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Iris Krasnow hit the best-seller list a dozen years ago with her raw portrait of modern coupledom, “Surrendering to Marriage.” It was one in a series of non fiction books that have reflected Krasnow’s journey through life. She first became an author in her 30’s as a journalist with four children under three. Her topic: balancing work and family. Next, as she matured, came one on self-discovery and her book on the challenges of staying married.
Now, at almost 60, Krasnow is the author of the new book “Sex After…. .” In it, she investigates how people sustain intimacy while facing the challenges of life-stage transitions. She asked more than 150 men, women and experts, “What is sex like after childbirth, menopause, breast cancer and turning 60, 70 or 80?”
And wow! Did she get answers.
Senior Planet spoke to Krasnow just two weeks after “Sex After…” arrived in bookstores and started getting attention from sources as varied as “O” the Oprah Magazine and the Washington Post.
You’re in a long marriage and you’re approaching 60. How do you feel about sexuality now and did you find a common thread among the older women you interviewed?
Over 35 years, thousands of people have told me the most intimate details of their lives. Women have talked to me about shattering the myth that after menopause you have low libido. These women were enjoying more sexual satisfaction and intimacy than they did in their youth.
Women are living longer than ever, they’re outliving their husbands and partners generally, and they’re dating again. Because of the extended life cycle, because of better drugs, because of heightened fitness levels, women are not only living longer they’re living better.
I love growing older. I feel more youthful and energetic and hopeful than ever.
Your book is filled with surprises, but perhaps none as revealing as those in the chapter “Giddy Golden Girls.” Since you’ve been writing about relationships for 35 years, was there anything that surprised you when talking to those women over 70?
I talked to young people who were shocked at old ladies having sex. And there’s another group of people that say, “They do it. That’s great, but I don’t want to know about it.” And there’s me – I knew it was going on, but I didn’t know the extent of it. I think the surprise for me was also about the power of intimacy over the power of sex.
This need for intimacy is a major theme running through “Sex After… .” You write about how intimacy evolves and often makes sex better later in life. But you also say that sex is a bridge to intimacy. So one can lead the other and vice versa?
Sex is never just sex. Twenty-year-olds who are ‘hooking up’ are hoping the sexual chemistry will lead to some kind of emotional connection beyond the physical hookup. And I didn’t talk to one person over 60 who was single and dating and wasn’t looking for both the sexual chemistry and the emotional commitment.
One of the experts you quote, Dr. Melanie Davis, co-president of the Sexuality and Aging Consortium, says, “A pervasive myth is that older women stop wanting to be sexually active after menopause… It’s also a myth that the quality of sex declines with age.”
Even though we’re in 2014, the image of the sexless grandmother still exists. I’ve met the spunkiest, most sexually active women who are in their 70’s and 80’s. These women are vibrant and strong and care about sex.
Another myth is that is that “happily ever after” just happens automatically. You really need to put sex on your to-do list. People have to remember to be sexual. It takes effort and work; it’s a process.
Some women reading about the giddy golden girls – those seniors in your book who are having the best sex ever – may feel they’re somehow not up to par if they don’t want to have sex several times a week.
Sexuality matters to us until the day we die. How we manifest that is different for every woman. There is no gold standard. There is no perfect sex life. What matters the most is how you feel about your sexuality, your level of desire and your libido. You want to communicate your sexual expectations, desires and performance levels to your partner and for your partner to be on the same page. Problems arise when you don’t match.
There are women who are post-menopausal, have lost their libido and don’t want to be on hormones or use the “vaginator” that stretches female sex organs. There were a few women I interviewed who were in intimate relationships with men whose libido matched theirs. They had zero interest in sex and were happy just hiking in the woods.
What about the sexuality of a woman who doesn’t have a partner and may not want one?
One woman I spoke to had been married a long time, had enjoyed a great sex life and now can’t imagine being with another man. She says, “I’m just not interested. I’ll go to the opera. I’ll play tennis. I’ll golf. But I don’t want someone in my bed.” She is the woman who gets a vibrator, and it may be her first. Some women just never thought of pleasuring themselves. They grew up feeling it was naughty and had a lot of guilt about it. For them, this is a new adventure.
Vibrator sales are huge. I can tell you that a big chunk of that industry is sales to women over 60.
Several of the older couples in your book are masters of “outercourse” or are attempting to master it. Is that a word you made up? What does it mean exactly?
Outercourse is a word that I heard over and over again among people active in the sexuality-and-aging field. It means “everything but…” It’s lovemaking without penetration, but that involves kissing, nuzzling, hugging, oral sex… everything but. It’s pleasuring each other with sexy talk. Perhaps it’s erotica or sex toys. It’s playful and comes in quite handy as you age.
That’s really what many women enjoy – young and old: taking your time and exploring each other physically. One 70-year old woman attended a Tantric sex workshop with her husband where they were exploring conscious loving, not just slam-bam sex.
I love the idea of a kind of naughty, playful, arousing alternative to hot sex, which isn’t always possible. And by the way, it’s not always possible for people in their 30’s either, or right after you’ve had a baby.
And men? Their ability to perform changes with age, too, and, as you point out, after prostate surgery.
There is the 85-year-old Viagra King who wants to be rock hard, but I’ve interviewed 43-year- old men who are taking Viagra for performance issues. Everyone is so anxious in this world. Part of the success in sexual intimacy and sustaining a relationship is being able to relax and feel comfortable and nurtured by the person you’re with. One of the most profound messages in my book is to pick the right person in the first place.
Prostate issues are really important. I interviewed one of the top urologists in the country, Dr. Mark Soloway, and his warning to all men is don’t be so quick to go under the knife. If you’re 73 and you have a slow-growing cancer, it’s probably not going to kill you. Soloway is a big proponent of active surveillance. That’s a very important message for men with a high PSA and women with newly diagnosed men. (Click here to learn more about active surveillance for prostate cancer.
Another expert you talked with, Deborah Nichols, a board-certified women’s health nurse practitioner, says older women lose the tingling sensation of being aroused and have to rethink the nature of desire. Does that sensation weaken in men, too?
In the end, it’s all about blood flow. Men get an erection from blood flow. Look at the obese man sitting on the couch and slugging back beers who can’t get it up. Instead of going to a physician and getting five prescriptions, get on a treadmill buddy and stop eating the fettuccine with five-cheese sauces! Give it a try.
I’d say the same thing to a woman. As I get older, I eat less and I exercise more. And it’s got to be more and more, honey, as you get older.
“Sex After…Women Share How Intimacy Changes as Life Changes” (Gotham Books) is available now in hardcover, for Kindle and as an audiobook. Find it on Amazon.
Have more questions about sex for seniors? Every month Senior Planet’s award-winning senior sexpert Joan Price answers questions about everything from loss of desire to solo sex and partner issues. Subscribe now (do it here) and don’t miss a single column!