Female baby boomers are well into menopause – and beyond; part of a giant wave of grey (even though the grey has been tinted somewhat).
You would think this generation of women, teenagers of the 1960s en route to their 60s, the so-called “liberation” generation, daughters of Woodstock, drivers of modern feminism, would have an original attitude to sexuality as they engage the challenges of aging today. In truth, in general, they don’t!
There are more woman over the age of 50 in the world today than probably ever before in world history; 45 million US women born in the baby boom years alone are now doing the critical menopause passage, and 11 million UK women. Globally, age distribution in the older category is increasing in all the more developed countries.
Although this enormous wave of women are more self assured and economically empowered than any generation before and can look forward to a reasonable lifespan and quality of life , nevertheless there is also a faltering and a wilting.
The same generation who “benefited” from the extreme youth focus of the sixties simply don’t know for sure how to age these days. The matter of aging female sexuality is fraught with old psychic shadows and it is haunting baby boomer women today. The old stereotypes won’t do; and new prototypes aren’t there yet.
“Our sexual appetites aren’t lost as we age, it is the image of ourselves as sexual that we dutifully abandon to fit the bygone stereotype of patriarchy that regimented women’s sex to accommodate the economic power structure … and keep men’s shoulder to the wheel of commerce and women’s prodigious sexual power confined to childbearing”, says Nancy Friday, author of the seminal book My mother, my self..
We are terrified of becoming ugly old hags. The word hagia, which means “holy” in Greek, was once a reverential title for wise and respected older women; it degraded to “hag”. How did the revered and sacred come to mean old and ugly?
Historical images that have stereotyped post-menopausal women are awful and insidious. They infect our culture – and deeply affect our own self-evaluations.
In 16th and 17th century Europe, post-menopausal women were witches, defined as satanic and diabolically sexual. In the 18th and 19th centuries, they were either pitiful old maids or idealised ageing grandmothers – righteous, virtuous – and totally asexual. (Sexuality was contained within marriage and linked only to procreation.)
In the first half of the 20th century, post-menopause was considered a dangerous age filled with melancholia, “climacteric insanity”, and “remnants of infantility”. Sexuality after menopause was considered pathological by medical definition, and neurotic by Freudian definition. Except for being a doting grandmother, life as she knew it pretty much ended.
This is the miserable menopausal milieu into which baby boomers were born. Then the doctors took over and menopause, and life thereafter, was totally medicalized. Menopausal and post-menopausal women formed a perfect client group for the growing medical profession – large numbers, ample finances, and vague symptoms. Sex was at least now considered “normal” if there was an interest, but there was no deeper evaluation of what this could mean.
So its not for nothing that baby boomer women are a little confused – in terms of both aging and sexuality. What happens to baby boomer women as they meet their 50s onwards?
Somewhere along the menopause continuum, there is an acquiescence or reconciliation to whatever has been achieved or transpired to date. Emotionally there is an acceptance of sorts and a sense of being more authentically oneself, as best as is possible this time round; however contented or discontented people are with their lives at this over-the-mid-point point. The issue around sexuality is entrapped in individual life narratives and old opinions. There is more concern about financial security.
A lot revolves around people’s physical well being, health and fitness. Of course by the time menopause has struck, people are living the consequences of a lifetime of stress, wrong food, hard living, plus the deep cultural expectations around getting older which have impacted their bodies. Partners may have died, become ill or lost interest.
Only now are there books around talking about the soul (as well as the medical science) of menopause, where thoughts, intentions and our spirituality determine a different bodily response. There is also the rapidly evolving nutritional science of anti aging and wellness which create more options. Where everything disintegrates into illness and frailty, sexuality dissipates with the life force itself. A good dose of luck and good attitude also makes a difference.
Discussions with baby boomer women reflect a remarkable stonewalling of sorts, as people defend the position they are currently carved into. “When people reach our age, what is there to learn?” There are those bold and passionate Lolitas in their 50s who love sex, love and seduction and are now coming face to face with the old double standard of older women with younger men.
Some baby boomer women don’t expect to be seen as sexy but are proud to be living from an authentic centre, with or without sex. Some, who are celibate, see sexuality as spiritual but sublimated into and expressed through art, home, loving family, pets. Or they get into religion and/or spirituality or good causes.
All will agree that you can enjoy a “roll in the hay” when you are over 60, but its all about sexual intercourse with a partner. There is a fundamental confusion between being sexually active and an erotic, spiritual sexual awareness.
For many its not about age but about situation; having a partner is the key. It is considered something normal, fun and if you are dating the right person, are married (and he can still do it) or in a committed relationship. Others speak about sex with a consenting friend, who for whatever reason you would not want a “relationship” with but agree to safe sex occasionally.
Others simply give up. Mary, a divorcee in her mid 50s, had spent a few unsatisfactory promiscuous years as she went through a difficult divorce. When she became a grandmother, she literally closed down and focused fully on her new role..
The media support the idea that grannies are asexual. Whenever we are presented with an older couple engaged in sexual intimacy, it is almost always as comedy. Why should older sex be so (uncomfortably) funny?
Women who have studied Tantra and Taoism have a conception of a sacred sexuality that is ageless. But these ancient systems only became accessible in the West during the nineties, so their profound teachings are still being integrated into and adapted into our life.
The key is that the whole understanding of sexuality and the erotic needs to be deepened and our personal wounds need to be healed. Midlife is a really good time to do this.
But most women operate exactly from the same set of memories, thoughts and feelings that ran their entire sexual lives. Everyone has an operating viewing point on sex: sex for reproduction, fun and pleasure, a sin, a need, a duty, for love or friendship. The sexuality they talk about is the same sexuality of their youth and adult years, a sexuality informed by old psychic thoughts and attitudes that they have not cleared and brought to consciousness and feelings they have not integrated.
Now, in post menopause, there is not a strong enough intellectual and psychological framework for another more sensuous and sustaining view – sex as something metaphysical, religious, spiritual, energetic.
Many boomer women talk about becoming a crone; but where should we seek the wisdom of the crone? And who said the crone is asexual?
There is a psychological resistance to the integration of what Dr Rachel Hillel calls the exile of “sacred erotic-sensual powers” from ancient feminine contents in the unconscious. She calls for the redemption of the feminine erotic soul in a book of the same name. in which she describes how our full expression and understanding of natural sexuality is fundamental to building a genuine female identity. The “erotic-sensual feminine psychic contents” are holy she says.
Perhaps the hard truth is that the sexual revolution of the 1960s failed to fulfill its promise of a real liberation because it offered an inverted version of a masculine prototype – assertive, goal oriented, manipulative. It might have been free, but it had no soul and no feminine sensibility.
What would a liberated feminine aging and aging sexuality be like?
It would seem that this is a challenge for those baby boomers who are not rushing into an asexual old age?.