On Sex, Aging, and Living Erotically: Part II

A conversation with Esther Perel.

Posted Mar 26, 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

Continued from: On sex, aging, and living erotically — Part I

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

EP: [...] And then there’s infidelity. I think that there is a tendency to see infidelity only as a form of betraying another person and very little consideration given to the idea that maybe it is also a form of remaining authentic to one’s self.  What do you do when your partner is utterly not interested in sexual intimacy anymore?  Or, can’t? Or says, ‘I don’t care If I never have sex again in my life.’ Do you simply say, ‘Well, you can’t have everything—my partner has closed that off and that’s it.'?  Or, do you have permission somewhere, that says: ‘I won’t live without it because there’s a sense of aliveness and vitality that resides there that I am not prepared to live without.'?

People can live without being sexual, but they can’t live that well without being touched.

CP:  Well said.   

EP: I also think that the people who do remain sexual are probably even more vital. 

CP: What else differentiates those who are aging successfully, vitally, from those who aren’t?

EP: I think that it [staying sexual] makes you take care of yourself differently. I think that when you continue to see yourself as attracted and as desired you take care of yourself differently. This is an observation, not empirical evidence. I really have to answer anecdotally; I could be very biased. But there is something about being desired and desiring that keeps you in touch with the adventure side of life if I put it in the Stephen Mitchell/Esther Perel language. It puts you on the side of life that’s still engaged in curiosity and in the discovery and in exploration and in pleasure. And I assume that existentially, these are experiences that keep you vibrant and young. Now, I do not think that is exclusive to sex. I imagine, for example, that if you adore classical music or music in general for that matter, you can have those heightened experiences— ecstatic experiences— in other ways. I don’t think sexuality is the sole world of the erotic.

I think that sexuality is an erotic experience and the erotic is a life force. And therefore, when you remain erotically involved in life—be it through sex or through other transcendent, ecstatic experiences—you remain younger.

CP: Yes, eroticism as the antidote to death as you said but also to “aging” and stagnating.

EP: Yes! But again, I think there is something unique to the eroticism to the poetics of sex—but I can imagine that some people may have those [erotic] experiences in other ways.  I do think that there is probably something unique – you move differently, your body is in sensual  motion—not an ‘aging’ motion. That undulating motion remains— it’s a motion (that circular motion!) of life. When your body becomes stiffer, becoming more staccato, eroticism is the antithesis of that aging staccato!

CP: Yes, I think it is this sort of life force that you carry with you through your life. It’s not something that has to go away when your body—or when sex itself—changes. It’s something transcendent.

CP: Do older people have affairs? And what do they look like in later life?  

EP:  They’re longer.

CP: Aha! Interesting. Tell me more.

EP: Older people, in general, tend to have longer-term affairs. I don’t think that older adults necessarily engage in hookups, you know, or one night stands. If affairs are acts of transgression that make you feel alive, they are often an antidote to mortality. And when people are dealing with illness and with aging, this is a way to feel like there is still something that can happen in life.  I can only imagine that when people have partners who are ill or have partners requiring caregiving— and nearly 44 million Americans are caregivers—an affair is probably one of the most powerful forms of nurturing you could have. To have somebody else, who may also be a caregiver, with whom you find that kind of comfort, who takes care of you, who nurtures you. The sex is a piece of it, but it is so much more than that. Touch, intimacy—you know— I hear of so many caregivers who are devoted, loyal partners to their spouses who are also having affairs. And they are not going to leave their partner but they need a source for themselves to also stay connected to life.  And I hear that narrative so much of the time—but that’s not at all what you hear in the dominant narrative of affairs: it’s jerks and bitches cheating on each other. It’s all talk of cheating and betrayal. That world exists but that world is old news. I think there’s a whole world of other parallel relationships. There’s a whole world of other affairs that are about people sustaining themselves who are loyal but not faithful. 

CP:  So affairs in later life tend to be longer. What else?

EP:  Yes, I think that when they are longer they are also by definition more intimate. That comes with it. And they fulfill multiple needs. So they’re longer, they’re more intimate, and they’re often love stories or care stories. They become part of the marriage; they allow people to balance their marriages, to stay married! Which is a sentence that is considered blasphemous; I am so often taken the stake for saying that some affairs actually help people stay married.

I also think it’s easier today, in some way, for men and women to find other sexual outlets—possibilities to experience sexuality—away from their partner without even having to leave their house. Today you can literally have an affair with someone while next to them in bed. But I don’t see most people going to tell their partner: ‘You can’t anymore, and I don’t want to live without, so I’m going to find myself somebody.’ I don’t know that people even know how to begin this type of conversation, so they do it discreetly, secretly, hence affairs.

CP: How do you think those conversations look among older people? Conversations about sexuality, and boundaries, needs, and satisfaction?

EP: It depends if people have had them all along. If you suddenly have to spring this out, it’s probably really difficult. I wish doctors would begin the conversation sometimes… they are the ones you need the most. You’re going to see your urologist? For God’s sake could you have a conversation about sex and your sexual health?  

CP: Exactly! So glad to hear you say that.  I find that when you talk to older adults about sex, most are receptive to it, contrary to popular belief. A large part of the issue, I believe, is that providers lack the comfort and awareness to ask about it.   

Part of it also stems from this deep belief in the inevitable celibacy of aging. When we think about older adults, we don’t think that they are sexual. If we do, we think they’re monogamous and heterosexual at best.

EP: Do you think that there is a fundamental decline of desire with age?

CP: Depends on the story you tell yourself, right? Beliefs about aging and sex influence our experiences with aging and sex. Intimacy, especially for women, appears to fuel desire across the lifespan. So from a psychological perspective, no, I do not think that decline is inevitable.  But if you look at the biology of it, review the medical literature, you'll see clinically significant reductions in testosterone in both men and women, and that may be implicated in loss of desire.  But, we’re psychologists—we know that things aren’t as simple and essential as biology. So even though that’s a factor, it’s not the only factor. There are psychological tools—dyadic tools—that you can use to maintain and rekindle desire, namely through emotional intimacy, erotic touch, and embracing non-intercourse scenarios.  

CP:  One last question: An older couple walks into your office. What is the one piece of advice you give them?

EP: You can still discover new things until the last day you live. Live erotically.  

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