On Sex, Aging, and Living Erotically — Part I

A conversation with Esther Perel

Posted Mar 17, 2018

On sex, aging, and living erotically is the second piece of a three-part series about sex and aging. It features a two-part interview with Esther Perel, psychotherapist and the New York Times best-selling author of The State of Affairs and Mating in Captivity. Esther produces and hosts the hit podcast, Where Should We Begin? Her latest project, Rekindling Desire 2.0, is a curriculum of e-courses for couples and individuals looking to keep the spark of vitality alive in their relationships, launching this spring at EstherPerel.com

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Karen Harms, 2017
Source: Karen Harms, 2017

Esther Perel has good news for you: affairs be damned, sex after sixty might be the best sex of your life, and you can have it more selfishly and unapologetically than ever.  In my conversation with sex therapist Esther Perel, author of Mating in Captivity, and most recently, The State of Affairs, we explore why—the science and psychology behind it, how society tries to interfere, and why living erotically benefits sixtysomethings beyond just the boudoir.

Christina Parker: [CP]: What impact has increased longevity had on sex, relationships, and infidelity?

Esther Perel [EP]: It’s not just longevity, right? It’s longevity and health. In order to engage in all of this, you need to have the physical and emotional bandwidth to indulge it.  For example, if you are going to the doctor every day, preoccupied about your health, sex probably isn’t a priority.  So, I think as a whole, it’s longevity combined with an appreciation for what individuals want and where they are. We make relational choices well into our later life—the third age as we call it in French.

It’s unlikely that longevity in other parts of the world has had the same effect on sexuality as it has here [in the United States]. Here where we are at the same time living longer and asking ourselves; 'What do I want?' and at the same time looking at our partner, asking ourselves; 'Do I want this for another 20 years? Is this it? Is there more in life?'  I’m not sure those questions are part of the existential questioning of people all over the world. They are characteristic of individualistic societies. So, with increased longevity, we get to know what we want, and sexuality tends to gets better.  

CP: Exactly. 

EP: Generally, sexuality improves with self-acceptance, experience, and maturity and therefore, age. Not the libido, not the acrobatics, but the quality of the experience— the connection and the meaning of it. Sex improves when you free yourself from sexual shame and guilt, heal from sexual wounds, become more confident and less insecure and apologetic. In short, when you can engage intimately with yourself and with your partner, sexual satisfaction gets better.  It doesn’t have anything to do with the positions, frequency, number of orgasms, or any of the classic measures of the perfect performance industry. So by definition, the older you are—if you’re healthy—the better the experience. Do you agree with this?

CP: Completely. Almost every bit of research on the matter points to sexual satisfaction  and positive affect increasing with age. It’s Laura Carstensen’s idea of socioemotional selectivity—that as our time horizons shrink, and as we inch closer to death— we tend to bias more emotionally meaningful experiences. That bias may enrich our interpersonal and sexual relationships.   

CP: You mentioned something earlier that I’d like to follow up on—this idea of: 'Well, I’ve got 20 – 30 more years of life, is this really what I want? Is this really the other human being I want to spend this time with?'  And you said, or suggested at least, that this existential questioning may be a uniquely Western experience. Why?

EP:  For the same reason that the word ‘self’ is not part of many African cultures.  The concept of the self— the self that needs to build itself, that we need to define – Who am I? What am I?  is essentially western. When you live in a collectivist society, you are part of an embedded social network, which assigns your identity. You don’t have to go figure it out. 

So, this is the foundation of individualism.  You have the freedom to define who you are but the loneliness and uncertainty of having to do it yourself.  It’s both. In many cultures, it’s not that people don’t ask: 'What do I want and what do I like?'—but it isn’t part of the constitutive experience of becoming someone.  It’s more of: 'What is expected of me? 'and, 'What do other people need?'

It reminds of my work with mixed couples who were contemplating intermarriage.  North Americans would often say something like: 'You need to do what’s right for you.'

And that means you should not let other people influence you. And the patients would say: 'How can I do what is right for me without considering the consequences of how it affects others? There is no ‘what’s right for me’ that exists separately from my experience with others. ' There is no 'what makes me happy if it makes the ones I love unhappy' when you are part of collective, communal thinking.

CP: How do you think attitudes and beliefs toward sex and infidelity tend to change with age?

EP:  The question of how sexuality and age are related, to me, is determined by how youth-focused you are. If you are really youth-focused—as a person or as a society—then you probably think more negatively about sex in later life. The more youth focused we are, the more we look at age as one massive decline.

CP: Exactly! 

EP:  You know, traditionally, women often talked about menopause as a time of decision. Either it was: 'That’s it, I don’t have to anymore – I’m done. Fertility is over therefore, sexuality is over.'  Your sexuality was so linked to your fertility. It was this idea of, 'That’s it, the shop is closed. Leave me alone. Let’s head to our own beds.' 

Or [emphatically], it became: 'Finally don’t have to worry about pregnancy. I don’t have to deal with menstruation anymore – I can finally focus on myself—I’m liberated from motherhood. I’m liberated from all of the consequences of sex related to motherhood and I can be a woman.'

Women in my office would part at this crossroads. Some choose to close up shop for good. Others say: 'Now me. I’ve been taking care of everybody else, now it’s my turn.'

Others express sexual assertiveness for the first time, saying: ‘I’ve developed every other part of my life. That’s the one dimension of me I’ve never really explored and attended to – I would like to develop this [sexual] part of me’ and they’d become deeply interested in that side of themselves.

I see different patterns with men.  If you work with Barry McCarthy you know—that for most couples after 65, the decision to stop having sex is almost always the man’s decision. Many men at that stage are on some meds, either for prostate, diabetes, blood pressure, SSRIs and they all have sexual side effects affecting erectile functioning.

CP:  The man’s decision – yes mostly because of erectile dysfunction (ED) and unpredictable erections.

EP: That’s right. And I think it’s an incredible thing because that, of course, has to do with what he thinks makes for good sex and if his performance—his penile performance— is impaired, he forgets he also has hands, and lips, an entire body and skin of course.  As Marty Klein often says, it’s not the penis that makes decisions; it’s people who make decisions. So, again, if you are very youth-focused, you see age and sex from a narrative of decline.

CP: Yes, I love that. That’s absolutely right.

EP: If you don’t see youth as the focus or primary criterion, and instead hone in on the confidence, experience, entitlement that age brings – fully understanding that you can finally do what you want, realizing that you’ve done what you’re supposed to do, fulfilled those roles—then, I believe that sexuality often improves with age. The key is the switch from a focus on performance to a focus on experience, from outcome driven to pleasure and connection.

CP: Yes, and also seeing aging as an opportunity. An opportunity to finally explore and apply all of the data you’ve collected about yourself all these years—your preferences, your partner’s preferences…

And also as an opportunity to change the narrative. Barry [McCarthy] often talks about how myopic we are in our definition of sex, equating it with intercourse. But that’s not the only thing that counts. These non-intercourse scenarios of erotic touching and mutual masturbation— these are all very important options that I don’t think we put on the menu for older adults.

EP: That’s right, because it’s [sex] so damn genitally focused!  And this male model contributes to this as well. Foreplay 5 minutes before the real thing, the real thing is intercourse, and intercourse ends because there’s been an orgasm and it’s usually his, and when his is over, it’s done.

CP:  Right! And you can see how that devastates identity as you age. So the question is, how can we enlarge definitions of sexuality in later life, and how can enlarging those definitions enhance quality of life, attitudes toward sex, sexual self-efficacy… all of these wonderful things.

EP: Broadening the definition of sex as you do here, not just for later life, it is imperative from beginning to end.

CP: How do you think your attitudes and beliefs toward sex and infidelity have changed with age?

EP: My attitudes toward sex and my attitudes toward fidelity are not one in the same. I don’t link them together. Regarding my attitudes toward sex, the concept of sexual self-efficacy is probably one of the most important concepts I learned in my own development-- the notion that sex is an experience that you give yourself, not an experience that just happens or that your partner gives you. And, you know, I started to ask my women patients: "Do you touch yourself when you are with a partner? How are you amplifying your own experience?”

CP:  Yes, this notion of: are you turning yourself on?

EP: And that is a concept, I have to say, I really learned from Gina Ogden, especially because she, herself, is older and has done a masterful job of translating her work to women of all ages. To me she is excellent. 

She turned me on [laughs] to the realization that I turn myself on and I turn myself off and moved me away from these questions of; 'What turns me on and what turns me off?' That’s the question of self-efficacy that I think is often unknown to women.  Or at least you do to yourself when you are alone but as soon as there’s a partner, especially a male partner, he needs to do it all.

If the story women in heterosexual relationships learn is that he will give her…the men learn that they are just supposed to know what to give, and if she tells him, it means he didn’t know and was inadequate.  We have so many stale, pleasure- damning scripts we must change.

Continued in On sex, aging, and living erotically — Part II