When I was 11 years old, my mother silently snuck into my bedroom. Under the cover of midnight, she sat cross-legged at the end of my bed and proceeded to give me The Talk, although it was more of a whisper. Instead of focusing on the anatomy of sex — the biological prophecies by which, some say, our bodies were made to meld into one — my mother chose to emphasize pleasure. She spoke about the importance of passion: pursuing it, asking for it and finding it within yourself. “Sex is art,” she told me, as I anxiously played with the hair above my lip. “And art isn’t an act: It’s a process, an experience.” She turned off my bedside lamp; stood up to leave the room. “It’s beautiful.”
Society has a tendency to perpetuate this idea that the older a woman grows, the more she yearns for the beauty of her youth. It’s a convoluted concept, and one that goes hand in hand with the belief that women can only reach a certain sexual peak before hitting a steady decline and returning to a state of childlike innocence. As it turns out, that couldn’t be further from the truth. It was once bewildering to me that my mother could be so candid about sex. But after speaking with Sylvia, Barbara and Michele — all women 70 or older — about their relationships to pleasure, I now realize that some women only grow more comfortable in their sexualities and in their bodies as they age.
Below, their stories as told to me — accounts that capture life’s daily pleasures with so much grace and tenacity that you might just understand why people say a work of art only gains value with perspective, over time.
Sylvia is a writer living in West Harlem.
I was born in Alexandria, Egypt, but I left very early as a stateless political refugee. We had a very hard time getting to the United States because the immigration quota system was in effect there — there were something like 17 Egyptians allowed in annually. We spent several years moving around Europe just trying to make it to the top of that list.
When we finally reached New York, I didn’t speak any English. My parents were always acutely aware of the fact that they were immigrants. There was always this underlying current of fear that something was going to go wrong. They never spoke about sex — absolutely not. It was something that was not talked about, at all, ever.
One time, actually, I caught my parents having sex. Afterwards, my mother said, “You must never tell anybody what you have seen!” She put the fear of God into my life. Fast-forward to four years later when my shrink asked me if I ever caught my parents in “the primal act” — I said “yes.” The next week, my mother arrived at the shrink’s office and said, “We pay all this money for you to get well, and you’re telling lies to the doctor!”
When I was in seventh grade, I fell madly in love, more than I have been in my whole life. It was really intense. We’re still in touch, still see each other. We got back together years later to figure out if it was meant to be. I got a letter from him saying, “I’m going to be in California, we should meet.” I was already married, but I turned around to my husband and said, “Bryce — I’m going to California. Something has come up.” I hopped on a plane and spent two weeks traveling down the coast with this guy. And we decided that we were not, after all, meant to be.
When I was younger, sex was fun. And I was lucky — I came of age after the arrival of the pill and before the arrival of AIDs — so we had a lot of time to really screw our brains out. We did! We slept with everybody. You’d be talking to your friends and you’d say, “Oh, I just read so and so, and there was this great sex scene.” Then your friend would say, “Oh, you know, we’ve never had sex. Maybe we should just get it out of the way so that it doesn’t interfere with our personal relationship!” We slept with hundreds of people. Just everybody. It was something that we could do all the time and we had great drugs that enhanced it. We had a lot of fun. And then it just came to a stop. Life really stopped being fun. But I still feel like I’m coasting on the battery of the ’60s and ’70s.
I didn’t apply to college even though I should have. I began working at Brentano’s, which was a bookstore downtown. And I became a drug dealer. It was by accident — I didn’t set out to be that way, I just knew somebody who knew somebody else. It was a good way to make money! I ended up getting busted a year later for what was, at the time, the biggest federal bust for LSD. There was this big conspiracy trial. They hit me with, I don’t know, 97 counts.
I had been living with my friend from high school, Bryce. [After the bust], my father just turned into this Middle Eastern menace. He went down to see Bryce, who was also in jail, and paid his bail with the understanding that he would marry me. Now, nobody told me about this. I found out about [the deal he made with my father] seven years later, when I divorced him: My father had made me marry this man nobody liked, whom I was not in love with, because he didn’t want anybody to know I was living with a guy, and it looked better in court if you were married. (I got two years of probation, and Bryce went to jail on weekends for two years.)
I have since come to realize how lust, love and pleasure work. A lot of this stuff only exists for the species to reproduce, and it only lasts long enough for that to happen. That wild feeling of being passionately in love with someone and you just can’t wait to see them again and rip your clothes off? It fades, and it fades fast, in my opinion. It didn’t take long for me to wake up and look at Bryce sleeping next to me and think, Why am I here? We lived in a human filing cabinet. I was doing any type of clerical position that people would hire me for. I had absolutely zero self esteem.
