(WOMENSENEWS)–Under what circumstances do women with some experience say sex got better after young adulthood?

Not when they are asked, "Do you [still] want sex and how often?" which assumes that youth sex was fabulous and treats older sex as a series of metered losses. Questions about frequency-over-time reveal little but male anxiety, from Alfred Kinsey on into recent large-scale surveys, including AARP’s.

More sensitive questions are, "Has sex gotten better or worse over your life course, when did improvements occur and why?" These questions start to get at stories of being aged by culture and experience in a period of American sexual history that was crucial to women (and mostly for other reasons, men) who are now in their middle and later lives.

There are credible explanations for why sex subjectively improved for many women as they aged past youth. Thirty or 40 years of enlightenment–contraception, abortion rights, same-sex activism, greater acceptance of divorce and psychotherapy, feminist, disability and anti-racist empowerment–made possible enormous changes in consciousness and behavior.

Women don’t find it hard to tell stories of sexual progress if they started years ago with brutal or incompatible partners, forced pregnancies, unsafe abortions, ignorance of their own erogenous zones and fantasies, a gender ascription that didn’t accord with their sexual selfhood, an ideology of marital "duty," religious proscriptions against passion and against various forms of sexual expression including masturbation, exhaustion at work plus child-rearing or frightening phobias.

Many women surmounted such problems to discover or heighten their satisfaction with sexuality. They could beneficially ask themselves, how did that happen? Did aging have anything to do with that? If you define "aging" without recourse to the medical model, yes.

Agency Grows

Some apparently physiological problems or self-esteem issues disappear. You find the "right person," a good doctor, a wise feminist therapist. Agency grows with knowledge. "Technique" is not a property of persons, as people believed when I was a teenager. (In high school my friend Larry had a reputation as a great lover; that meant he could "satisfy" anyone. My girlfriends and I were so ignorant, we didn’t know that our feelings toward a partner and our relation to virginity, to mention only two factors, were way more important.)

As they age, women acquire experiences that may mature their judgment and lower their risk-taking. They get more power (from jobs, money, the raising of children, mentoring). A woman leaves a situation she defines as unpleasant or she learns to negotiate to improve it.

Over the same historical period, some male peers also learned more about physiology, individual women, themselves, heteronormativity and alternative masculinities. Some changed their behaviors to become better partners.

Given that younger women may be too diffident to suggest behavior their partner does not initiate, women "may reach middle age before accumulating enough experience to discover their own sexual desires," according to author Lillian Rubin.

In the movie "Ruthie and Connie: Every Room in the House," about a lesbian activist couple, Connie said of her former life in a hetero marriage: "I never had an orgasm for 18 years." She didn’t know what an orgasm was until she and Ruthie fell in love.

Post-maternal women, with the distraction of children gone, often like sex better. Women may enjoy their bodies more after menopause, as well as other longed-for freedoms. Becoming postmenstrual in a social world that notices its benefits would make a higher percentage of women expect to have good sex in later life.

Stories of Progress

Gina Ogden, an admired researcher and therapist, has found another basic reason a majority of her older respondents tell progress stories. For them, sexuality means connecting more and more over time with their spirituality–making more eye contact and sharing feelings with a partner, feeling attunement with God, with the goddess, with nature. When sex does get better, it’s because it has richer meanings than it used to have.

The best phase can come late. Hearing that I was looking for lifetime progress stories, an acquaintance I will call Mary wrote, "My mother had her best years sexually (and maybe otherwise) in her 60s, after leaving my father and taking up with the family doctor–a bachelor and good in bed, she let me know. My dad was an alcoholic and she probably should have left him sooner, but couldn’t figure out how. . . The divorce came at her instigation after all the kids had graduated from college. . . .This family doctor had been someone she turned to in desperation during my dad’s depressions."

Alix Kates Shulman found the love of her life at 50, after two (anorgasmic) marriages. She tells a concise sexual age autobiography in her memoir, "To Love What Is."

And then there is my mother. After two marriages that ended in death and divorce respectively, my mother fell in love in her late 70s and had her best loving from a man in his 80s. She would call me weekly to tell me what he said and what she said and what should she do and what would he think . . . ? (The sex may change but the adolescent gossip quotient stays the same–another recurrence.)

The big change comes through empowerment: women becoming sexual subjects rather than "objects." Instead of inquiring, "How must I change?" they may say "I’m fine," or "Finally I am me." You have to learn not what is "normal"–that is unknowable, pragmatically and epistemologically–but what your own range of normal is, and that too may change over time. Later-life sexualities radically spoken have big things to teach.

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Excerpted from the chapter "Improving Sexuality Across the Life Course" from part two, "In the Feminist Country of Later Life," of the book "Agewise: Fighting the New Ageism in America" (University of Chicago Press, 2011).

Margaret Morganroth Gullette, a resident scholar at the Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis University, is also the author of the books "Declining to Decline," which won the Emily Toth Prize as the best feminist book on American popular culture, and "Aged by Culture."

For more information:

Buy the book:
Agewise: Fighting the New Ageism in America

Alix Kates Shulman’s Web site: