debby Herbenick, recently retweeted something that I’ve been thinking about for a while:

Today is the 20th anniversary of the date that I met my partner. In the last two decades, we’ve both changed a lot. We’re both much more secure and solid in who we are. We’ve grown and challenged each other to overcome many of the habits that caused friction in our lives and in our connections with other people. We’ve learned many, many ways to support our relationship. And yes, our bodies have changed, too. While I’d love to have the physical resilience that I used to have, I wouldn’t trade my current life for the one I had back then. I needed that ability to bounce back- without it, I never would have survived the drama I caused myself and others.


After all of this time with my partner, I think she’s more beautiful than ever before and I’m more drawn to her than I could have imagined when we first met. And I think about the many people who stop being attracted to their partners and trade them in for someone younger. This seems to be more common for men, but I’ve also seen women do the same thing in increasing numbers. While I’m fully supportive of people creating the relationships they want and ending them when they no longer serve them, I can’t help but wonder about our tenacious grip on the idea that younger is better and how that affects things.

“To be interested in the changing seasons is a happier state of mind than to be hopelessly in love with spring.” –George Santayana

In a world that only presents the latest 18-25 year olds as sexy, it’s a challenge to not compare oneself or one’s partner with that fantasy. Personally, I’ve found that became easier when I stopped watching TV and reading the drivel that passes for news (and don’t even get me started on popular magazines). But it takes more than that. Every time you compliment someone’s appearance by telling them that they look young, you’re reinforcing the idea that we lose value as we age. I feel sadness around that because it encourages us to deny our histories, to pretend we’re something we aren’t, and to create an image of who we wish we were rather than celebrating who we’ve become. And let’s not forget that many of the cosmetic treatments to make us look younger don’t work all that well and are promoted with ads that are photoshopped like crazy. My willing suspension of disbelief snapped a long time ago.

Maybe I’ll have something different to say in another 20 years. But right now, I think that the physical expression of experience and growth is incredibly sexy. It’s an outward manifestation of the individual’s evolution. Personally, I find that much more attractive than someone who strives to look like they’re still 23. This is something that many of us have to practice. When the only images that we see define attractiveness as equivalent to youth, it can be difficult to not make comparisons.

I’ve spoken with quite a few people who are convinced that nobody will want to have sex with them because they have grey hair, or wrinkles, or scars, or stretch marks, or health concerns, or any of the other effects of age. I feel sadness that they’re so sure that they’re unattractive to others because they’re unattractive to themselves. I wonder how much of that comes from never having thought of people over a certain age as desirable. I wonder how much of that comes from the fact that so much of the breathless commentary about attractiveness (especially female attractiveness) is tied up in how young someone looks. What a waste of the incredible beauty and wisdom that surrounds us, if only we could see it.


If we are fortunate, we will have lots more time together. And someday, we may get to be like the people in this photograph. I look at it and see something to be celebrated. I also know that many people will look at it and feel disgust, shame, or squicked. So what are you going to do when you get to be that age? How are you going to feel about yourself or your partner(s)? Will you be able to be naked with your partner without feeling self-disgust or shame?

The time to start thinking about older people being sexy is right now. This is the time to stop shaming elders who express desire or who want to have sex. This is the time to stop mocking their bodies or describing them negatively. When you get older, you’ll be struggling with a lot of cultural momentum and the longer you go along with it, the harder it’ll be when you finally get around to resisting (if you do). That’s especially true for women and their partners, given the extra pressure and judgement attached to youth and attractiveness for women. But really, we’re all affected by the idea that younger is better.

Instead of thinking of someone as “looking good for their age,” how about simply letting them “look good”? Instead of telling someone that they look so young, compliment them on something specific like their hairstyle or their outfit. And instead of saying insulting things about older people’s sexuality, acknowledge the feeling as your own judgment. There’s a huge difference between “that’s gross” and “I feel discomfort.” The more we can change how we think and feel about elders and sexuality, the better off we’ll be if and when we get there.


I also highly recommend Joan Price’s book Naked at Our Age: Talking Out Loud About Senior Sex. Even if you’re not there yet, there’s a good chance that you will be and many of the sexual concerns that can arise are much easier to deal with when you aren’t surprised by them. Joan interviewed and quoted lots of medical professionals, sex educators, and therapists, so it’s like you’re getting the benefit of a whole panel of experts in one book. It’s amazing.

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10 Responses so far.

  1. Joan Price says:

    Charlie, this is a beautiful homage to your relationship, your own wisdom, and sex & aging. I would love to republish it on my blog, with your permission. I love this and I thank you.

