London - When author Deborah Moggach, 65, announced last week that her latest novel, Heartbreak Hotel, contains “lots of undignified middle-aged sex”, my first instinct was to bristle.
Not at the notion of middle-aged sex, but at the so-called indignity of it. The assumption seemed to be that indignity is exclusive to middle-aged or oldie sex, while I’d contend that sex at any age isn’t exactly dignified.
How on earth can anyone be expected to retain the serious composure that dignity requires while writhing in sexual ecstasy?
I think Deborah Moggach’s real point, though, was that rather than sweeping later-life sex under the carpet, or sneering at it, or even recoiling in horror at the very notion of it, we should be embracing, celebrating and - yes - sometimes even laughing at it.
What she went on to say is that she wants to read books and see movies that counter the myriad fictional and Hollywood outpourings aimed at those she calls of “foetal age”. Her own earlier bestseller, These Foolish Things, was adapted for the film The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Featuring a group of adventurous, life-battered but still lustful oldies, it proved a huge hit.
Films and books that speak to older people, she said, “don’t have to be all about dementia and stuff; they could just be about the fact you make the same old mistakes as you did when you were younger. You fall in love, you’re jealous; same joy, same everything - you’re just a bit more wrinkly”.
This seems to me to be important. Women in their 40s, 50s, 60s and beyond don’t want to be sexually sidelined, any more than they want to be sidelined by fashion or in the workplace or by life in general.
Sex with cellulite and stretch marks might not look as good as sex without but, as I’ve discovered, it’s just as satisfying. And it ought to be acknowledged as a lifetime, not just a primetime, pleasure. In movies, in books, on TV and in society as a whole.
There’s still a taboo around sex and older people, which needs to be broken. Whenever I’ve talked or written about rediscovering the joy of sex in my mid-50s - and continuing to enjoy it now that I’m over 60 - I’ve been praised by some for my honesty.
But just as often I’ve been accused of showing off - and even of telling downright lies, on the basis that it’s simply not possible to have great sex so late in life.
What happened with me was by chance. My husband left me when I was 55, after a 23-year relationship in which, during the latter years that we were together, the sex had dwindled away to the point where I felt there was a gaping chasm between us in the double bed we still shared.
When, a year after our separation, I met the man who became my partner and has been for the past five years, sparks flew. Not just sexual sparks - in fact those took some time to build, and it was three months before I felt ready to have sex with him - but emotional and intellectual sparks.
He made me laugh. We never ran out of things to talk about. He was considerate. And he was entirely at ease with his own flawed body. More importantly, for my damaged confidence, he was entirely accepting of mine. “The sexiest women,” he told me, “are those who are happy in their own skin, regardless of their shape or size. Be happy with what you’ve got and I’ll be happy, too.”
In truth I was never much of a sex bomb. Attractive, certainly, but shy both in and out of bed. I was never short of boyfriends but neither did I give men the come-on. It’s only been within this late-flowering relationship that I have sexually blossomed, that my age has become irrelevant, that my body hang-ups (so long as I’m making love by candlelight) have disappeared.
It was good from the beginning, but the sex goes on improving as we get to understand one another better. Less frequent, less frantic, but more intense, more playful, more meaningful.
When I make love I feel as though I’m 17 again. Afterwards I don’t look at my lover, who’ll be 60 next year, and home in on his wrinkles or the grey hairs on his chest. I don’t think “old man”. I think “lucky me; lucky us”.
Sex, as you age, can become both less - and more - complicated, depending on your circumstances. There’s no one-template-fits-all when it comes to sex and couples, and individual sex drives vary hugely.
It has become less complicated for me because I am in a relationship that is still relatively new, my partner and I both have relative good health and sexual energy, and with just the two of us in the house (our various children live independently) we are free to make love when - and where - we wish.
Though, as an older couple, the comfort of the double bed has always struck us both as more alluring than the fantasy of less cushioned locations around the house.
Every situation is different, depending not just on whether you are long-term married or back on the dating scene as a single woman, but on your personal attitude towards sex, as well as your past experience of it.
So many of my women friends have found themselves single again in their 50s and 60s. For some, sex is daunting. One, who has avoided emotional and sexual intimacy since her marriage ended ten years ago when she was 50, has finally met a man via the internet who she both likes and fancies - and is disappointed that he seems to want her as a friend rather than a lover.
