French psychologist Marie de Hennezel tells Sharon Stephenson good things improve with age — and that includes sex.

There's a story Marie de Hennezel likes to tell about a 99-year-old woman, a resident of a small French retirement village, who would regularly harm herself by masturbating with whatever she could get her hands on (including, sometimes, a hairbrush).

The resident, so the story goes, was frequently hospitalised until staff bought her a vibrator with which she could safely pleasure herself.

"The woman apparently christened the vibrator Willy and admitted that although she would have preferred a handsome young man, Willy kept her happy for the rest of her days," says de Hennezel, a renowned French psychologist/psychotherapist.

De Hennezel has enough stories like this to fill a book. Which is probably why she's written Sex After Sixty: A French Guide to Loving Intimacy, her 17th book, which cheerleads for the sex lives of the Gold Card brigade.

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"There's no age limit to making love, if it is still an option, because the heart does not age," says de Hennezel in a voice so gravelly it sounds as though she gargles with sand. "Making love at 70 will not be the same as age 30, but that doesn't mean older people have any desire to renounce sex."

Senior sex, wrinkly sex, old people sex, call it what you like, but anything to do with the over-60s gettin' jiggy is generally trapped in narrative of revulsion.

"Society is obsessed with sex, but not for older people, which is seen as disgusting," says de Hennezel, who looks at least a decade younger than her 70 years. "However, an important aspect of growing old is experiencing the happiness that can be derived from the erotic. We must not, therefore, be afraid to fight the youth-obsessed culture that hinders the sexuality of seniors."

De Hennezel is in Paris where she has lived since she was a child. It's 9.30am there, a frigid January morning. The sky is like a cold compress bearing down upon the city. But inside her fourth floor apartment in the Montorgueil district, it looks as though a House & Garden magazine has exploded: there are carefully curated books, expensive but discreet lighting and object d'art from her travels.

Some were bought in New Zealand last year. "My youngest son, Jean, lives with his Kiwi partner and 6-month-old daughter in Whangarei where he works as an osteopath. I very much enjoyed visiting New Zealand and want to come back."

Although she's fighting a cold, de Hennezel has enough energy to power the city of lights single-handedly. She's sassy and amusing and has that annoying effortlessly thrown-together style that the French do so well: a meringue of hair that's more blond than grey, a thin gold necklace nuzzled at her neck and a vintage Givenchy black and gold dress that I can tell costs more than my entire wardrobe.

But the confidante of the late President Mitterrand hasn't given up her Wednesday morning to chat about personal style; she's on a mission to make senior sex great again.

"It's a sensitive subject because society is so fixated on firm, beautiful bodies that the thought of anyone sagging or wrinkled making love repulses people. But when someone my age is interested and engaged in their sexuality, they are generally less likely to become ill, depressed or lose their identity and autonomy."

Marie de Hennezel says making love at 70 will not be the same as age 30, but doesn't mean older people have any desire to renounce sex.
Marie de Hennezel says making love at 70 will not be the same as age 30, but doesn't mean older people have any desire to renounce sex.

In ancient China, she says, it was believed that loving sex led to a long and happy life. "Even if people didn't have sex every day, just the act of taking their lover in their arms and looking into his or her eyes was important for their physical and psychological health. We should all adopt this practice."

De Hennezel certainly has her work cut out for her - a recent study by the European-based Korian Institute for Ageing Well found that while only 12 per cent of those over the age of 65 say making love is still a source of pleasure, 36 per cent would like it be. The gap, admits the mother of three and grandmother of eight, is due to a range of factors, from circumstance (being alone and unable to meet new partners) and the image people have of themselves and their bodies (desirable or not) to the importance they've placed on sexual pleasure throughout their lives.

"The ultimate obstacle, though, is adjusting to a slower, more sensual sex life."
Which clearly means that the days of swinging from the chandeliers, if they ever existed, are a thing of the past.

"Having sex at 60-plus is different from when you're 20 or 30. It's slower, less impulsive and more sensual. It's also less focused on performance, on erections or achieving orgasm, and more on intimacy, which can be even more intense than having an orgasm."

Of the 50 or so people de Hennezel interviewed for Sex After 60, one of her favourites was Macha, a 74-year-old French actress who recently married her 82-year-old lover. Macha is quoted in the book as saying maturity brings the gift of "no expectations or goals, of being able to surround yourself with delight".

When you're young, says Macha, it's common to worry about whether you're sexy enough or a good enough lover. "But when you're older, there's a sense of freedom because you have nothing to prove to each other."

I ask de Hennezel, whose books have been translated into 22 languages, about the chapter on a "shared erotic world" (extra-marital affairs, to you and me). Society's acceptance of taking a married lover is so utterly French, non?

"I don't think it's necessarily French but is more a generational thing," she says, drawing out the last syllable to almost double its length. "I belong to the generation that led the sexual revolution in France in the 70s, who broke down barriers and fought for the rights to contraception and abortion. So having an affair may not be seen as a big deal to my contemporaries, whereas my 95-year-old mother doesn't find it at all acceptable."

In fact, if de Hennezel's mother discovered her daughter had been having an affair with Gilles, a married man, for three years, she would be "very cross indeed".

"But at my age, this arrangement works well.

I have a relationship with a man who doesn't want to leave his wife. This would have bothered me when I was younger but now I have maturity on my side. I know he loves me and I'm happy to spend time with him when he can. I have my own life, you know."

Indeed she does. Despite being at a point in her life when she could easily put her feet up, de Hennezel has no desire to retire from the career she started after ditching an earlier one as an English teacher and translator. Her first few years as a psychologist were spent working with children with deep psychosis before she found her niche in palliative care.

