By Simon Sebag Montefiore, published on March 1, 1993 - last reviewed on June 20, 2012
In sending out special correspondent Simon Sebag Montefiore to researchand report on sex among the thirtysomething set, we realized there existed a new non-sequitur in the language. The term "thirtysomething" thanks to a moribund and not-quite-defunct TV show (thanks to syndicated reruns) - continues to refer to those lovable, suspender-wearing whiners of the 1980s.
What we needed to do was redefine the term: the "not-thirtysomethings" or, as we refer to them, the "thirtynothings." We don't mean that derogatorically. Rather, that since the focus has shifted with the aging baby boomers, who are now fortysomething, those in their early thirties suddenly find themselves out of the limelight to a certain extent - caught, for the moment at least, in media limbo.
Nevertheless, they are alive and well and living in paradise -enjoying an age of acquisition, feeling their oats and not shy about sowing them.
When you begin reading this article, imagine you can hear a clock ticking, like a time bomb. The decade from 30 to 40 years old is the period when everyone is suddenly aware that time is passing faster and faster. I spoke to many people in their thirties about their sexuality, and I don't think there was a single person who did not mention time.
Thirty is the age that dares not speak its name. If sex is a war between male and female, power and trust, orgasm and death, commitment and adventure, then today's early thirtynothings may be living in a kind of no-man's land on the battlefield of sex: Teenagers are in the trenches, twentysomethings are the cavalry, and people in their forties and older are far behind the lines at headquarters. But the young thirties are something of a forgotten race - unsure whether to return to their lines, and with the cavalry, or simply wait for the war to end.
Unfairly, the sexes are perceived very differently if they are unmarried in their thirties: single men are envied as strutting predatorial bachelors without the slightest pressure to get hitched, while single women are simply "left-on-the-shelf" products whom everyone tries to introduce to any single man they know.
In America, the country that invented feminism, there is an "age-ism" -which is really sexism - that implies that real beauty rests in teenage looks. (Ironically, in Europe, the traditional home of chauvinism, there has always been a cult of the earthy, knowing, sensual, and utterly attractive thirtynothing woman, which alters the way men and women of that age are treated in real life.) But it turns out that - despite the media images of youth as "Adonis culture" (hard waists; big breasts and biceps), the risk of AIDS, the miseries of divorce, and the fear of being "on the shelf" - today's thirtynothings, especially women, are enjoying a concealed festival of sexuality. While the MTV culture condemns them to grim silence (relegated to "soft-rock" radio stations and VH1), the thirtynothings are having the time of their sexual lives. My mission was to discover whether thirtynothing sex was different from twentysomething sex. In addition, to answer these important questions: Does marriage improve sex, end it, or lead to extramarital affairs? Has AIDS affected the love life of the thirtynothings in the same way it has the twentysomethings? Are the thirties the woman's decade? Do divorcees in their thirties face celibate loneliness or the ultimate liberation? For this I canvassed a random sampling of 30 to 40 people from around the country, in different careers and from different backgrounds, married and single, religious and not.
Roberta is an attractive pediatrician from Philadelphia, 34, who loves her career, works very hard, possesses a bustling cheerful energy that is as sexy as it is wholesome. She finished an eight-year relationship with an older man two years ago and laughs when I ask if she wishes she were married.
Roberta: "Not exactly. You want to know the truth about sex in the thirties? It's the best. I dreaded the end with Eric. I mourned for weeks. Of course I'd have married him. I was dying to get married. I yearn to get married now. But I have my own career. I don't need a man in the traditional way. But lately, I've been dating the most in-appropriate guys. It's my right - guys without jobs, younger guys, even really dumb guys with great bodies who were 21 years old. I mean I haven't had sex like that since I was 21! It's difficult to suddenly go back to a nice marriageable guy of my age after that. I guess folks in their thirties just say: Let the games begin! And boy, they do!"
Scott, 37, a New York advertising executive who got married three years ago, puts it another way: "I know what I like now. That makes the sex you have in your thirties the best, whether you're married or not. And women my age know what they like. That's sexy. It's as if there's no hanging around anymore - they're less inhibited than at any other age. But this goes for both sexes; we're all scared of time ticking, so why beat around the bush? Sex now is the best. This is the icing on the cake."
More Sex, Less Safe
Do thirtynothings practice safe sex in "this day and age" - that euphemism for the AIDS era that I discovered in my previous article on sex amongst the twentysomethings? Since they are older and (supposedly) more responsible, I expected to find that singles in their thirties practice safer sex than any other group. While the twentysomethings are a generation formed by fear, who feel deeply guilty when they do not use condoms (which is often), the thirtynothings are even more oblivious to the danger. The twentysomethings at least have the shame (if we can call it that) to lie to their parents, lovers, and friends about condom use; the thirtynothings apparently do not he at all.
"It's far too late to start that!" was the usual response from men, as if safe sex was like a healthy diet. The women were even less aware of it. Their general response was: "I hate those things. Besides, he was younger. As if their lover's youth were some sort of shield. If their boyfriend was divorced, the general comment was: "Look, Jim's fine. He's been married for five of the last ten years!" If they are divorced themselves, the women answer: "After what I've been through, don't expect me to live in a nunnery."
The whole culture which came of adolescence in the '70s and '80s was built around promiscuity, from James Bond to the Rolling Stones, from Jack Kennedy to Warren Beatty. It is difficult to change in midstream, and the thirtynothings were just getting a taste for the apple when it rotted in their hands.
This attitude is partly the result of the fact that the safe-sex campaign is aimed at teenagers and twentysomethings, presuming (wrongly, as it turns out) that thirtynothings are more responsible and less promiscuous. On the contrary, thirtynothings (single ones) told me that they have far more sex now than they did as teenagers. Why?
I talked to Jane, 37, a consumer-affairs reporter in Chicago, who divorced her husband, Ron, in 1992: "I guess we're more desperate. I could kid you with stuff about women's later sexual peak - I know that's true. But I think it's just because time is ticking and I've got to take advantage of it while I've got it. I don't have one relationship at the moment. I've done that and I'm having a great time, better than ever before."
Jane's answer to the condom question? "I usually insist but the guys never want to." Martin, 39, is a graphic designer in Miami who has never been married, always has a girlfriend, and thinks it may be time to get married ("I'd like kids"): "Look, I should probably use a condom, but it's just too late now. I'm not even sure I could do it with a condom. I'm stuck in a time warp - I was at Studio 54, I had a wild time in the '80s and I figure, if I've got it, I've got it; and if I do have it, I don't even want to know!"
Of course, the ones who are most afraid of AIDS and are fully aware of the importance of safe sex are those who are least at risk - the happily married couples who are faithful and sit tight in the warm castle of marriage, which they imagine is surrounded by all manner of threats, seducers, and deadly diseases. Josh, 36, an investment banker, cuddles his pregnant wife and shivers as he looks back at his single days: "I'm so glad I'm married and safe. I was scared of getting AIDS when I was single because I enjoyed the scene, the bars. One thing terrified me more than anything - not the actual dying, but the thought of dying foolishly from an unsatisfying, silly encounter with a woman whom I hated the next morning."
Only the Good Look Young
Three traditions are increasingly extinct amongst the thirtynothings: dating, foreplay, and the outdated need to marry in order to have children. "I don't date," says Martin. "Everyone's so obsessed with diet, weight, what health club you're a member of, whether you eat red meat, and whether you've seen the latest TV show. Thirtynothings just end up telling each other how young they are. It makes me sick."
Most of the single thirtynothings I interviewed had given up the good old all-American date - that familiar tradition designed for two people to investigate one another before going further. The date has died of the "youth pantomime," which is the sad and comical result of the Adonis cult and is practiced by many segments of our society; although the thirtynothings appear to be its most avid experts.
Roberta: "So many women in their thirties have been so intimidated by advertising that they are desperate to look and sound young. That's why I gave up dates. What's the point of sitting there with one person saying, 'I'm young,' and then the other one saying, 'I'm young, too.' It's humiliating."
As for motherhood, Jennifer, 38, sums up her feelings: "What women in their thirties need these days is a kid, not a man. I've had what you might call an active love life since I was 15, and I still do. I know who the father is, but I'm with a different guy now, so why should I parade around his name as if I'm scared without it? I'd have given my right hand to fall in love and marry a guy and have kids, but it didn't happen and I'm almost 40 so I got pregnant. It's the best thing I ever did."
Sex and Marriage The majority of people in their thirties are married or have been married, but since divorce is more common than ever before, there are more single thirtynothings today than ever before. Many of the married couples I spoke to have fantastic sex lives - even if none of them have sex as much as they did when they were single - and are blissfully happy. Amongst married couples, the biggest lie I found, passed man to man and woman to woman, is that they are all having lots of sex. Several married couples admitted that they imply to their friends that they have far more sex than they actually do.
Brent and Lisa, both 31, have been married for four years, have a daughter, and live in Detroit. He works in the auto industry and she works in hotels. Brent: "When you're married, there's no pressure to do it when you don't want to or are tired. We have great fun when we do. When I go out, sure, I look, but it's great not having to chase girls anymore."
Lisa: "When we were living together, we had sex every night. Now it varies, but usually it's a treat on Sunday, once a week. We know each other so well it's always great. I don't lie to my friends about it, but I do sort of imply that we do it a bit more than we do. I don't know why, because we're probably all lying to one another.
The big question is: Can a marriage be truly happy without sex?
Stephanie, a 34-year-old public-relations powerhouse who is itching to get married (the guys always seem to run away), sees boring sex as the price of happy marriage: "If I'm going out with a guy, I won't stand for bad sex. If the guy needs guidance, it's curtains. The only circumstance in which I'd put up with bad sex is in a relationship that'll end in marriage. If I was married, I'd get used to bad sex."
Pat, who married at 23 and is still happily married 10 years later, is an investment banker, outgoing, a sportsman, who has always hinted at his vigorous sex life with his wife, Kelly. Pat does not usually confide about sex, but when I told him I was writing this article, he dropped this bombshell: "You won't believe this, but we simply don't have sex anymore. On holidays we do, but really only to convince each other. I mean, we talk as if we had good sex. I guess we're happy, but it suddenly occurred to me that a chunk of my life that used to be real important to me is dead. Maybe it's the cost of being happy."
Kelly. "After about five years, we stopped doing it. Maybe we're just not sexual people. Some people are, some people aren't; but I feel I could be more. We go skiing in Vail every year and share a house with our best friends. The walls there are paper thin and, as we he there, we can hear them making love - real noisy, shouting and grunting. If we're at home, Pat is as quiet as a mouse when we make love. Not a whisper. But when we're in Vail, he grunts and screams which is great. I guess it turns him on hearing them. Or else he's into the competition thing."
The Fornication Express
The blonde does not look like a married woman. That is the first rule of being married, being in your 30s, and living in the '90s: never look married. Married is dull even if marriage is healthy. Linda, 35 (but looks 28) is a tanned Californian visiting New York City.
Brad, 31, single, met her at an Irish bar with a group of friends from work. He persuaded her to go dancing. At the end of the evening, outside his apartment, they kissed on the stairwell.
Linda: "I haven't kissed anyone since I was married, two years ago. We fooled around. I let him touch me because I figured that's okay. That's not sex. Then I went home. But he made me promise to have tea with him at home next day. I guess I shouldn't have gone."
Brad: "Why else would she agree to come unless she wanted to have sex? The moment she arrived we started fooling around, and spent the whole day in bed. We did everything but. She was very cute, and it was a big turn-on that she belonged to another man, that it was illicit. She really believed she had not been unfaithful."
Linda: "I really want the marriage to work, but we were having financial problems and job problems and I just had to get away, so a month in New York was good for me. Brad helped a lot. I don't know if the marriage will last but, you know, I didn't give myself a hundred percent. I mean, not really. So I didn't have to lie to my husband."
The story is typical of the infidelities of a thirtynothing couple because it contains: a) a rocky marriage haunted by money worries, job worries, and angst about aging; b) a transcontinental trip to think things through that has become the staple of the '90s relationship (one married woman told me rather proudly that she called the flight from L.A. to New York "The Fornication Express"); c) condoms were not even mentioned; and d) Linda denied the affair had really happened, while shamelessly enjoying its benefits.
A Thousand Days of Desire
Barbet Schroeder, the film director, said that, even in marriage, sexual attration only lasts a thousand days, but that love can last forvever. Of course, the figure is absurd, but, whatever the life span of desire, it often ends in the 30s. What happens when it ends?
When I visited an upscale strip bar in New York, in which thirtynothing men provide the overwhelming percentage of the clientele, I discovered there are harmless, if extremely bland, ways to find some fun without breaking the marital vows. I talked to Kevin, an attorney with a small firm, who is about 35 years old and happily married. His wife knows he goes to strip joints after work: "She thinks it's a boys' thing. For me, it's a relaxing way to have a beer, and the girls are cute as hell. She knows we guys need some entertainment every now and then. Even if I could, I wouldn't touch' em."
The clubs exist on the premise that nothing illicit happens there. Hence, the very '90s concept of "lap-dancing," wherein a stripper sits in a man's lap and shakes her breasts in his face, while he enjoys the gyrations without touching. Yet while the implant-enhanced women appeared quite bizarre and borderline attractive, the bigger and more unnatural the breasts appeared, the louder the men shout and yahoo.
Ladies Start Your Engines
The biggest difference in sexual practices between the twenties and thirties lies in the behavior of the women, not the men. Partly, I believe this is the result of the sexual revolution that made it completely acceptable for women to pursue their own desires.