I was never in love with Bryce. I met someone else while I was still married to him. Dumped him in about 24 hours and moved in with the new guy. Philip, the second guy, had awakened my desire to have children.
I guess it was in the process of trying to have children, and having a hard time in doing so, that sex became more necessary in accomplishing a goal than something that I was really enjoying. I had evolved — I was about 37 when I had my first child. But I do wonder if it had more to do with guy I was with. He was a psychopath, and still is. I thought he would kill me — now, we don’t see him or speak to him. Perhaps if I had been with Prince Charming it would have been better, but I don’t pay much mind to Prince Charming anymore.
I eventually left my second husband. One day my son came up to me and said, “You know what, mom? You really need to do something for yourself.” He handed me a page of The New York Times, one of those half-page ads from the school of general studies at Columbia, and told me I should apply. So I said, “What the hell!” I got in. They gave me a full free ride. I was 57 at the time.
I studied everything — being in school really grounded me. I realized what it really is that I have always loved doing, and what I truly want to do, which is write. I graduated with degrees in evolutionary biology and writing fiction. It was the happiest and proudest day of my life. I was pleased as punch.
The greatest pleasure that I’ve ever felt, the physical pleasure that turns me on more than anything in the world, is writing. I get a feeling like I have a halo of light flashing around my head. Every single neuron is in sync. It is just dazzling. I love that more than anything in the world.
I had a very attractive man sleep here a few years ago; he had been a professor of mine. One of my friends asked if I was going to approach him in the middle of the night. And you know what I said in response to my friend? My idea of great sex nowadays is lying on the bed next to him, with his arm around me, as he reads to me. That’s pleasurable.
Barbara is a consultant living on the Upper East Side.
I grew up in Brooklyn, New York. My parents never gave me a sex talk — they divorced when I was seven years old. My mother was single and dating other men, doing her thing. I have an identical twin sister, though; we’ve been attached at the hip since conception. At 21, we moved out together and shared an apartment. We just had the most fabulous time. Then she got married when she was 26, and my heart broke. To be cut off from my sister was very difficult for me, but it was a good opportunity to go out and do something on my own. I loved being single.
When I was growing up, you didn’t have sexual relationships with men until you were married. So, yes, I thought about getting married and having children. At first, I wanted someone to take care of me — it was what everyone was doing in those days! Women weren’t going to colleges and starting their own professions and being on their own. But I changed my mind as I got older — since I didn’t get married young like all my friends did, the world changed for me. You didn’t need to get married to have sex. You could go out, you could meet men. You could sleep with men! There was a point in my life where I was dating a lot of different men, and that was great. But as I grew up, I decided that I wanted just one person. I didn’t want to have sex with anybody unless I had a personal relationship with them. It had to be someone whom I cared about a lot. Always.
Growing up, I felt like a lot of my friends were having sex with men just because they wanted somebody to be with. Somebody to stay with them. And that was never important to me. Life isn’t predetermined in your twenties — you can really redefine who you want to become. Everything changed for me! I wasn’t even interested in getting married until I met my husband.
I got married 12 years after my sister did — at 38 years old. I wanted a partner in life. I used to see women with men, and the men were so obnoxious. I used to think, “I’m so happy I don’t have to deal with that.” But when I met my husband, he was different. He’s independent — I like men who are extremely independent. Any man who is clingy and all over me, I have a real problem with. He is very interesting; we have a great relationship. He does his own thing, and I do mine. I’m eight years older than him. We had major issues because our families are different ethnicities and practice different religions. But ultimately, we decided to elope. The only thing I told him was: I can’t get married without my sister being my witness. So she came, too.
Sex and pleasure are two different things, but they’re very related. I didn’t have sex until I was 21. For me, the only way that I can feel pleasure in a sexual relationship is to be with someone whom I really care about. Who else can give you pleasure? I don’t think I could sleep with somebody just because they’d be a good sex partner! Can you experience different pleasure with different sexual partners? Absolutely. But it still has to be somebody that I care about. That hasn’t changed for me.
I experienced sex as it happened. I learned a lot along the way, but I don’t know if I would have wanted it to be any other way than it was. I don’t really have any regrets at all. Was it frightening to have sex for the first time? Yes. But I knew what pleasured me. I’ll tell you one thing that I really had difficulty with: saying to a man, “Oh, can you actually do this?” Speaking up. As I got older, it got a little bit easier. I think it is something you have to do. There are a lot of men out there who don’t know what to do or what will be pleasurable!
