Upgrade your sexuality in your third season.
Finding love in our older age is possible. Yet I hear older folks frequently tell me that love, romance, passion, and sex are solely for young people.
According to Harvard Medical School Health Publishing, many older people have an understanding of sexuality that is based on myths, stereotypes, and prejudices that are portrayed by the media and fueled by societal expectations, and that older people often act in accordance with these assumptions.
Could it be that many older people (age 65 and older) are currently suffering from a kind of glass ceiling effect of ageism in the area of romantic relationships?
We live in a time where we are able to debunk our society’s often misguided ideas about sexuality and sexual experiences. While our society has limiting, and sometimes hostile, ideas about these matters, are there ways that older folks can have an active role in expanding their sense of self to include a sex life that is fulfilling, healthy, and passionate?
Here I share the experiences of a heterosexual couple in their mid-60s who confront their own outdated ideas about their sexuality and sexual connection. They use this confrontation to say “yes” to the ongoing development of their relationship and, specifically, their shared erotic life.
Claudette and James
Claudette and James are in their mid-60s and have been together for two years. Each was previously married and they both have grown children. Claudette and James met on an online dating site for mature singles. James is expecting a grandchild in the near future, and Claudette admits that she never thought about being in a romantic relationship in her mid-60s. They each declare being happy with each other and they describe the other as their best friend.
Claudette's experience of body image and sexuality in her youth (the 1970s)
Claudette says that she was very critical of herself when she was young. “I felt very insecure about my body when I was young. Noticing things that were not ideal. I felt very awkward about myself both inside and out. I didn't feel physically attractive at all.”
She recalls being hesitant to have any romantic experiences in her 20s. “How could I have flirted with men when I was feeling so insecure about myself? Also, things were very different back then. There was definitely stigma attached to women being flirtatious and sexually active. I was very afraid of being judged and labeled as ‘easy’ by both men and women. I shied away from intimate relationships and ended up not really knowing about sex. I was afraid of engaging in any sexual act.”
Claudette ended up meeting her ex-husband through her friend circle, and they got married quickly after. Throughout her marriage, taking care of her children took center stage in her marriage. But sexual intimacy with her ex continued to be very difficult for her. “I could not shake this feeling of shame when my ex wanted to have sex with me. I wanted to hide behind the role of a mother while we were married. So after I went through a hard divorce, my work on myself began.”
Discovering what was behind Claudette's reluctance
Claudette says she worked with a therapist to address the reasons why she did not want to find a partner after the divorce. Her girlfriends encouraged her to seek professional help after more than a decade of being alone. “I realized that I was being very harsh towards myself. I was so accustomed to constantly criticizing myself and my body. While I learned for the first time that sexual intimacy should be fun and playful, I still had a very harsh criticism of anything sexual.”
Claudette reflects on the 1970s societal and cultural messages towards women’s sexual identity. “Women should be pure, well-mannered, and cheerful. This idea was modeled after my parents, too. They were very good parents but I saw no displays of affection. I didn’t know that I was holding onto a warped 1970s cultural notion of being a woman until recently.” And though this was also a time of sexual revolution in some parts of society, Claudette was encouraged to reject her own sexuality by the societal expectations that she grew up in.
Transforming her criticism into respecting herself
“I still feel like I don’t know a lot about sexual connection, but, for the first time, I am open to learning about sex and building a fun sexual connection with James. I realized that nobody will grant me permission to accept myself. That permission has to come from me. It’s a lot of work but I want to live in a life that says, ‘yes, yes, yes’ to joy, including a joyful sex life. I realized that I was trying to squeeze myself into this tiny, suffocating box of pure, proper, well-mannered expectations into which I no longer fit. If I couldn't stay inside, I whipped myself with criticism and judgment. It’s time for me to throw that box away and dedicate myself to respecting myself, my body, and my sexual desire.”
Fulfillment in relationship
I ask Claudette how she feels about herself being in a romantic relationship with James. Claudette replies, “It feels strange at times but I feel very comfortable with myself in this relationship. I think this is because I learned to say ‘Yes!’ to being an active romantic partner. I am not hiding. I am owning myself. It’s funny, I am older and see winkles but I am more comfortable and confident with myself than ever before.” Her internal work of accepting herself has contributed to her feelings of contentment and happiness.
As I listen to Claudette talk about her transformational work with herself and her sexuality, I think about the book, Come As You Are by Dr. Emily Nagoski. In her book, Nagoski addresses the issue of how women often suffer from self-criticism and judgment, and how this interferes with their sexual well-being. And women are often so accustomed to beating themselves up with criticism that they don’t even notice when, how, or why they are doing i
Nagoski also draws upon and encourages readers to engage self-compassion concepts described by Dr. Kristin Neff in her book, Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind. Both educators, Nagoski and Neff emphasize how women need a lot of self-compassion to heal from self-criticism.
In therapy, Claudette has been able to do some very important healing and empowerment work to confront, address and let go of the criticism that was interfering with her body image, self-esteem, and sexual well-being. After learning to respect and to be compassionate towards herself, Claudette has been able to find fulfillment, happiness, and comfort in a loving, sexual relationship. In this relationship, she is no longer hiding.
Claudette’s internal work will continue, and this strongly affirms that we can all use a strong dose of self-respect and self-compassion. It is never too late to seek and find empowerment, nor is ever too late to build a loving relationship with someone else.
Next month, I will cover James’ journey as a man in this relationship.