Sex in my 20s: Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff
For someone who lost their virginity quite late in their teens, sex in my 20s has been a revelation. But while exploring has been important, the key thing for me has been the new sense of openness I’ve been able to cultivate with my friends. That moment when you figure out that no, you’re not the only one who watches porn, reads erotica or masturbates. That sense of camaraderie.
Thanks to the internet it does feel like there is a tangible change in the freedom women of my generation are able to have in their sex life. As we’ve started caring less about virginity, we’ve been able to move into more interesting territory. We may have been brought up on Pornhub, but, as I’ve lain with partners and friends discussing sex and relationships, their perspectives have usually been refreshingly open and liberal.
When I turned 20, I broke up with a boyfriend and invested in two vibrators in the hope of achieving the elusive internal orgasm. I had absolutely no success. It was more than two years later before I learned the reason why some women consistently come through penetrative sex is due to their anatomy – their clitoris is physically closer to their vaginal opening. Other things I’ve learned? A big penis doesn’t equal good sex, and a small one doesn’t equal bad.
Learning to find pleasure is more important than learning how to please your partner (although they needn’t be mutually exclusive). Pansexuality – attraction not limited by gender or sex – and gender fluidity might be the future: love who you love and fuck who you fuck without the need for binary labels, unless you want them. More of my female friends are coming out as gay, queer, bi or trans, too. “I’ve always known, but now I feel comfortable enough to act on it,” one told me recently.
But although sex in your 20s can be wild and fun, with little judgment from your friends if you – like me – decide to sleep with your weird Tinder date who had a major problem with eye contact, or, in fact, decide to not have sex with anyone at all, insecurities are still rife. There are things about my body I don’t like and this harms the way I approach intimacy – that slight feeling of dread at undressing in front of a partner for the first time.
Another problem, being straight, is the fact that a lot of the time men don’t seem to be as “woke” as women. I’ve always had to take responsibility for contraception – actively telling partners to use condoms, to go to STI clinics before we have sex, to come with me to get the morning-after pill.
Sexism is pervasive, and as a black woman it can double up – somewhere between fetishisation and racism when, as people have said to me before: “You’re pretty for a black girl,” “I’ve never slept with anyone like you before,” or “I’m really into mixed-race women.” You have a basis to worry that the only reason men do or don’t find you attractive is because of your race.
I have hope for the sex life of my generation. While my American peers have reason to fear the rise of draconian abortion policies, we’re seeing women in their 20s savvy enough to get birth control, like IUDs, which will see them through Trump’s presidency.
In Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon is working on ways to open up free NHS abortions for women from Northern Ireland where they’re currently outlawed. And 2015 figures show that rates of STIs among women begin to fall sharply between the ages of 25 and 29 (while men, who have far lower rates between the ages of 15 and 19, overtake women at this age).
In terms of my current sex life, it’s certainly healthy with my boyfriend, but I’m still waiting for the day when someone, maybe him, comes to understand my body just as well as I do. Maybe in my 30s.
Sex in my 30s: Emily Witt
When I began my 30s, I did not watch porn and had no interest in it. I internet dated, but I never made overt references to sex on the platforms I used. I ignored sexually explicit overtures and presented myself as looking for a serious relationship rather than sex. My goal for my sexual life was long-term monogamous commitment. During the time that such a relationship eluded me, I settled for shorter liaisons. They would end, usually not by statements but by signals: longer delays between text messages. I occasionally went home with friends after nights out. I had an IUD and was lax about condoms. I was not much into sexting. I sometimes masturbated with a vibrator, never while watching porn. I was hung up on an ex-boyfriend.
I went to many weddings. When I did not envy the professions of love I doubted them. I made fun of post-religious wedding rituals, but felt the warmth of participation. I thought couples in sexually open relationships were either naive or self-destructive. I read about the time limits of my fertility. I had sexual freedom, and I did not value it. Why wouldn’t it end? How much perfunctory sex between half-interested people could one life contain? How much rejection?
I was feeling low at the beginning of my 30s and I wanted to understand what had happened in my generation, how the mix of demographic changes (us marrying much later or not at all), technological changes (the internet and mobile phones, which gave us new ways of meeting each other and the vastest repository of sexual imagery in history) and moral changes (greater tolerance of experimentation) had converged to make our sexual lives different from our parents’. I began this inquiry as a journalist, which was convenient as I could continue to think of myself as a sexually unadventurous person who longed for monogamy at the same time as I sought out people who had pursued the maximum possibilities of the contemporary sexual paradigm.