The thirties is the decade when the office becomes a major component in the fives of most women and men these days, especially if they are married. Often the marriage itself becomes a threesome: husband, wife, office. Of course, the office has always provided a wealth of secret opportunities for men, hence that very thirtynothing alibi for infidelity - "working late at the office." Ironically, many men and women (who would never truly be unfaithful) become "married to the office" (another thirtynothing cliche), because they have no great desire to return home to their spouses.
The change in the '90s is not that sex is happening in the office, but that nowadays it is women in positions of power who are acting as the predators. This is the first decade where there are scores of women in the top echelons of most companies. Like men, the women begin to reach senior positions in their thirties, offering plenty of opportunities for a new sexual formula. (How long before a man brings a case of sexual harassment against his female boss?)
Geoff is a 27-year-old associate in a big Wall Street law firm. His boss, Kim, is a tall, forbidding 35-year-old, a cruel taskmaster engaged to a partner in his forties. Geoff always enjoyed following her along the corridors in her tight-fitting, short-skirted business suits, but was terrified of her too.
Geoff: "At the party the senior associates give for the first years, we went dancing and she didn't dance with anyone except me. I barely dared speak because she's the terror of the firm. Finally, she just says, 'Let's go somewhere else!' So we go to another club and dance until we're sweaty and drunk. Then she pulls me over and says, 'Kiss me.' So I'm wondering if she's gonna fire me if I try to go any further. I decide it's better not to so she makes every move. She makes me take her home. She gives all the orders. We make love for hours. She says she has to be hard at work because she's determined to be a partner and a woman has to be that much better than a man to make it. But, she joshes, I am her reward, her prerogative. Next day, she says hello with a nice smile, but it's all business. We never mentioned it again."
Shelly, 38, is a fit, long-legged real estate broker with an eternal tan who loves her husband and children. She relays a common frustration among women: "I can't believe how long I spent being a little lady, waiting for guys to hit on me, never doing a thing until we'd had at least four dates. I was like that until I turned 30 and thought, why shouldn't I live like men always live? It takes you until you're thirtish to be free about what you want."
But there is a balance between the sudden celebration of sexual jubilation of the Kims and the Shellys of this world and the miserable, lonely feeling of creeping age coupled with a culture that so elevates every part of young erotic energy. The books of Madonna, the videos on MTV, the photos of Cindy Crawford and models in Vogue and on television have all taken their toll.
Cornelia, 39, talked to me the week her divorce from her husband, Harry, came through about what she calls "the erotic dictatorship.' She learned suddenly that he had a young girlfriend and was leaving her for this nubile: "My nightmare rival came to life in the young girls in "Beverly Hills 90210" I was jealous of her. I knew she was 25 and I just felt and still feel so inadequate, so...old. It's so unfair. How can I compete? I hate all these videos. They make watching television agony."
The other difficult part of the thirtynothing experience is finding out who you really are before it is too late. Again, everyone I spoke to mentioned a sense of time ticking. Just as the women I've quoted discovered their true sexual calling, so Julia recently discovered her husband's calling was towards his own sex.
Julia's husband, Ted, is the most conventionally straight guy imaginable. At the time they were married, it never occurred to her that Ted was gay. Maybe it never occurred to Ted either. He says simply: "Id always had feelings, but my parents wanted me to marry, my colleagues at the firm expected me to marry, and I wanted to marry too, to have kids. In fact, I wanted to stay married. But as my thirties went on, I felt that it wasn't the real me and that I was wasting my youth on a false premise. I couldn't tell Julia but I really wanted her to know."
Julia: "I felt de-womanized by his leaving me for another man. So here I am, married for life, but now suddenly single with a big problem: I just don't know how to trust men after Ted. I can't really forgive him. I'm 38 and I don't want to be alone."
Time is still ticking. Time is passing. The sound of passing time is so deafening to the thirtynothings that they are more afraid of age than they are of death from AIDS. Hence, they will be the last generation who play on, condomless, at their game of sexual roulette while younger generations fear death itself. But the thirtynothings, especially women, are also the first generation to really enjoy the benefits of the feminist and sexual revolutions together, so they can climb up corporate ladders, hunt in the office, have marital affairs - just as men always have. But if this piece has a theme, it is that despite the Adonis cult that dominates U. S. culture today, the 30s is the golden age of sexuality, the feast at which both sexes - having learned the mistakes of the past and knowing what pleases them now - collect the glittering prizes before they are gone forever. Or as Roberta puts in biblically, "It's the knowing that's sexy about being in your thirties. We're like Adam and Eve - we've eaten of the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, and we like both."
ILLUSTRATIONS (3): (TIM GABOR)