The attitude around sex has changed so much since I was younger. It used to be male dominated, and women didn’t really get a say about it. I think it’s much different now — people are more open and you can talk about it! To your friends, to the people you’re dating. It’s empowering! It makes a difference.
I think in today’s world, women are very careful about protecting themselves. Sex is very emotional. What if you have sex with someone and afterwards they never talk to you again? It happens a lot! You have to be ready to understand that. It’s a big deal. Sex is extremely intimate, and I worry that today, we’re losing the intimacy. But if women want to have sex without that kind of intimacy, it’s their call.
Michele is an artist living in Soho.
I was born in Miami Beach in 1945, right after World War II — a time of optimism and new ideas. Miami Beach was only 30 years old.
It was a sunny childhood, full of blue skies and warm waters, which really allowed me to think of other things beyond my own physical body. I was able to explore the world around me with a wonderful sense of freedom. People would sit outdoors in the evening and watch the stars or Venus rising, admire the sunset over the tree lines. There was no distraction from the forces of nature.
I was raised in a home that celebrated pleasure. The pleasure of daily life was emphasized. It was important to celebrate each meal. To say, “What a beautiful bowl of berries! Aren’t we lucky that somebody picked them?” The table was always set with a deliberate nod to beauty. Nothing was done with haste, just to get through the day. Meals were always a special time full with pleasure — the pleasure of the food, the pleasure of the taste. In fact, meals were seductive.
In the summertime we’d go to the ocean. It was full of pleasure! The pleasure of the sun and the salt. It was not lost on my parents. They knew the seasons. They knew when you could smell the fertile earth! Everything was celebrated. Everything was, “Isn’t this beautiful!” The ritual of everyday life was pleasure.
Sex was a natural part of living. My parents were openly affectionate. It was never hush-hush. As we became teenagers — and of course, the rules were different those days and sex was not discussed in the same way — my parents never told me that I had to be a virgin when I got married. They never asked what I was doing with my partners. They would hear me giggle and ignore it. They trusted my own ability to monitor my life. A lot of this came from my mother: Her sense of respecting the body translated into sex. My respect for my body being the temple that houses the higher faculty of the mind came from her.
Sex and pleasure were never connected in my life. I felt like pleasure was everywhere all the time, but sex was a very specific act. Pleasure, on the other hand, was a lubricant. Sex still felt like something to be preserved by two people who wanted to use it as a way to bond deeply. Sex was a part of my parents’ life, and it was something they enjoyed. They never discussed it directly, but you knew it from the way my father admired my mother, the books they read, the references. It was so there. Henry Miller had written Tropic Of Cancer, and D.H. Lawrence had written Lady Chatterley’s Lover; we would talk about these books at the dinner table. We openly discussed films and literature which had sexual content, which in the time I grew up, was repressed and taboo. But not in my home.
There’s young love. There’s marriage. And then there’s something else. It’s so universal, and it makes me realize that we’re not supposed to fall in love over and over again. It’s a construct, a cultural overlay on our natural inclinations to bond. I think the notion of the “sacred bond” is something that might be passing. Women don’t necessarily need that bond, which has historically implied submission. We’re in a paradigm shift.
It’s important for women to protect themselves in all of this. Men have something we don’t — testosterone is a drug that nobody has really written the book on, now that it’s not needed to hunt mammoths and chase animals. It’s spilling over into unnecessary fields. You have to decide what is sacred for yourself — and something always has to be sacred.
“Me Too” has done a wonderful job in taking down the last grimm. It’s been painful, but it was necessary. Of course, there’s always Madame Defarge sending the next aristocrat to the guillotine — but no movement is perfect. And this is a movement that needed to happen. I was there for the first movement: Betty Friedan wrote The Feminine Mystique when I was 13. And people started talking a little bit, but it wasn’t really mainstream. When I was in college, there were still panty raids. It really was a different world. There was no women’s movement until ‘72. Why hasn’t the women’s movement taken off in 50 years? It’s very simple. Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, these are all upper-middle-class women. Others in the movement, if their husbands, fathers, lovers, sons or brothers had wanted to give up one quarter of an inch of their yardstick, there would have been movement. But the men didn’t want it. They didn’t give up anything — not for the people they professed to love. Finally, women had to wrench it out of their hands. They just can’t have it anymore.
Photos by Lulu Graham.