Over 50, but not over sex

A survey says older women have swapped orgasms for comfy slippers. Rubbish, says Michele Hanson

About seven years ago, late one night when the Daughter was out, a friend of hers, waiting for her to return home, sat on the wall outside our house. He had heard rude noises coming from my bedroom. Shame. He rang excitedly to meet the Daughter and did loud impressions of what he had heard.

Naturally, poor Daughter was tremendously humiliated. It is quite horrid to think of one's elderly mother doing things like that, particularly in Britain, where we don't like to harp on about such things. When one is over 50, the thing to do is pretend you are not interested. That is where the Organon Sexuality and Well Being Survey, released earlier this week, may have got it wrong. They think that older British women are having barely any sex; longing for more, but suffering in silence.

It is an easy mistake to make. The general impression over here is that the elderly are sitting about miserably longing to do it more, or being disgusted and not wanting to do it at all, or have dried up, got bored to death with it, have forgotten how, or are too physically repulsive to deserve it. These are the views that Daughter has grown up with, and Organon (a Dutch pharmaceutical company which makes hormone replacement therapy) has possibly fallen for this line. They say we won't take our HRT properly, we won't discuss such things with our doctors and we have worse sex lives than European women, who are apparently going at it like the clappers.

How do they know? Just because we're not talking about sex, it doesn't mean we're not thinking about it or doing it. Some of us might just be pretending. Underneath the prim facade, I bet droves of elderly people are having a fabulous sex life.And I know of numerous women of a certain age who are slapping on natural yam cream.

But why tell anyone at all, unless it's a close chum - some of us still think sex is private. Especially the so called elderly. We are rather embarrassed by anything to do with bottoms, front or back. In Europe, where pessaries have been hugely popular for decades, people may grow up with a slightly more robust attitude to the body, but although the British young may be more forthright, the elderly are more reticent.

Elderly, of course, is a vague term. If you are 14, as the Daughter was at the time of the horrid discovery, then 42 is decrepit. Then you reach 52, or thereabouts, and it shouldn't feel decrepit any more, but those early impressions sometimes tend to hang on. Young still means sexy; old still means yuck, especially when one looks in the mirror at the dangling flab, wrinkles, turkey neck and increased whiskers. It is perhaps difficult, when one's body is going down the drain, to go around swanking about sex. Much better, at my age, to be seen as prim and repressed and sticking to the piano, than bold and rude and putting myself about.

Even internet daters have to pretend to be younger than they are. My friend Evelyn, aged 52, is email dating and pretending to be 47. That, apparently, is a popular age for women; 49 is popular for men. Beyond that and you haven't a chance. The old yuck factor kicks in. But only at the thought of 50-plus. In the flesh, it doesn't seem to matter. My internet friend tells me that after 24 years of marriage and away from the dating scene, she has returned to it to find that people are more forthright about their desires and their weaknesses. They chat freely about impotence, oiled bodies, strange proclivities and suggest anal sex without a qualm, and they are all over 50.

And look at my mother. At 95 she should have forgotten all about it, but she comes home from her bridge club with saucy new jokes, has a penis cake for her birthday, watches Eurotrash and even chums up with men. A few years ago, her friend, aged 75, went to the doctor to complain about her sex life. Her orgasms were not good enough. My mother was shocked to the core at the time, but now, after five years of Kilroy, Oprah and late-night Channel 4, she takes it all in her stride.

So what with the telly, the women on yam cream and HRT, the internet dating sex reports and general information from friends and acquaintances, it seems to be just sex, sex, sex over here. Or is it? We're just not telling.


Reprinted with kind permission of The Guardian