I’ve heard a lot of women talk about the invisibility that comes with age—it’s a positive thing for some, since it means less catcalling, and fewer of those moments of uncertainty that come with having to reject a dude in public, knowing that he may not take it well. When women’s value is measured by our sexual appeal to men, wrinkles and grey hair become a sort of invisibility cloak. In this ongoing disappearing act, our sexual identity is one of the first things to go.
We’re expected to give it up without a fight: women who aren’t willing to wave a wand and disappear in a puff of smoke once they’re past the age of 35 are often treated as a sort of joke—the archetypal cougar comes to mind, an older woman with the gall to imagine she’s still desirable, stalking her (young, male) prey in leopard print, red lipstick, and Poison by Dior. The message is clear: surrender your power, and your visibility, or be prepared to lose all respect and social capital. But if the women I talked to for this piece are anything to go by, this isn’t much more than a scary bedtime story meant to keep women walking the narrow path that’s been laid out for them under our current capitalist patriarchal dystopia.
"You Lose Either Way"
Vassy, a translator in her late 30s who was one of the first women I spoke to for this piece, remembered what it was like in Italy, where she grew up:
"When there was a 50-something, 60-something who tried to be seductive, especially if [she was] showing a bit more body, [she] was just a laughing-stock.” Any man who dated those women caught some of the social stigmas around them too, with townsfolk questioning his taste and his sanity. But there weren’t many other options for older, unmarried women, either. Vassy told me that virginity was no defense in her town.
"We had a couple of middle-aged women who were virgin in town, and people made jokes about having, like, spiderwebs up there. You lose either way.” There was only one real option for older women who wanted respect—the mater famiglia. If a woman accepted that her place was in the home, serving her family, she would be respected and even revered. If she didn’t, she would be hounded into disappearing from public life altogether. There’s an interesting parallel here—earlier in our conversation, Vassy and I talked about the way younger women’s sexuality is often assumed to exist to serve men. This is part of why we’re expected to give it up as we get older: since the natural signs of aging are supposed to make us unattractive to men, our sexuality loses its value. In that sense, the only acceptable trajectory for a woman’s life in Vassy’s village was to transition from serving men as a sexual object while a young woman, to serving your husband and children as wife and mother for the rest of your life.
"A Perspective Change"
Vassy associates the fear of older women’s sexuality with the witch trope—the Maiden, the Mother, and the Crone. The Crone has always been the most frightening of the three, and the most powerful: long past the point of caring what other people think, she serves only her own interests and desires. In a culture that expects women to be docile, obedient, and self-sacrificing, that’s a dangerous thing indeed. Locking women into the categories of Maiden and Mother keeps the Crone at bay—and mocking and denigrating women who resist that categorization, either by claiming and enjoying their sexuality for themselves in their later years or by rejecting sexuality altogether, seems to serve the same purpose. She does feel that a shift is happening, though. When it comes to relationships between older men and younger women, she says:
“The only people I know who think younger women are attracted by experience and power, etc., are older men. But now that we hear more voices about women and younger women in all kinds of media, there is a perspective change.” In the past 10 years or so, old white men have come to be slightly less dominant in the cultural conversation—social media has created a platform where people who were previously invisible can tell their own stories in their own words, and that has started to trickle into media more generally.
"I Don’t Really Need Men"
Shanthony, a 36-year-old graphic designer, thinks the diversification of voices in media is a major factor in the cultural shift, too.
“The room for more voices lets more people be visible. And not just cis straight white guys and the people they fantasize about fucking… Of course, me, a queer black woman in her 30s, when I make media will show more of my world.” That media means that more people get to feel included in the cultural conversation. When Shanthony was younger, the idea of older people’s sexuality wasn’t really on her radar—she was too self-conscious to think of anybody’s sexuality other than her own. She expected to feel invisible after turning 35, but she hasn’t yet. That may be connected to the generation we’re part of, which she feels is struggling less with aging than our parents’ generation did. But it may be connected to the fact that she’s queer, as well.