I met with BDSM pornographers and a group that practised a clit vibrator technique called orgasmic meditation. I interviewed a group of polyamorists who worked at Google. I spoke with the founders of Tinder, Grindr, OKCupid and Match. Within the first year of this research, the journalism project began to affect me. I learned from the orgasmic meditators about how I received sexual overtures with anxiety, and I practised acknowledging the presence of sexuality in everyday interactions, which in turn made it easier to meet people who I wanted to have sex with. Watching the pornographers made me more proud of my body. I understood it was the mere fact of bodies and their exposure that was stimulating, that the bodies did not need to look like those in magazines. I considered the polyamorists’ contention that monogamy was pursued more out of fear than love, and I began to wonder why I, a person who had always sought out novelty, had clung to such a limited ideal of sexual relationships. I began to value the sexual freedom I had lamented before, to feel fortunate to have it.
I had always assumed my 30s would represent a time when my sexuality, and my life, would “settle down”. The opposite happened. I felt an opening-up as I learned more about possibilities that I had naively assumed were not for me. I am no longer scared of ending up alone.
Sex in my 30s has been better than the sex that preceded it. I feel certain of my body. I have learned what I like and don’t like, and I am continuing to learn, part of an ongoing inquiry to better understand my body. I feel less vulnerable to rejection, or at least I’m better at working my way out of the frustration. It is easier to meet people because I am no longer shy about expressing sexual interest in the people I like, although I was lucky, this year, to meet someone I love.
We are together with long-term plans, and both interested in how to live as a couple and as two people who value sexual inquiry, honesty and authenticity. The questions that will concern me for the second half of my 30s are how to define commitment beyond monogamy, as well as whether I want to try to have a child, and the kind of family I’d want to create. I am not as young as I was, but I feel young still, and I look forward to the sexual experiences still available for discovery.
Future Sex by Emily Witt is published by Faber & Faber at £12.99. To order a copy for £9.99, go to bookshop.theguardian.com
Sex in my 40s: Clover Stroud
Sex in my 40s is unquestionably the best of my life. I am strong and hungry. My body isn’t a temple. I definitely don’t want detached reverence and gentle handling, so it’s good to feel I’m old enough to be grasped and used for pleasure, just as I want to grasp and use back. This is gratifying because a decade ago I wasn’t sure I’d get here, although I didn’t lack confidence. I knew my sexual power as a 15-year-old – how funny and how silly it was to watch grown-up men shake with a shrug of my adolescent shoulder. That power sometimes felt great, but suddenly realising it as a teenage girl is like putting a child in a car and expecting that child to drive along a motorway. It can be lethal.
As a younger woman I was going through the motions, a cartoon pastiche of what I thought was “sexy” – not what I felt as deeply sexual or pleasurable. That pressure to appear sexy was monumental, and meant being, at the very least, orgasmic. Never mind that I very rarely got there. I was adept at faking as that made the man I was having sex with happy. The subterfuge I went through, making myself come, alone, in the bathroom after his main event was over, now seems insane.
A shrink helped me unravel the muddle in my head that I had got into around always hoping to please while also being in control. Then I finally understood that when really I let go, my pleasure and power would increase.
I met the man who is now my (second) husband when I was 34, and I knew instantly there was something different about how desire could feel and sex might be with him, because of my overriding desire to listen to his voice. Of course, I also wanted to lick every drop of sweat from his body, but it started when we talked. Performance and looking sexy was irrelevant when my mind, in his hands, had become sex itself.
Seven years later I am now 41 and, oh, the sex is still fantastic. There’s no question of boredom or a waning of desire through marital familiarity. Fidelity and commitment feel like the ultimate ride when these orgasms are the spoils of that labour! But there is a rub. Our feet are pressed hard on the accelerators of work. And we have five children – two teenagers from my first marriage, then three more, who are now four, two and six months. I have never really planned any pregnancy, but none of this was accidental, either. And sex when conception is a possibility is different from regular shagging. Maybe that’s partly why I have so many children, because even the best drugs don’t compare to that giddying high of creating another life.
Getting back to it after another baby is born sometimes feels like clearing out the attic. It seems exhausting and messy and unnecessary when you contemplate it, but then you get started and suddenly you want to move into the attic and lock the door and just lie there naked all the time. It’s only within the past few years I’ve stopped resenting my body or wanting it to be something different (thinner, taller) and enjoyed it as it is. This makes me happier, and generally when I am happy, sex is better, more generous, more uninhibited.
Of course, through all this conception and pregnancy, my body does not always work as I want it to. I have had three miscarriages among my pregnancies, and two horrible bouts of postnatal depression that were far more agonising than childbirth was and lasted months, not a few hours.
When sex is about reproduction rather than purely recreation, the loving and hurting are bound very close together; few people have a completely easy ride through conception. Most of us who want children at this age will have had to manage some degree of disappointment or sadness. Miscarriage and postnatal depression hurt a lot, but so does the uncertainty of IVF or traumatic childbirth, for example.
