The Sweet Spot: I’m 70, and I Want to Still Want Sex
The Sweet Spot: I’m 70, and I Want to Still Want Sex
Three years ago, I broke up with my lover of 10 years after he largely ignored my existence and stopped sleeping with me. By then I’d figured out that he had acute dyslexia and Asperger’s, and I’d accepted that he wouldn’t eat with me or go out to movies with me, but great sex had kept us together. Without it, there wasn’t much left, so when he continued to show no sexual interest in me for several months, we broke up.
I’m now 70; he’s 62. Since our split, we’ve at last become good friends. He never uses the offensive tone he sometimes used when we were lovers. He brings me flowers and gifts, and we have long phone conversations several times a week. He wants sex now, of course, but I’ve held firm to my boundaries. I also suffer chronic UTIs, which have pretty much killed my sex drive.
But I really miss that part of myself. To my surprise, sex had gotten better with every decade of my life until I reached 70. I loved sex with my ex-lover. A night together was sometimes right up there with a trip to Paris. Now that we’re no longer lovers, we’re more companionable than when we were — as if we can’t be both at the same time. I feel like I’m killing off an important part of myself, as if I locked the bedroom of my internal castle and now sleep on the couch. I feel sidelined by my ex and my UTIs (and yes, I’ve consulted a urologist). I’m without hope for a companionable and sexual relationship while I’m still healthy and young enough. I still look pretty good, though a size overweight. I walk every day, and I still work. What now?
Steve Almond: There are two questions in your letter, Still Buzzing. The first is whether you should allow this ex back into your bed. As we know from our friend Esther Perel, the psychotherapist, greater emotional intimacy can, ironically, lead to a waning of sexual desire. Why? Because desire is often predicated on distance, transgression and mystery. It sounds like you and this man used to need sex to reach each other. Maybe you no longer do. The more important question in your letter is whether you’ll be able to resurrect your erotic self. By your own account, sex has always been an integral part of your life, a source of growing pleasure over the years. How and why, then, did you “kill” this part of yourself? How much of your inhibition around sexuality has to do with anxieties regarding your aging body? How much is rooted in emotional issues? An ecstatic coupling that transports you to Paris sounds wonderful, but the real question here is what makes you feel alive sexually? Expand your sense of the erotic. Do you have sexual fantasies? Do you masturbate? What can you do to reconnect to the pleasures of your own body?
Cheryl Strayed: Steve’s right that it’s important to redefine who you are as an erotic being at 70, Still Buzzing, but let’s talk about that ex-lover first. I’m struck that you’re so set in your decision not to give it another go with him. You don’t explain why, but the things you write about him lead me to suggest that you rethink your decision. He was great in the sack when you were a couple. He’s now a good friend. I’m a fan of boundaries in general, but there are times when holding firm to them can work against us. You broke up with your ex because he didn’t want to have sex with you. He now wants to. In addition to that, you’ve vastly improved the companionate aspects of your relationship. I understand that your UTIs have affected your sex drive, but it’s also pretty clear that you’re not ready to let your erotic life die. In your ex-lover you have both a friend and a man you know you’ve enjoyed making love to. Why not give it a whirl?
SA: I suspect the answer to that question is the understandable fear that having sex with this man will somehow revert the relationship to its previous status, in which your romantic involvement was an entree to his treating you like garbage. You don’t entirely trust the guy yet, and I don’t blame you. And yet it’s worth noting that your friendship with this ex is, in fact, keeping you from pursuing a relationship in which you might find both companionship and sexual communion. Which brings us back to the more fundamental struggle: how to reconnect with your erotic self. You feel “sidelined” by your ex and your UTIs. The truth is you’ve sidelined yourself, even though you’re well acquainted with the pleasures the game provides. The question is: Why? Sex may not be as easy at 70 as it was at 30. But it’s still something to nurture and cherish within yourself and, when it feels right, with another.
CS: I hope you know that there is something next if you’re willing to seek it, Still Buzzing — something beyond the despair implicit in your question, what now? What now is that you know you want to reignite your sex life, so it’s up to you to do that, even though health challenges and biological changes have made sex more complicated than it was before. In spite of the obstacles you’re facing, it might be encouraging to remember that if there is such a thing as sexual good luck, you’ve had it; not everyone can say sex got better for them with each decade up to age 70, after all. I’m optimistic you can have it again, but only if you’re more intentional about getting what you want, and probably more intrepid too. If your ex no longer appeals to you, actively pursue ways to meet other men; there are several online dating sites where seniors connect. Become involved in activities that allow you to meet potential lovers. You might get your heart hurt if you try again with you ex and it doesn’t work out. You might feel like a fool if you put yourself out there in search of a partner. But both of those things are better than wallowing in sorrow on the couch, missing what you used to have. And it could also go the other way. You could find yourself back in Paris again.