“But it’s lovely to go to a movie or a restaurant with him, and I’ll just have to content myself with that until someone else comes along,” she says. “Who knows, perhaps I’ll never have sex again.”
By contrast, another woman I know, now 64, has been internet dating for eight years, been out with well over a 100 men and slept with more than a dozen of them.
She was devastated when her husband left and would love to find “the one”, but in the meantime, her sex life has never been better.
And a third friend, who is 63 and still smarting from a recent divorce from the man she married 40 years ago, decided to throw caution to the wind and have sex over the May Bank Holiday with the friendly gardener at her holiday apartment block in Mallorca.
“Sex at midnight, on a beach towel under the stars, with a man who has a six-pack and is young enough to be my son,” she told me, her eyes sparkling mischievously.
“Outrageous I know. Undignified, perhaps. But it briefly made me feel fabulous - and I haven’t felt fabulous at all of late.
“I’m not getting any younger. Some of my friends have died or got cancer. To hell with not having a good time.”
If late-life singles of my acquaintance are willing to talk about sex, long-married couples are understandably more circumspect. “There’s a lot of love there,” one friend, who recently celebrated her 40th anniversary and is in her mid-60s, told me, “but no passion.
“We’ve become too alike, too enmeshed, there’s no sexual tension. I’m wistful, but not miserable. Our life together is great. We still work, we enjoy each other’s company, we have money for travel and adore our grandchildren. Sex I can live without. To be honest I don’t even miss it any more.”
For another couple I know in their 50s, mismatched libidos have been resolved by a combination of sex therapy and Viagra. “I wanted sex; he didn’t,” she told me. “Or rather he did want it, but he couldn’t. Our routines had become too familiar.
“It was embarrassing at first, but because we both desired the same outcome, ultimately the therapy worked and we could joke about the homework we were given. Our invigorated sex life has given us an extra zing all round.”
The list of things that can get in the way of good sex as we age can seem depressingly long. Hormonal problems in women and loss of confidence in the way we look; prostate problems and erectile dysfunction in men; energy issues and his irritating habits; lack of intimacy out of bed, leading to lack of desire; boredom on one or both sides.
Some of these issues can be resolved with medical help; some with therapy; some, perhaps, if you are both willing, with learning new ways of pleasuring one another - ways that involve loving sensuality without full sex.
Many older couples continue to enjoy one another sexually without chasing the holy grail of orgasm. What’s important is to allow quality time for intimacy, whatever form it takes.
Of one thing I am certain: if you’re worried about your dignity as you age, you’ll never enjoy true rapture.
To retain your dignity at the start of the sexual act your clothes would have to glide off like they do in books - but in real life zips get caught and skinny jeans, which we oldies also wear, get thwarted around the ankles and demand serious yanking.
This is not a dignified procedure, especially if you are inclined to start shouting at your partner, as I have been known to: “Pull harder. Harder I said!” before bursting into laughter and rather dampening the moment of desire.
As for him, he’d certainly have to remember to remove his socks before his pants for any semblance of dignity to remain.
To maintain your dignity during the act, sex would have to resemble fantasy rather than reality. Our bodies would be the lithe, toned and honed bodies of young movie stars, performing a perfectly harmonious ballet rather than an awkward, arrhythmic jig. As arrhythmic as our ageing hearts.
To hang on to your dignity after the act you would have to remain lovingly entwined, not panting like thirsty dogs, or with him rolling over and snoring within seconds.
Good sex, in other words, doesn’t give a damn for dignity. You’re too busy enjoying it to worry if you’re looking the part or keeping your composure.
When it comes to portraying mature relationships that include both good and bad sex, I’m with Deborah - but I don’t want to read graphic descriptions of wrinkly groping.
I want to read and talk about sex that is portrayed with emotional honesty, with just enough detail that I understand the implications but not so much that I’m put off my morning porridge.
I want to share the humour and the pathos, both of which grow as we age. And I want to carry on having good sex - sex that is about loving and giving and receiving, and which enhances my life - for just as long as I can. And I don’t care who winces when I say so. - Daily Mail