Haus: Do you think sexual urges lessen as you get older?
Lois: From my experience I think yes they do and sometimes I think they lessen because your energy in general lessens. That’s been the experience I’ve heard relayed back to me most with the people that I have been talking to, even those people who are still really sexually engaged and in long-term relationships. Even when I ask those people still having sex about regularity they still talk about once a month. Sometimes someone may say once a week, but very rarely. And I think, physically, your urge to have sex probably does decline, but I think your imagination becomes more important. It’s as if the body doesn’t lead anymore and the mind needs to help the body because different things happen. I also think our own body image interrupts our sense of desirability, which I suppose is one of the things I am trying to get across through this project; the fact that you don’t have to be young and beautiful to be sexy. And I think we all carry that with us. When we don’t feel sexy, we don’t feel as sexual and we don’t have the same kind of drive. We can talk about the biomedical aspect of this too. I don’t know that much, but in a very literal sense, our hormones drop and that’s the engine that drives us out at 11 o’clock at night to go to the club and find somebody, or find something, and we don’t have that kind of energy anymore. But that’s not to say it doesn’t exist, it’s just in a quieter place.
Haus: Why do you think some people stop having sex after a certain age?
Lois: Well I think physical ability has a lot to do with it too. The kinds of sex you have and how you define sex can change because you’re just not as athletic. Sometimes you may even have literal dysfunction – erectile dysfunction, or other kinds of dysfunction - or you have arthritis and it hurts and you can’t get into those types of positions anymore, or you can’t reach down there because your shoulder doesn’t work… Literal and physical ability can sometimes gets in the way. But I think equal to that, just from the people I’ve talked to, it’s the physical image. Ideas about image and ideas about what sexy is; we have a very limited image of that.
Also, I think access is the next thing down that line. You know, there aren’t that many clubs or places where older people can dress up and go out and feel good about themselves and have a good time. When you’re 60 and even if you feel like going to a club or out on the town; if you go you think you are going to be the only one like that there. That might discourage you. So I think just having access to people in that mood is a great thing. But I’m going to back up for one second though…People over 60 are extremely active – they’re learning Russian, they’re taking Zumba classes and they’re doing tai chi and and all that, but it’s that more social club-like environment doesn’t exist. I think a lot of people are trying to address that though – like Duckie’s The Posh Club. Essentially though, it is those three things – ability, body image and access that might hinder sex in old age.
Lois: Bah! Humbug! No, what I actually say to that is that I think young people think that older people having any sex, married or not married, is distasteful. I really do think that. It’s like when someone says “imagine your parents having sex” – that’s the kind of classic thing we don’t want to think about, right? I think it goes back to that image of what we think is sexy and we just don’t like the idea of old bodies, none of us do. Wrinkly, saggy, smelly. “What do you think about sex”, I asked one woman while I was researching the show in New York. She said, “Oh I’m afraid of it”. I said, “Why are you afraid of it,” and she replied, “I don’t want to shit or pee on somebody.” But then she quickly turned round and said, “Actually, I don’t want anyone to shit or pee on me.”
Because we live in such a youth-identified culture, the willingness to be vulnerable with someone else gets harder and harder, because you are already vulnerable in so many ways. I think that intimacy is sometimes hard just for that reason. But is it really all that “creepy”? This is another one of the reasons I want to talk about sex in older age. And the other reason is so that younger people don’t fear it so much. When I did the show in New York, so many young people came up to me and said “I am so glad that you did that. Now I don’t feel so afraid of getting old.” And I think that might be one of the big underlying motives for the whole show and the project. Sex, being such a life-drive - if you think it's going to go when you get older, that your drive for life may go and you can’t be the person you are now, that is a very scary thing. Of course you are not exactly the same person, but in many ways you still are. And many older people I talk to, myself included, feel like they are a lot younger than they actually are. Sometimes by 20 or 30 years.
The thing I've learned through this process is that the more you are around old people, the more you like being around old people, and the less afraid you are of being one yourself. That's been true for me. Having spent time with older people, I feel better about who I am.