Sex isn’t especially easy in a relationship when the stakes are having a baby, or not, rather than just having an orgasm, or not. The consolation is love, if you can hold on to it. The demands of our life also mean there is absolutely no slack. I know about the theory of date nights and scheduling sex. But achieving those things is often impossible, because when the unholy trinity of a work deadline, the school play and having sex are all vying for my attention, then sex will always be – has to be – the thing that falls to the bottom of the list.
This is frustrating. Sometimes I sit on the sofa as the kids come in, each with their own version of breaking news that needs my absolute attention, and feel as flat as a piece of paper. It’s practically difficult too. And I can guarantee that when my husband and I go to bed at night, we’ll always find hot little bodies there, clutching a paraphernalia of bottles and teddies. Then that thought of the hot, slippery sex we’d been talking about is a million miles from the room.
My elder children are 13 and 16 so I know that all these things do finally pass. But my fear is that by then another life test will rear up (oh menopause I hear you galloping up behind me) and right now I want more sex. I want a lot more than my life gives me at the moment.
The Wild Other by Clover Stroud is published by Hodder & Stoughton at £20. To order a copy for £15, go to bookshop.theguardian.com
Sex in my 50s: Mariella Frostrup
I felt a shiver of shame recently, noticing the well-honed curve of a bicep and olive-skinned perfection of a theatre companion. It was a sensation that came as a blessed relief, a reminder that there’s life in this old dog yet.
Sex in our 50s? It’s a crazy thought! We are way too busy trying to save our marriages, panicking about our financial futures and wondering how to keep our jobs post-60. But is it sex, or a particular variety of sex that’s in shorter supply? In youth sex is an adventure. We do it for fun, to increase our confidence, to curry favour, to alleviate sadness, to get pregnant, in hope of finding love, because we’re drunk, because everyone else is. In middle age, having had our babies, shed some insecurity along the way and been released from the demands of an insatiable libido, there are far fewer reasons to have sex – and when you do, it’s never “just” sex, which is where the problems begin.
Could that driving force post puberty, the all-consuming passion that kept us in bed all day and up all night be one of the devastating losses to be endured along the road? If so, those now hazy decades past of coupling take on an entirely new pallor. Dirty deeds, rather than regrets appear time well invested in anticipation of the perceived desert of passionless middle-age. The majority of mid-lifers like myself are in long-term relationships (or easing their way out of them) and while the absence of abandoned passion is an oft-quoted symptom of an unhappy liaison, it’s also a fact of life for those who remain coupled-up down the decades. There’s relief to be found in a life no longer spent surfing irrational emotional urges, but also regret that the pounding beat of passion plays a less emphatic tune. The most common post-coital endearment recognisable to those of my generation is “That was nice, we should do it more often,” and it does sum up sex with a long-term companion.
Your once-favoured pastime loses status in your 50s, becoming an also-ran in the steeplechase of life, or, more corrosively, a battleground, where daily skirmishes are played out. The minor irritations and major annoyances of an enduring relationship all find expression in the bedroom with the regularity, or infrequency, of your love-making, serving as a rough guide to the state of your union. The satisfying, unifying rewards of making love – increased intimacy, better sleep, less stress – become a treat to be traded rather than a part of our daily routine.
I think I just praised sex as a sleep aid. I must be getting old. Crazy, lustful passion may not be a regular menu item for the over-50s, but if we are meant to mature as we age, then maybe that’s no bad thing. Young bodies are made for tossing inhibitions to the wind. In later years there’s fun to be had feeling similar inhibitions, but they’re more likely to be found with a partner who knows the “sorrows of your changing face” (and body I’d add) as Yeats put it. Sex in isolation, driven by the body’s biological demands, is definitely less common among my contemporaries and, when it does occur, rarely admired. As my 12-year-old daughter likes to remind us when she sees her parents as much as kiss: “That’s disgusting!”
In your 50s, if you are having it, the last thing you want to do is boast about it. In youth there’s a misguided notion that the more sexual conquests you make the more attractive you must be. In midlife, careering from one sexual tryst to another merely smacks of desperation. So why the gulf in perception? It’s certainly another example of ageism. Luckily, it’s not a problem many of us have to negotiate. Instead, we’re learning how to persevere with our sexual lives without the fuel of unparalleled passion.
At this age sex is about “making love”, engaging in an act that is frequently more about maintaining intimacy than it is about animal instinct. For many, pornography becomes a useful tool to spark immediately accessible sexuality, though arguably creates as many casualties as it does satisfied customers.
The seminal movie about women having sex in later life (so unpalatable a topic is it) remains 1967’s The Graduate, where the voracious cougar is played by a 35-year-old Anne Bancroft! Our screens, where the zeitgeist is regularly reflected, may not lack mid-agers having sex, but the main characteristic they share is that they’re men. Also note how seldom it is with age-appropriate partners. So is 50something sex also a casualty to everyday sexism?