     

  2. Mindet says:

    I think this is a really valuable idea; that acceptance of others is tied up with self-acceptance and how much better it can makes things if one just relaxes and allows hirself and others to just be.  A lovely post, thank you.

  3. David Pittle says:

    Yes! Confronted by a newly married couple in their early 80’s, I had to ask. I was a tender 38 sex therapist. Their answer, “Whether we have 1 week together or 20 years, we want it to be as good as it can be.” Great way of learning from my betters.

    I highly recommend Joan’s book and ensure that my client’s purchase it. 

  4. Excellent article!

    We are a couple in our 60s who reunited after losing track of each other for 30 years. We are thankful for having the chance to have a new life together, and have found that age hardly matters.

    We have incredible passion and love to snuggle and kiss and and hold and tease each other every day. Sometimes that leads to orgasm, sometimes not. We laugh at our bodies and find ways to work around aches and pains, or less intense arousal. The affection, the words we speak, the intensity of our gaze into each other’s eyes, those are the things that mean so much now.

  5. Beautiful and inspiring post, Charlie. I am sharing it.

  6. Becca says:

    Charlie!  I love this post!

    Although I’m under 30, I’m on a mission to feel sexy and comfortable in my body (well, as comfortable as possible) as a I age naturally.  Although I have the good fortune of having a mother who is an excellent role model in terms of loving the skin that you’re in, this goal was definitely made more solid after swimming on a Master’s swim team for a year when I was 24/25.

    The showers in the locker room were communal, so people stripped down nekked to try to get the chlorine smell off their bodies.  Women of all shapes, sizes, and ages swam on that team, so I saw a lot of real-life nudity and variation.  There was one woman on the team who was at least 65, if not older, and aside from being a total badass (because those workouts were not easy), she was totally cool with her body.

    In any case, the experience left me feeling like there is so much variation in bodies and the way bodies age, that it’s up to me to determine whether or not I feel sexy as I age.  There is no golden standard for a sexy aging body, there’s only my personal perception.

    It did wonders for my current body image, and it’s something I hope continues to inspire me to feel sexy as I get older.

    So basically, I totally agree that people should take the time to contend with what an aging body really looks like.  Because it can totally change your perspective for the better! 

  7. Patricia says:

    Yes! Loving older bodies is something many of us sex workers have been doing forever! Of course most of us get the same negative messages around sex and aging, but I definitely see more aging-body and sexuality acceptance in my sex worker communities than anywhere else. SO glad to see this articulated so beautifully! :)

  8. frank says:

    I found this seeking images of older nudes. I am a 64 year old sculptor returning in my retirement to figurative work and idly googling. When you plan an image involving telling a particular story/ presenting a world view you have to think very carefully about the people represented in what you create. What you have written has been very helpful to me in clarifying my vison. Thank you
    I know there are more aesthetically beautiful women than my partner and that there are indeed beautiful men but what I see in her is expanded by our shared experience. Life experience can be read in the bodies of humans of all ages. Sometimes this is terrible & painful to see. If you allow yourself to be fully aware of this I believe you cannot help but feel for them.
    Un picking the complexity of love and desire is fascinating. Its my job to look at people.
    I am extremely fortunate in my job.
    When I turn my full gaze on my wife I see every thing and I am still filled with desire.  
    If I can convey this in my work I will be fulfilled . Thanks again for your words

  9. Wonderful piece on sex and aging, Charlie. Just saw it reprinted on AlterNet. At 68, I feel all of what you’re talking about, having a wonderful sexual time with my partner of seven years. As you know, I’ve been photographing older people being sexual (up to 75 so far), as well as younger people, for some time. When I exhibit the photos of older people they’re always among the ones that are most enthusiastically received, which is an encouraging sign. Keep up the good work!

  10. Charlie — I was part of your audience at Catalyst Con East and since then I’ve been a fan. My work with senior women (and sometimes men) has led me to respect your excellent, ground-breaking work and that of people like Joan Price who foster sexual rights and pleasures for seniors.
    Because many who comment on your blog entries are people who are not yet in the senior category, you get lots of brave denials of age discrimination, but I suspect that’s more about trying to do the right thing than actually embracing the concept of wrinkly sex. For that reason I admire your admonition to change “that’s gross” perceptions to “I feel discomfort.” You’re not asking for a revolution in thinking, but rather acknowledging what we must accept – young people in our culture simply cannot help associating old age with decay. 
    As a bona fide senior, I feel qualified to say (and you can trust me on this) that if a man and woman have health, history, and true belief in the power of sex to increase their joy in each other, they can and will enjoy sex well into their seventies and eighties. A healthy senior man – one who knows he’s not Hugh Jackman — will see only beauty in the body of a senior woman he cares for. And there will be nothing geriatric about their sex.   
     

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