Haus: In Britain, sex and respectability are often seen as completely at odds with each other, regardless of age. For older people, whose respectability and social standing might be more of a motivational factor, do you think this gets in the way of them having sex?
Lois: No. I think that this "respectability" thing really breeds a sort of kinky sex. I thought that when I first came to the UK after being in the US for so long. The US is sort of all “anything goes” on one hand, but really Americans are really repressed around sex and their ability to show it. We have no nudity on the television; we have no sex on the television; the media is really censorial in the US, even though it seems outwardly to be a lot more lax. Whereas here in the UK, while it may seem outwardly to be a lot more repressed, I think in actuality the people I've met here are a lot kinkier. Also, your censorship laws are a lot less worried about showing sex. We would never get the kind of programming you have here – ever! I remember when the UK mini-series Portrait of a Marriage was out on our public television in the US, they cut out all the nudity, any sex - they cut like 30 minutes out of the whole series. While I’ve been here I've managed to watch the new Channel 4 series - Cucumber, Banana and Tofu – and it's really explicit. You couldn't get away with that in the USA. So, no. I don't think that it's true. The reserve is just an outfit. It makes it sexier.
Lois: Yes. Obviously you might just think that the title of the show ['What Tammy Needs to Know about Getting Old and Having Sex'] is a ruse for people to come and see it, because once you put sex in the title people come. And obviously we do talk about sex, but we talk about a lot of other things - isolation, loneliness, loss. Again, I like to think of Tammy as a good companion and I think companionship is really essential. There have been all these studies recently about people suffering from depression due to a lack of social contact and one of the biggest problems among the ageing population in lots of countries is loneliness and isolation, which also contributes to mental decline. I think companionship is hugely important.
A lot of older people won't ask their children to help because they don't want to make them feel like they are relying on them too much, or they don't want to feel like they are losing their independence. So they may find it easier to ask their peers to give them a hand, and this is something I hope to explore more in my work. Giving people a playful way to help each other and not feel so isolated.
Haus: Helen Mirren is often cited as a sexy older woman whose age-appropriate dress sense contributes to her appeal. Where do you think the line is between "sexy" and "age-appropriate"?
Lois: I don't there is any such thing as age-appropriate, I really don't. This idea about what is age-appropriate is more about attitude than anything else. You know, I lived with that. Even when I was 26, my mother was telling me to "dress my age" and I used to think "what is she talking about?" There are all these wonderful seniors now. I recently saw a film called Advanced Age about these fabulous women in their 80s who dress extravagantly and they were amazing. They don't go into the pre-teen sections in department stores – they aren’t trying to be teenagers - but they are inventive with their looks. I guess I can feel uncomfortable sometimes and there are clothes I like and wonder “is that a bit teenage?”, but I don't really care!
Lois: I think people are like that throughout their life. You know, people have different preferences whatever age – they like older people if they are younger, and younger people when they are older…I think it's absolutely fine and maybe even a good idea to peruse someone younger, who is perhaps a little more agile than you.
Haus: I grew up in a house where "sex" was a dirty word. I like to imagine that my brother and I were conceived using a turkey baster and that my parents don't even know how sexual intercourse works. They've never talked to me about having sex and, if they do still do it, they've done a damned good job at hiding it. Do you think parents should be more open with their children about their sex lives? Or do you think the art of older sexuality comes in having a wild sex life but concealing behind a facade of respectability?
Lois: The answer to that is that we need to be more open about it. I'm not saying that we need to go round telling each other everything that we do. But listen, I think sex is weird. If you actually stop and think about it, when you back up and actually think about what it is and what people do with each other…it's weird! The other thing, is that we always think that the other person is much more knowledgeable… is doing it more, doing it better. And I think we all suffer from being too afraid to ask or educate ourselves about what sex is and what it can be. So, I think the more open we are the better. That's what I love about the Long Tables I have been running at the Wellcome Trust for the Sexology Season - there has been a real openness between old people, young people, parents. They have been coming to the Long Table with such honesty and these are the types of conversations that should be going on all the time. So I think if there is a reason for doing this, it’s the ability to bring it all out into the open. Let's just talk about this stuff.