Society is obsessed with sex, but not for older people, which is seen as disgusting. Photo / Getty Images
Society is obsessed with sex, but not for older people, which is seen as disgusting. Photo / Getty Images

At one stage, she spent five years with the French Ministry of Health, drafting reports about caring for those with terminal illnesses, including the best "end of life" strategies for the elderly.

But it's de Hennezel's work with former French head of state Francois Mitterrand that she's most proud of. "I knew the President for 12 years and helped him through the final stages of cancer. We would talk a lot about questions of spiritualism and mysticism. He was very interested in those issues."

Sadly, we're out of time and someone is at her front door. We've barely grazed the Tantric sex retreat she attended in the foothills of the Cevennes mountains ("It was a liberating experience - we were all in a circle, fat women, thin women, those with very bushy pubic hair, those with almost no pubic hair, those who were visibly uncomfortable and those who looked at home. We laughed a lot and being naked brought us closer together"), or the importance of sexual relationships in retirement homes. Or talked about how satisfying non-penetrative sex can be ("surprisingly erotic").

Before she goes, de Hennezel wants to make sure she's made her point. "The most important thing is to feel young inside and when you have sex as an older person, that's how it makes you feel - young inside. I always look and feel much younger after I have sex; I would recommend it to everyone."

• Sex After Sixty: A French Guide to Loving Intimacy by Marie de Hennezel (Scribe, $37).

THE TRUTH ABOUT SEX IN LATER LIFE: A MAN AND A WOMAN REFLECT

'I'm less inhibited - the sex is so much better'

By Anna Murray*

I was at a party last summer, a bit drunk but not very, and a single man (never married) who had been showing an interest and making me laugh all evening led me to a hidden part of the garden and seduced me. I did wonder if sneaking off behind a bush was quite the thing for a woman of my age, but I scotched that thought and replaced it with: so what? I'm not hurting anyone and if I don't do it I will regret it. And thank God I had been to the beauty salon earlier that day. It was hugely exciting and although we met a couple more times and it came to nothing, we smile knowingly now whenever we see each other, in silent acknowledgment of something good that passed between us. I am so glad it happened. Just thinking about it makes me smile.

Dating and sexual mores are a bit different this time round. Is it dignified, desirable even, to be going in for dramatic waxing and sex behind the proverbial bike sheds as a single woman in one's 50s? To text or not to text: that is a question I never had to ponder when I was dating in my teens and 20s. Having said that, it is not one jot less exciting.

It was with a certain joy that I read of Emily Watson's role in a new BBC drama. She plays an ordinary woman in her 50s who embarks on an affair. Written and produced mainly by women, Apple Tree Yard appears to be about to let the world know that women of a certain age are on not on the sexual slag heap. Even those who don't look like Julianne Moore or Charlotte Rampling do have sexual desire and maintain a sexuality that can be and often is just as healthy as it was in their youth.

Well, all hail the message. It comes not before time. I am 56, got divorced two years ago and am completely ordinary. I had been married for 32 years and had not slept with anyone other than my husband in all those years. I have been making up for lost time, and that doesn't mean I have been on Tinder and become a full-on sleazebag.

Now is the time for sexual liberation, with marriage and kids behind me, and without the angst. I had worried I might well be facing, what, 30 or 40 sexless years before I die. I may not have the taut body parts of my erstwhile self and builders may no longer be whistling, but I am by no means done.

It takes courage, as a woman of my age, to stand up and say that I cannot accept solitary decades ahead with a complete absence of intimacy. I am not ready to take out all my tactile inclinations on a brace of cats (I hate cats).

There have been periods since my husband and I separated when months and months have passed during which I have been unwillingly celibate. I hate it. There is something infantilising about it. You feel like a young child again, or a very, very old person for whom it no longer holds any charm. What it deprives you of is the sense of joy, fulfilment, being part of the adult world; and that crushes me. Then men (always married) ask you loudly and in the spirit of bloody "banter" if you are "getting your rocks off", and you want to tell them to f*** off, but are so depleted by the intrusion, so winded, that all you can do is simper.

Still, when one feels strong enough to face the all-modern waxing and texting decisions (a dignified Brazilian, I think, at my age, not the full Barbie pre-pubescence; and the odd witty text or even sext), there have been glorious moments of sexual surprises. For me, the revelation has been that I feel a great deal less inhibited than I did, and that has made the sex so much better. I always struggled with a sense that I was not as pretty or sexy as other girls, but these days I can appreciate that not all men crave gazelle-like women; some enjoy those things which come with a more lived-in body, namely wisdom, humour, worldly confidence, a greater sense of self. The liberation that these hard-earned traits bestow upon a middle-aged woman eclipse the fact that her stomach maybe more Play-Doh than ping-pong bat and have enabled me to be more relaxed, adventurous and joyful in bed (or wherever).

I have had many a startling fling with younger men. They are gratifyingly appreciative of the older woman and go in for sex as I remember it in my 20s: enthusiastic, energetic, fun. So often then I didn't feel enthusiastic, nor did I find it fun. I was too worried about how I looked or was performing, this way or that. Middle-aged sex is less loaded with the secret, frightening desire for lifelong commitment and children. We all have a bit of baggage at our age, but the sex itself is less fraught with unspoken neurosis.

The relationships with younger men don't last, of course, but they put a spring in my step for sure. The latest was a 30-year-old man who came to fix my boiler and fell for me because I made him cups of tea and I was so grateful to him for making my flat warm again. He may not have been the brightest biscuit in the packet, but he made up for that with film-star looks and kindness. We had a wild time, and I ended it because it had no future. He could have been a mad axeman, but he wasn't. He was a true gentleman and behaved impeccably. So often the good stories don't get told.

An ordinary woman having a sexual whale of a time in her 50s is a great story, and it jolly well should be shouted from the rooftops.

* The writer's name has been changed.