There are few things I love more than the Modern Love section in the New York Times. In a world with too little of it, this sacred place holds and nurtures love [in all its complicated, messy glory], once a week for its readers [and now, listeners]. For those who have yet to experience Modern Love, the 5-second snapshot looks like this:
- Weekly series of essays
- All about love (however you define that)
- Submitted by lay people. (Sure, there are professional writers and bloggers that write some of the essays but most of the most heart-wrenching, gut-exposing stuff is written by normal people. The Joe Schmoes of the world. The me’s.)
No, this isn’t my debut as a Modern Love author, though a girl can dream. This is about the most recent podcast of Modern Love. The podcast essentially recycles all of the column’s material by having famous people read the column. The most recent podcast of Modern Love recycled Nancy Price Freedman’s 2009 essay of, “Yes, We Do. Even at Our Age.” Freedman’s essay was written out of frustration. She wanted people to know that older adults were still intimate, and yes, they even had sex. Misconceptions about older adults and sex were everywhere, and she wanted to put an end to them.
I had all the feelings about the article when I first read it in 2009. I remember only because I was living with my grandparents at the time and couldn’t conceptualize them having sex. Our bedrooms shared a wall, for god’s sake. The audacity! It was right around that time that I also realized my grandfather’s favorite pastime was hot tubbing naked and then, after about an hour or so of soaking, he would walk – no towel—to his bedroom to get dressed. He did this when I was away at college and he certainly wasn’t going to change this routine just because I was back from school. So there it was: I was sitting in the living room, probably brooding about something existential, reading Nancy’s essay and I look up to see my naked grandfather walking casually to his bedroom. He waved as he walked by. Needless to say this essay stuck with me.
So when the Modern Love podcast decided to unearth this article for our listening pleasure I naturally downloaded it and, what do you know, it brought out feelings, but 9 years later—something totally different than when I first read it. There were a few things that gave me pause this time around. WomanLab, for better or worse, has made me re-think sexuality across the lifespan:
1. Nancy says we place too much emphasis on long-term physical passion, but so does she!!
I agree with her in the sense that the physical electricity that ignites when you first meet someone isn’t something that carries through a long-term relationship. Don’t get me wrong, the hot-and-heavy period is fun and, dare I say, important… but it’s not sustainable. Can you imagine trying to balance a life on top of 24/7 sex for years? God, no. What strikes me, though, is by Nancy purposely avoiding talking about how much she has sex or what she defines as sex (it’s still unclear), there is unintentional emphasis placed on the physical passion of her relationship. Put it out there—and then move on. She says, “Sex at our age is something we’re evidently more comfortable joking about than talking about honestly. But that doesn’t mean it’s not happening, despite our declining energy, joints and memory.” By dancing around the subject, she is proving her point. Long-term physical passion, whether she knows it’s silly or not, is still emphasized and it still feels important in her long-term marriage. I would have loved to see her say something more explicit like, “Listen, having sex with my husband once a month may not be the same frequency like when we were first married, but it’s what works for us now. And yes, it’s still happening.”
2. EVERYONE should be accustomed to the idea that older adults are sexually active. Period. End of story.
I’m embarrassed by own behavior and ignorance in 2009. How could I have not known older adults—and yes, my grandparents—were having sex? When Nancy describes a young doctor asking, “Oh, you are still sexually active?” my skin crawled thinking that someone would have the audacity to ask that in a medical setting. We need to be beyond this. The conversation should be on preserving and celebrating sex across the lifespan, not on the shock and awe that it’s happening. Because guess what? It is.
3. Sex at an older age can be a distraction from the truth that intimacy is a crucial element to aging and aging well. We need to be talking about this more as our parents and grandparents get older and, inevitably, lose lifelong partners.
Truer words have never been written (spoken?). This was particularly cutting as, now 9 years after reading this article the first time, my grandfather is no longer around to walk naked from the hot tub to his bedroom. His death from Alzheimer’s was particularly painful as it left his partner—my grandmother—to navigate life solo. I had no expectations that Nancy would broach this subject, but I wish someone would. Future blog post, perhaps? But listening to this essay made me wonder, for those who have lost long term partners, what are ways they can find and derive intimacy as they age? I am struck, much like Nancy, by the hyper-sexualization of older adult relationships. Towards the end of the article she writes, “Apparently plenty of industries are banking on the fact that retired couples want to pursue sex as actively as they pursue golf and tennis.”
Are there solutions out there that fill a need for intimacy after the loss of a partner?
I wish there were more columns like Modern Love. For a while, I was also an avid ‘Weddings’ reader. Call me a sucker—but I love a good love story. Modern Love, however, is a constant in my life. Not because it fills my head with the Disney fairytale, but because it does exactly the opposite. Love is weaved into every small thing we do. A difficult interaction with a coworker, a trip to the grocery store—it’s there—and Modern Love shines a light on those easily overlooked times.
At WomanLab, we write about practical, evidence-based information about sex, cancer, and even aging, like different lubricants and sex therapy. The Modern Love column is a great partner to WomanLab—it’s the story behind WomanLab. And maybe that’s why I love this column so much. It shows us that intimacy is in the everyday interaction and transcends an intimate partner. And maybe, that’s the answer I’m looking for.
Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash