“I didn’t have an orgasm until I was 54”, admits Zena Zulman, a glamourous 74 year-old candidly, “but I now can’t have enough. I’d have sex everyday if I could, but Alan cuts it down to three or four times a week”. Alan, a dapper and strikingly fit 69 year-old, and Zena’s second husband, (my “toy-boy”), nods and smiles in agreement as she continues: “I’d love to have sex all the time as I have multiple orgasms these days. I tell you, it’s an absolute revelation and joy”.
We are sitting in the Zulman’s South Kensington miniscule, but elegant apartment which is their London pied-a-terre. Zena’s in leopard skin leggings and a white t-shirt, with long blonde plaits and bright red lipstick. Alan is dressed in black, and has a healthy, windswept complexion. They also have a cottage in Wiveliscombe in Somerset, but both lived in Johannesburg, South Africa, during their first marriages. Zena’s life story reads like a Jewish Catherine Cookson novel, with her grandparents escaping the pogroms in Russia only to die on arrival in Britain, her mother being a Tiller girl; her own claim to fame being a journalist, PR guru and agony aunt in South Africa at a time when women were supposed to be either purely decorative or slaving over the kitchen sink.
Like many women of her generation, she married for security, rather than love, and had sex for reproduction, rather than pleasure. “I was afraid of sex”, Zena claims, “but was having sex morning noon and night to have children. It was a nightmare as I didn’t enjoy it at all”. She had eight miscarriages and a gynaecological operation, where she had an ovary removed without being told. Zena was about to leave her husband Bernie, a successful South African businessman, with whom she was deeply disenchanted, when she fell pregnant. Dutifully, Zena stayed and produced four children, now ranging from 51 to 46.
Zena and Alan had been acquainted in South Africa as he was a business associate of her husband (“I was a young whippersnapper”). At 50, Alan threw his successful clothing business and marriage to the winds, when he discovered his wife was having an affair with his business partner. He also had three children, now fully grown. Post-divorce, Zena and Alan became firm friends, travelled the world and fell deeply in love. They started a new life together in Somerset and are now inseparable.
“We only started our sexual relationship once we were married,” explains Zena, “I wasn’t in any hurry as sex had been miserable before, but sex with love, and with Alan, well, it was an utter revelation”. Today, Zena (who knows Dr Ruth) admits “I drive him up the bloody wall. I get turned out just looking at him, I get wet just seeing him in the nude – but it’s not just sex, you have to have love”. Zena and Alan are clearly besotted with each other and she says, “I know my body’s not what it was, but you know, once we’re in bed, we’re at it. All cats are grey in the dark, you know”.
If these words were uttered by a twenty, thirty, even forty year-old woman, we wouldn’t blench. But seventy plus? We’re totally amazed, perhaps a little disgusted? “There are many taboos about older women and sex,” explains Susan Pacey, a psychosexual psychotherapist with the British Association for Sexual and Relationship Therapy. “Not only is it generally less fine for older women to be as sexually active as men, in society’s terms, but it’s also difficult for younger people to imagine the elderly having intercourse”.
Yet, they do. Indeed, studies show that 40% of 70-year-olds are sexually active. According to Clinical Psychologist, Paul Whitby, of Victoria Hospital, Swindon, “anthropologists have found it’s a biological conundrum that humans have sex after reproduction has finished. Just why is far from clear, except that it’s fun, and also that it helps mates stay together over a lifetime”.
Even though older men report slightly more sexual activity than older women, their sexual prowess tends to depend on things, such as health, weight, fitness, even economic security and, of course, a close relationship. “We shouldn’t forget that there’s a large group of sexually active old ladies enthusiastically having sex,” says Paul Whitby, “In fact, many older women experience a release and become more sexually aggressive, once their reproductive years have passed”.
Partly this is down to an increase in testosterone in older women, and partly it can be due to a renewed interest in sex, once the menopause is over. “The menopausal years can be difficult sexually for many, but not all, women,” explains Susan Pacey. “Sexual response may decline, especially due to lower oestrogen levels, depression, and use of prescription drugs, poor health or ill health or death of a partner or even sexual boredom”. However, Pacey says she has seen women who, even with cancer, still have a good sex life, post-menopause.
A lot seems to come down to your own sexual character. Research shows that people who have been sexually active in their youth seems to be more sexually active later in life, even into old age. The maxim is “use it, or lose it”. However, there is also society’s expectation of older, or even aged, women to be docilely rocking in their chairs, rather than getting their rocks off with a toy-boy or two. “Self-image and self-esteem play an important part in keeping women alive sexually,” says Susan Pacey. A liberated attitude is also important, “quite frankly, there are many women who think, post-menopause and post-mid-life, ‘right, I’ve spent my life bringing up kids, being a good wife, doing housework and working, so, now I can be who I want to be, and can have a little fun”.
This is certainly true of Andrea, 72 (not her real name), who lives in a council flat in South London. Andrea’s husband, Tony, an ex-builder, died of a heart attack five years ago at 66. Andrea looks sixtyish, is agile and fit, with soft skin and bright eyes, although her permed grey curls and grey two-piece, makes her belong to the older generation.
“The first two years after his death I thought, ‘Well, that’s it; I’ll be alone for the rest of my life now’”. Deeply grief stricken, Andrea cried her way through the first year, but with the help of her two children, now in their late forties, she began to build a new life. “I began to feel something was missing,” admits Andrea, “and although I was going to bingo and my social club, I really missed being with a man”.
It was Andrea’s daughter who suggested she log on to a chat room. With help, Andrea used her daughter’s computer to start chatting, and then, dating, men she met on the net. “My daughter didn’t mind me chatting to men as she could tell it was cheering me up. We’d have a giggle over a cuppa about it all”. But when Andrea actually arranged to meet one of the men, she intuitively decided not to tell her daughter, who is still ignorant of her mother’s raunchy antics.
“He was a nice, divorced 55 year-old,” Andrea explains, “And after a cup of tea and a biscuit and a bit of small talk, sitting on my sofa, we were suddenly kissing. I hadn’t spooned for years. Then we had sex. It was absolutely amazing and I enjoyed every minute of it”. Andrea reveals her “toy-boy”, as she calls him, still visits her once a month for friendly sex after tea and talk. “We’ve done it on the kitchen table, in the bath, on the floor, on the stairs. I never did this kind of thing with Toby, but it’s been utterly wonderful”.
Andrea is adamant that she doesn’t want a relationship and feels no guilt at all. “I’m so happy I don’t have to cook or clean for him,” she says with a grin, “I’m having lots of fun without all the housework. I feel seventeen rather than 70”.
Relationship psychologist, Susan Quilliam, is not surprised by Andrea’s attitude and sexual antics. “Women are told they dry up at the menopause and that they’re sexually dead from then on. Not so. The drying up lobby is the result of social conditioning. Women can take natural oestrogen or lubricate themselves and carry on carrying on. It’s a matter of confidence. I’ve known quite a few older women who are literally gagging for it and puzzling out how to get it”.
Presumably, we think it’s OK for ageing Lotharios, like Jack Nicholson and Peter Stringfellow, to get their legs over their respective bimbos. But we still balk at the likes of Joan Collins, “gagging for it” and getting her legs under (or over) with her young Percy. Perhaps it’s time to rethink these staid stereotypes and instead of relegating older women to the sexual scrapheap, look forward to libidinously disgraceful old age. Maybe vibrators and pension books are not a world apart after all?