We were raised conventionally, prudishly. Both of us were brought up in homes where the topic of sex was never or rarely mentioned. Nice girls didn’t talk about sex, or "do it" before or out of a marriage. When we started dating, our mothers would remind us not to do anything they wouldn’t do. Implicit was: Don’t have sex, get pregnant, and ruin your life. That was just understood.
But we never had that conversation.
Once we reached puberty, sex was on everyone’s brain. Most of us didn’t have the benefit of sex education at home and, if taught in school, it was sanitized and scientifically anatomical. Rather, we learned about sex from girlfriends as we giggled about it in the school hallways or at pajama parties or even from watching certain movies such as "Peyton Place.". Books about “how to do it” like “The Joy of Sex” were hidden furtively under the covers as was “Fannie Hill,” an erotic book about a woman of pleasure, or D.H Lawrence’s graphic depiction of Lady Chatterley’s extramarital sexual independence in “Lady Chatterley’s Lover.”
Although premarital virginity was waning in the 1950s and '60s, it was still a risk pre-birth control pills that could result in pregnancy, a quick wedding, single motherhood, or and perhaps a backstreet abortion (one of Margaret’s college roommates had one and almost died and a high school classmate of Barbara's went off to Sweden to give birth and then give up the baby for adoption.) It was understood that sex was confined to marriage or at least until we were engaged to our soon-to-be-husbands who would school us in the act of sex in a union that was supposed to be for happily ever after.
How wrong that would prove to be for the two of us. Barbara’s marriage dissolved after 31 years when her spouse announced one day he was leaving. Margaret’s 42-year marriage ended when cancer took her husband’s life. We were suddenly on our own and, when ready, parachuted into the dating pool. At age 50 plus, we’d have to relearn about sex then and there. The stakes and the sexual mores had changed drastically from our pre-marriage dating.
Certain matters disturbed us far more than when we were young. Barbara was in her fifties, had had two children by Caesarean section with a nice big horizontal scar as a reminder, had gained some pounds during and after her divorce proceedings, had a few varicose veins. In addition, she was never one to parade around naked, even with her female friends or daughters. Forget it with a male stranger, she decided. And she knew from her twentysomething daughters that young guys considered sex after a handful of dates a must; so did some of the young women; so she assumed that older guys definitely would. And many did put it boldly on their dating profiles, including one who wrote, "I like intimacy!"
Margaret, who adamantly shook her head and said “no” when asked if she would consider dating and having sex again, had many things to consider if she did succumb. Did her parts still work? Would it hurt post menopause? Would he expect to see her nude? Would she want to see him nude? (Let’s face it, most men over 60 aren’t exactly Adonises, either.) Would she even enjoy it at her age? It had been eight years. Was sex okay with someone you just dated, without having a long-term commitment?
Embarking on this dating/sexual journey required massive research. We knew turning to our mothers, who were then both still alive, would be futile. We hit the books and the Internet to learn, relied on girlfriends and even guy friends, and TV, which offers sexually explicit programs if you stay up late. We found, however, that we were surprisingly more comfortable about sexual discussions than we expected with certain close friends, some of whom even asked: How is the chemistry? Is it fun?
And we continued our research. We read books and online posts that addressed intimacy bluntly:
- When to go to bed with a partner
- How to make yourself sexually appealing
- What made intimacy good for each—or bad
- What positions worked and didn’t, and so on
- What to know about sex and aging
Barbara even bought, Real Sex for Real Women by female sexual authority Dr. Laura Berman, with detailed descriptions and color photographs after scanning it in a bookstore numerous times--of course, a bookstore where nobody recognized her.
The irony is that talking about sex even at our advanced ages is still under the covers for many. How do our kids learn? Do we all watch porn? It seems the way we’re learning about sex–or not learning about sex--hasn’t changed much, even for the younger generations. After reading an op-ed in the New York Times newspaper, “When Did Porn Become Sex Ed?” by Peggy Orenstein (Sunday, March 20, 2016), we realized that the conversation about sex with parents hasn’t really moved forward. The Times story reports that women are still unschooled correctly in matters of sex by their parents and consult porn, which is about as “realistic as pro wrestling.”
In some ways, sex after 50 we found is better than when we were younger. Margaret can truly say that it’s a wonderful indulgence to spend time with an old high school guy friend she’s currently dating. And when Barbara’s current beau walked into her life, all the ingredients came together for the best kind of intimacy—chemistry, respect, sweetness, smarts, and fun. Months later when a good friend of Barbara’s said over dinner that she couldn’t wait until she reached a certain age to be able to forgo sex with her husband, whom she loved, and looked at her for confirmation, Barbara smiled but decided honesty was the best policy. “Don’t look at me,” she said. “We’re new to our relationship and enjoying all parts.”
We still don’t feel comfortable talking about sex with our mothers or even our grown daughters. They accepted the fact we were "involved." Some things really are best left unsaid--in the same category as what you weigh, if you have any points on your driver's license, how much money you have in the bank, and how much candy is in your private stash.
Read more in “The Elephant in the Room: What about S-E-X?” in Barbara and Margaret’s newly released book, Suddenly Single After 50, (July 2016/Rowman & Littlefield.). We think you're sure to learn. And share with us any thoughts you have on this topic.