A French approach to sex and age
Despite the “sexual revolution” of the 1960s and ’70s, sex among the aging population remains a topic of embarrassment for many. One Frenchwoman's new book leads the charge for a new, age-positive revolution of sexual freedom.
With my 50th birthday drawing ever closer, I’m both curious and a little anxious about what the future might hold. So I was eager to read Marie de Hennezel’s new book, A Frenchwoman's Guide to Sex after Sixty (Greystone Books, 2017). That is, until I took it out of my bag in a coffee shop, and tried to hide the cover. It wasn’t the sex that bothered me—I’ve read saltier titles in public—but the “old” part. Would people think I was old? Or worse, old and still interested in sex?
Marie de Hennezel would probably find my reaction amusing, and typical of a North American. In her work as a psychologist, therapist, and author, she’s encountered many attitudes about aging, but perhaps none more negative than those around sex.
She points out that while we’re making progress in understanding seniors as vibrant, engaged individuals, there’s a persistent depiction of their sexual interest as “ridiculous and inappropriate.”
It’s true—while I look forward to the wisdom, perspective, and maturity that my advancing years might bring, I can’t foresee my sex life improving—and I feel embarrassed to let anyone know I’m thinking about it.
But while the physical changes brought on by aging are undeniable—decreased libido, mobility issues, and less-than-reliable machinery—there’s no reason to assume that we will stop experiencing feelings of desire and wish to act upon them.
De Hennezel points out that the optimistic notion that sex will just keep getting better is something of a myth—especially if one’s idea of sexual “success” is based solely on looks or physical performance. Youth-obsessed culture provides endless depictions of dramatic, gymnastic sexual routines that race toward an explosive finish line.
But, she suggests, for those willing to let go of those conventional ideas, sex can be more connected, more fulfilling, and more passionate than ever before. It’s all about the attitude and the approach.
In her book, de Hennezel uses collected research and many personal interviews to explore the rich and varied sex lives of this “third age.” She brings that inimitable French style to her reportage, managing to be both matter-of-fact and irreverent.
Many of the personal interviews seem to stand in contrast to some rather disheartening research about sex in old age. Attitudes to sex and love as one grows older are as unique as each individual and, perhaps unsurprisingly, seem tied to one’s enthusiasm and zest for life in general.
For every subject de Hennezel finds who is experiencing a renaissance of desire and fulfillment, there is another who has closed the door on conventional sexual expression, for a wide variety of reasons. While some simply no longer experience desire and are happy with their lives, others suffer, either because of the loss of their partner or because their bodies can’t do what they once could.
Instead of trying to recreate the sex of their thirties or even their fifties, her happiest subjects have tapped into something deeper and more meaningful. Rather than a race to a destination, these people experience sex as an opportunity to connect with their partner (or partners—this is France, after all!) with honest communication and a bit of ingenuity.
These men and women have accepted, even embraced, their less-than-perfect bodies and find themselves enjoying intimacy in new and rewarding ways.
What unites them is their quest for a deeper connection—whether connecting to a previously hidden part of themselves, finding the kind of companionship that suits them, or being willing to explore new kinds of intimate expression with an equally patient and adventurous partner. If someone is truly interested in sex and its expression, they will find a way.
Many older people reported that age had given them the opportunity to redefine intimacy for themselves and share that experience with their partner. Together, these couples were able to relax and discover pleasure, tenderness, and joy, both in and out of the boudoir.
We look to the French for advice on how to live well, because they seem to understand the value of quality over quantity and the pleasure of slowing down, whether it’s food, wine, fashion, socializing—or sex. It’s good advice for any age when de Hennezel suggests, “Take pleasure as it comes, rather than focusing on what it should be.”
Marie de Hennezel advocates for a new approach to sexuality as we grow older and cautions that drugs and supplements cannot replace patient, loving communication. She also recommends exercises that build connection and sexual energy, including tantric practices. “You can’t force desire,” she says, “but you can create conditions in which it is more likely to occur.”
With that in mind, there are a few supplements that have been used for thousands of years in various cultures and may assist with cultivating sexual energy, improving blood flow, and increasing libido.
A popular adaptogenic herb, rhodiola can reduce fatigue and stress, may help with cognitive function, and might even increase longevity. Studies indicate it may increase sexual desire and performance in men and women, and it is generally regarded as safe to use.
Panax ginseng is a very popular and well-researched supplement for sexual health. It may be particularly helpful for menopausal women to increase sex drive, though both sexes seem to benefit from its performance-boosting effects. It is very safe to use, but it may increase sleeplessness in some.
The Peruvian root maca (Lepidium meyenii) has been used for centuries to improve sexual stamina and libido in both sexes. It shows promise in counteracting the loss of sex drive that is related to antidepressant use, and may confer other general health benefits as well. Ground maca comes in a variety of colours, but black and red are the most commonly seen.
Actually a herb called Epimedium, horny goat weed earned its nickname from the frisky antics of sheep and goats that consumed it. In humans too, it seems to have a positive effect on libido without unpleasant side effects. It can be consumed as a tea, although it may also be an ingredient in personal lubricants for the same purpose.
This Ayurvedic herb has been traditionally used for male virility, although studies show promising results with women as well. Also called puncture vine, the plant’s fruit, leaves, and roots can be used in a variety of preparations. It, too, is an adaptogen, helping fight stress and acting as an antioxidant.
Note: Consult your health care professional before taking any supplements that promise to address sexual dysfunction, particularly in the case of possible drug interactions.