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Blossoming in middle age

It's not all about sex for women from 45 to 59

Sunday, April 23, 2006

As the oldest Baby Boomers reach 60, a lot of media attention has focused on the joys of middle-age sex. Women are assured that we can (and should) remain as sexually active as we were in our youth. If we are married, we can spice up our sex lives. If we are single -- as over 30 percent of females between 45 and 59 are -- we can now initiate sexual adventures and seek new romantic partners.

This is an important correction to the stereotypes that once prevailed. Women were not expected to enjoy sex, and any female with a strong libido -- especially a "middle-age" women -- was regarded as suspect or even deviant.

But now the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction. All women are expected to retain a strong sex drive well into middle age. For female Boomers who want to remain sexually active, it's great to have this new cultural validation. But women with less sexual desire or opportunity may feel inadequate and inferior.

Gail Sheehy's recent book, "Sex and the Seasoned Woman," announces a "new universe of lusty, liberated" middle-age women. Interviewing 400 women over age 45, Sheehy categorizes 40 percent of them as "passionates" -- women who "enjoy a lot of sexual activity and are most likely to be involved with someone romantically." Newspapers, magazines and talk shows have followed up with story after story of middle-age women blossoming both sexually and romantically.

But the truth is that many older women (including many of Sheehy's subjects) are leading fulfilling, satisfying, happy -- and yes, passionate -- lives, without undergoing a sexual renaissance.

A survey of single Boomers conducted by the American Association of Retired People found that 70 percent of single Boomers between 40 and 59 said they do date regularly. However, only 14 percent of single women over 40 were dating to find someone to live with or to marry. Most were just looking for fun and companionship. Of those regular daters, 38 percent of the women and 48 percent of the men had intercourse at least once a week. But this means that even among this group, 62 percent of the women and 52 percent of men were not having sex regularly. For those without a steady partner, only 4 percent of women and 12 percent of men had weekly sexual intercourse.

These findings point to the need for a more-nuanced analysis of middle-age sexuality.

The emerging scientific consensus is that human sexual response depends on a complex interaction of both biology and culture, leading to a lot of variation among individuals, cultural groups and societies. Scientific evidence also suggests that on the whole, women's sexual interests might not just be different from, but also less than men's.

A 2001 survey of many different studies, published in Personality and Social Psychological Review, reported that men on average experience more frequent and more intense sexual desires than women. The authors conclude: "We did not find a single study, on any of nearly a dozen different measures, that found women had a stronger sex drive than men. We think that the combined quantity, quality, diversity and convergence of the evidence render the conclusion indisputable."

"Indisputable" is too strong a word. Cultural pressures may push men to exaggerate their sexual desires and activities and women to understate theirs. But we ought to seriously consider the question of gender differences in sexual desire -- something feminists are often reluctant to do. And we should certainly find ways to include celibacy and non-sexual sensuality in the sexual spectrum without being seen by Sheehy and others as anti-sex, or reviving stereotypes about "withered old maids."

We can begin by redefining romance. Romance involves a passionate connection outside ourselves, but it does not have to focus narrowly on another individual. We can passionately embrace many activities that give us pleasure and a sense of wonder. During my research for "The New Single Woman," one ever-single woman in her late 40s told me of her love of flamenco dancing, which she finds intensely passionate and sensual.

A married colleague in her 50s described to me the joy she got from gardening: "I love the touch, the fragrance and the delicacy of flowers; they are definitely charged with passion and sensuality for me." Other women luxuriate in the aromatic, tactile and sensory stimulation they get while cooking.

For women who love sex, or who long for sex within an affectionate partnership, the sensual pleasures of dancing, gardening or cooking will not be enough. But for others it is not only enough, but preferable. We need to view sex as one, but only one, of the elements that enhance our lives. Let's recognize that there are many forms of sensuality, and acknowledge the complexity and variety of passion.



Sociologist Kay Trimberger is the author of "The New Single Woman" (Beacon Press, 2005) and a visiting scholar at the Institute for the Study of Social Change at UC Berkeley. Contact us at

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When I meet a woman whose life is clearly filled with the fruit of kindness, I see a beautiful person regardless of her outward appearance.  The kindness she shows to the world is really the Holy Spirit at work making the world a more beautiful place, showing forth the presence of God.
~~Harriet Crosby~~
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