Refusing to allow sex to become a memory, no matter how mundane the mechanics, is how we learn to marry wisdom to maturity. When I curl into my husband’s back at night, comfort and companionship seem a fair exchange for unbridled passion and, some days, a better deal altogether. Even that beautiful bicep pales in comparison.
Desire: 100 of Literature’s Sexiest Stories, chosen by Mariella Frostrup, is published by Head of Zeus at £25. To order a copy for £21.25, go to bookshop.theguardian.com
Sex in my 60s: Penny Arcade
I have been highly sexed all my life. I believe sex and our life force are one and the same. However, sex is a changing thing, it does not stay the same throughout one’s life – and people who think it does are in for some disappointment.
I knew I was attracted to boys and girls by the age of five, even before masturbation. I lived in what Catholics call a state of impure thought. I imagined sexual play between girls, but also between boys. No one told me about homosexuality – I thought I had invented it.
The withering and judgemental attitudes of the early 1960s made me terrified of experiencing sex and I felt my desires as an aberration – until I discovered gay men. I entered a milieu where sex was appreciated, sought after and openly and proudly discussed in great detail.
In my mid-30s, like many bohemians, I undertook sex work to support my theatre work, but also out of a fascination with different sexual cultures. My life has been a Ferris wheel of experience. I have loved men and women. I have managed to get married three times. I have stumbled into a live-in relationship with a brilliant but macho narcissist who conducted an athletic and enthusiastic seduction of other women on a weekly basis, but for 10 months was a sexual paradise.
But by 45, my mantra was: “Every time I have sex I get into a relationship, every time I get into a relationship I stop having sex!”
My sex life bubbled along until my 50s. But at 55, menopause was an ambush. I experienced complete loss of libido overnight. Luckily a woman gynaecologist counselled me: “It’s menopause,” she said, “not menostop.”
Since the age of 58, I have been delightfully single and mostly self-sexual. Now, at 66, I am no longer sexually impulsive and no longer entering relationships for the sake of a sexual or romantic partnership. The sexual overdrive of the biological, child-bearing years has gone, leaving me with a more manageable, less all-consuming sex drive. Everything to its season.
I adore being single. I am rather gleeful about all the time I have to myself. But make no mistake, I still get turned on and passionately, sexually drawn to someone, but I don’t abandon my life in the process. Finally, I can devote time to my most intimate relationship – the one with myself. What will my 70s and 80s will bring? Since I have much less emotional baggage, I suspect I have yet another sexual renaissance or two in my future.
Bad Reputation by Penny Arcade is published by MIT press at £14.95
Sex in my 70s: Marie de Hennezel
I belong to the generation that led the sexual revolution of the 1970s in France. We broke down barriers and fought for the rights to contraception and abortion. All these years later, I am pleading for a new sexual revolution – one for seniors. I ask myself, how is it that the sexuality of older people is still a taboo? I blame our obsession with youth. I’m struck by how the media’s focus seems to revolve around plastic surgery to prove women can stay young and sexy.
To me the goal of sensuality is not to preserve the body I had, but rather to maintain my health and desires. And I believe that, perhaps for the first time, women my age are not afraid to fight this youth-obsessed culture and reclaim our sexuality. Ours is a dynamic generation, generous and selfish at once, driven by the urge to travel, learn and explore new territory. We have desires that won’t go away as we age.
Even so, sex is not the same as in our youth. It becomes less impulsive, slower, more sensual and all encompassing. Intimacy, the ability to express and share one’s emotions and trust are all essential.
I believe women have a natural gift for erotic intimacy, so if they choose, they can guide their partners along the path to a new, different sexuality. And I believe women also have a responsibility to show their partner how much pleasure they take in being with them, and to help create a kind of erotic complicity that is both tender and gentle. There’s a marked change from the dynamic of our 20s. As they get older, men can become vulnerable. They may be scared of losing their virility. If some octogenarians are still capable of an erection sufficient for penetrative sex, it is because they feel desired. The woman’s attitude is, therefore, very important. Women can also experience immense sexual pleasure as we age – some say they have better orgasms after the age of 60, and don’t need the man’s erection in order to come. What’s more, older women who are sexually satisfied have often discovered something important: that they can be the initiators of sensual pleasure.
As they get older some people decide to give up on sex. That is their right of course and, if it is a mutual decision, it isn’t a problem. I believe there is no age limit to love, sex and desire, even if we hide it after a certain age. It is like a secret that we don’t want to reveal, but that plays a key role in the physical and psychological health of older people. We should talk about it more.
Sex After Sixty by Marie de Hennezel is published by Scribe at £12.99. To order a copy for £11.04, go to bookshop.theguardian.com