“I think…being queer it’s less like feeling like I’ll be tossed out sexually. Because I don’t really need men or a cis man.” The fact that she’s sexually fluid means that she doesn’t worry about losing the male gaze—she can just relax and enjoy being catcalled a bit less. Having been told throughout her life that no one would want her after she turned 35, she describes turning 36 as anticlimactic, a sentiment I strongly identify with.
“34 was way scarier than 36,” she says, “…because now I’m like ‘fuck it, I’ll do me.’” Dating, she says, is actually easier than it was when she was younger—for a long time, she wasn’t sure whether or not she wanted kids, but now that she’s sure she doesn’t, there’s less pressure on her to find someone she wants to be with forever.
“It does help me be more open to different people and situations,” she says, though sometimes it’s harder for her to get to the point of actually having sex with someone: “I def feel more sexually fluid as I’ve gotten older, but also more annoyed, so I’m having sex less because more people are annoying me and I can’t get to the point to have sex with them before they piss me off.” Having recently turned 36 myself, I’ve got to say, I know the feeling.
"Lust For Life"
Not every woman I spoke to felt like they had to learn to assert themselves. Kelly, 43, feels like she’s always had a lot of agency in her sex life.
“It was all about my agency. And I walked away many times when it was insufficiently fun.” She remembers hearing that women peak in their 40s, so she always assumed her sex life would only get better. Being married and having children have cut into that for her to some extent, but she and her partner still have fun, and she still enjoys flirting when the opportunity arises. And she’s irritated by the idea of the archetypal cougar.
“I feel like once everybody is over 25, it’s all fair game. If a 25-year-old dude can’t consent, we really need to re-examine things. Because that’s what cougar implies. Taking advantage of a dumb, beautiful young man. Poor stupid men.” She thinks that idea is more connected to men’s fears and insecurities than anything else—sexually assertive older women are once again cast as witches and young men as too dumb or too helpless to resist their wicked wiles. The men in her social group, she noticed, were inclined to date younger women, first because they feared that women older than them would be desperate to procreate, and later because they were simply “confounded” by the idea that an older woman might be available. Now, she says, most of her single friends, regardless of gender, are searching for ready-made families, with children already half-grown. And no one in her friend group has more sexual enthusiasm than divorced women in their 40s.
“I call my newly divorced parent women friends who made babies young ’40-20 somethings’. You wanna see sexual zeal and lust for life—those gals. Whew! Uncaged!” Across the board, it seems that women are far more confident and enjoying their sexuality far more than our culture is quite comfortable with yet.
"Powerful, Strong, and Grounded—Old!"
Allie, a 50-year-old couples’ counselor, remembered her own early experiences with sexuality as being more aimed at serving men than serving her own needs and desires.
“In my sex life with men, I did eroticize being or at least performing submissiveness. I eroticized being in service.” This resonates with what Vassy remembered about sex in her early 20s, which she felt was strongly shaped by the porn she had watched and what she felt was expected of her because of it. For both women, age brought a kind of assertiveness and confidence. Allie finds she’s much less likely to perform submissiveness with her current partner, who she’s been with for 10 years.
“A lot of this kind of eroticizing myself as a sex object for the men I’m having sex with doesn’t work for me. I just don’t do it. I don’t believe it, he doesn’t believe it, I’m way too powerful, strong, and grounded. Old!” A late convert to monogamy, she’s been with her current partner for 10 years. The sex they have now tends to involve more fun and more humor than sex did when she was younger. And, on a practical note, more lube.
“It’s not that I wouldn’t get as wet as I used to, but it takes a lot longer, a lot more coaxing… But it doesn’t impact my ability to be orgasmic at all.” What she finds erotic has shifted significantly, too—the intense desire that marked her early life has been replaced by a more global and surprising kind of desire and pleasure, which can be triggered by anything from music to art and poetry. But she did struggle in her mid-forties, she tells me, with the feeling that she was becoming invisible.
"It Freed Me Up"
“I did experience the loss of visibility, what I would have called invisibility. So, it was quite dramatic and I did grieve.” But five years on, she doesn’t really mourn that loss of visibility anymore. “Bodies change, the male gaze has changed, but once I got over it, it freed me up. You have to also own your power as a wiser, experienced, older woman.”
