Lust and sex, we’re constantly reminded, are far from the preserve of the young.
Just ask Dame Helen Mirren, who last year, aged 69, pronounced her sex life “great, just wonderful”; a step up from the “paranoid and empty” encounters of her youth.
Not only are happily married older couples supposedly swinging as madly from the chandeliers as their children, but the silver singles are on Tinder, too, these days, having affairs via the Ashley Madison website, or shopping till their arches drop in Agent Provocateur.
Indeed, psychologists and doctors positively urge us to “get it on” as often as possible as we get older, for the good of our mental and physical health. Moreover, a “Sex Census” in 2012, jointly funded by Relate and Ann Summers, suggested that most of us are so bogged down in our thirties and forties with mortgage payments and childcare that it’s only when we hit our fifties that all systems are truly go. Sexual confidence, it suggested, peaks between the ages of 60 and 69.
Can this riotous image of free love among the Hip Op Generation really paint the full picture? Not according to a new survey, out yesterday, which found that one in four couples over 50 never make love at all.
If this finding sounds bleak, additional research released alongside it should leave us all feeling a bit brighter. Because the “sexless seniors” who were surveyed agreed that, despite the apparently chilly nights, they couldn’t be happier – revelling in the renewed space this gave for companionship, conversation and humour to take the fore in their relationship.
Cari Rosen, editor of the website Gransnet, which carried out the research among 634 of its users, aged 51 to 85, said: “While passion is undoubtedly important for most people, it turns out that the glue in successful long-term relationships is compassion, kindness, generosity and friendship – which is advice that people of any age can use.”
Yorkshire-based housewife Clare*, 54, certainly agrees. She and John, also 54, have been married for 19 years, but haven’t been intimate for the past eight.
“It’s funny to think back on the early days of our relationship and realise how important sex was to us both then,” she says now, describing their sexual attraction and adventurous physical relationship as the “glue” that initially bound them together, after they met at work. “I always joked that I noticed his beautiful bum before I even saw his face.”
Since then, the couple have enjoyed a strong and happy marriage, despite “a few bumps in the road” – post-natal depression for Clare, after the birth of their now 18-year-old son; and, for John, being made redundant from his job in engineering at 48, which plunged him into a full-scale mid-life crisis. “But, on balance, we remain a loving and committed couple.”
Lack of sex does not equate to physical distance: “We still need the closeness of sharing a bed every night. We still kiss and cuddle up on the sofa, walk hand-in-hand, and enjoy a tactile, physically affectionate relationship.”
So why have they not made love for so long? Clare puts their sex-free existence down to jointly waning libidos. “I went off sex when I was approaching the menopause, which is not untypical. It became uncomfortable and, eventually, undesirable.
“John said he understood. He’d just been made redundant and was doing a lot of soul-searching, so I think sex was probably not much in his thoughts then anyway.
“I thought my libido would make a comeback after the menopause, but it didn’t. ‘What if it never comes back?’ I asked John in bed one night, and he said it was nothing to worry about. We’re in our fifties, we’re fit and healthy and still very much in love with each other. There’s no benefit in fretting about sex if neither of us is bothered about having it.”
Clare adds: “Sex isn’t how we love each other now; it’s no longer part of the fabric of our relationship, and that’s absolutely fine, because we both feel the same way about it.
“It’s as if we have moved to a place beyond sex. I would worry for my marriage if we weren’t tender and loving in other ways, but we are – and have always been – open with each other about our feelings.”
Not everyone approves of this surrender to non-sexuality. Arlene Heyman, a 73-year-old psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, whose new book Scary Old Sex has just been published by Bloomsbury, told the Telegraph last week: “Do not let yourself be pushed into the persona of an asexual person. That doesn’t mean flaunt your sexuality. But it’s masochism to accept less than a full life.”
Petra Boynton, a psychologist specialising in sex research, is more circumspect. “There are a number of things that connect people,” she said, in response to the 2012 survey, “but we are constantly spun this line that the glue to a relationship is sex, and without it one’s relationship will fall apart, and I think there are a lot of commercial reasons why that message is put out. That’s not just insulting, it’s pernicious.”
So what is the new “relationship glue” in Clare and John’s life?
“We used to make love until dawn in the early days. Today, we’d rather put on our boots and head up into the Dales for a long walk and a pub lunch, or catch a flight to Paris or Budapest to explore the city for a weekend.
“We both love cooking and homemaking, taking to the road in our vintage MG, spending time with our son, who’ll be leaving for university soon, and dreaming about buying a dilapidated property in France that we can renovate in our dotage.”
As all manner of sexual behaviour becomes less taboo, the irony is that not having sex at all now feels like it’s a sordid secret.
“I know people will judge the path we have chosen,” says Clare, who won’t discuss the celibate state of her happy marriage openly, even with close friends. “They will say there must be something wrong, something missing, in a sexless marriage; that there is something unnatural about our celibacy. But that’s not how we see it.
“Sex is so irrelevant to me, in fact, that I don’t even think it would be a deal-breaker if John had it with someone else. It would shock me, but it would make no sense to call time on my marriage simply because John had chosen to find, elsewhere, something that he knew wasn’t available at home.
“Anyway, I’m confident that, like me, he cherishes and respects our relationship, and would be unlikely to put it in jeopardy for something we have both grown to regard as extraneous.”
And as Dame Helen Mirren well knows, there is nothing more attractive than confidence. Even sex.
Additional reporting: Mandy Appleyard
*Some names have been changed
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