Not that it’s always easy—she finds that younger people expect her to act as a kind of mentor figure now, a wise woman they can turn to for advice, not as one of the gang, or as a potential sexual partner. While she’s not looking for romantic or sexual connections outside of her current relationship now, the end of flirting came as a loss, too. Inside, Allie doesn’t feel any older than she did when she was 24.
Jocelyne, a 74-year-old retiree I spoke to feels the same way.
“Mentally you don’t age. You just don’t. the only thing that happens is that time gets shorter and shorter—it’s something you just notice that when you’re younger time is forever, and when you’re forty sixty is old, and when you’re sixty, 80 is old, and I hang out with 80-year-olds, and some of them are amazing people. None of us feel old underneath,” she told me.
"They All Want Mummies"
She and six former classmates meet once a year, in September, to drink margaritas and catch up on each other’s lives—though they didn’t start meeting again until they were in their 50s, she says they’re all exactly like they were in high school. The scariest part of getting older, for her, is realizing that you have more time behind you than you do ahead of you. Sex isn’t something she’s particularly looking for at the moment, though it’s always an easily accessible option in the retirement facility where she’s lived for the past 11 years.
“I have men chasing me,” she says, “it’s insane. They all want mummies! I want things, but I can’t do it with anybody who I’m not in love with. And I’m not somebody’s caregiver. I don’t want to make you dinner and wash your undies.” The men in her retirement facility are eager but too needy for her—they seem to be at loose ends without her, which she finds exhausting. Growing up in the 50s and 60s, her mother was a powerful example of independence, leaving an unhappy marriage at 34 and working at the Montreal Gazette for most of her life, taking lovers when she wanted to.
“She was strong. She was in charge of her life. She fought back. She taught me to be independent and to never trust somebody to take care of you for the rest of your days.” Jocelyne is grateful for that example. But it was also a time when sex wasn’t a thing that was talked about.
"Things Happened, and You Found Out"
“They didn’t speak to me about sex. Not menstruation, not sex, you had to find out on your own. That was in the 50s. But you fell in love with boys, things happened, and you found out.” She didn’t even know that sex caused pregnancy until she became pregnant at 19—she gave up her son for adoption, reconnecting with him 23 years later. Jocelyne’s life has mirrored her mother’s in many ways. She also left an unhappy marriage at 34 and had two children, a boy, and a girl. In her late 60s, she began a relationship with a man she had loved as a teenager, and stayed with him for four years, until he asked to take a break. He slept with a woman 20 years younger than him as soon as she agreed to the break, and since then has been trying to convince her to get back together with him. But Jocelyne’s not interested in taking on the sort of labor that goes into maintaining that sort of relationship again.
"You Can Take Me Out to Dinner"
“I have no interest in getting to know somebody at my age! And getting to know them is so quick now, I know exactly what I don’t like. There’s a tall, good-looking man who’s so much wanting to be my guy, but he’s so hungry for my company. He’s like, what am I going to do until I see you again? Play with your dog!” For her part, Jocelyne has more than enough in her life to keep her busy—she manages all the gardens at her huge retirement facility, and recently gave herself a blood pressure crisis arranging a dinner for over 80 people. Dynamic and independent as ever, she’s not interested in becoming a caretaker for one of the many men pursuing her, but there are still things she’ll accept:
“You can take me out to dinner, that’s okay. I’ll take that.”
For that matter, I’ll take that too. Women’s sexuality, unsurprisingly, seems to be more complex—and more active for far longer than we usually suppose. As I enter my late 30s, that’s a comforting thought. Aging is inevitable—the best possible outcome, as a matter of fact—but it’s nice to know that getting older doesn’t have to mean an end to sex, or to discovery and exploration. I’m hoping that the entropy that comes with it will be outweighed by the wisdom and confidence that so many women seem to find as the decades pass. In the meantime, I’m going to try to follow Shanthony’s plan for dealing with aging:
“I’m just gonna lean into the decay.”