I'm having the best sex of my life at 50. Truly. But it's not because of lube, lingerie, sex toys or any other reasons in those articles illustrated with stock photos of twinkly silver foxes seducing Helen Mirren lookalikes in white nighties.
If you're around my age you probably know the kind. Picture a heteronormative, white couple with grey hair, fake-laughing together on arctic-white sheets like an aspirational cruise ship ad.
They are raving about how their sex life is raunchier, rampant, rocking and other randy "R" words.
I am nothing like these people. I bet they also go for sprightly morning walks in matching bermuda shorts and eat a lot of salad.
But it is a heartening development that it has become more acceptable to acknowledge that women — yay! — can be sexy in the second half of their life. Attitudes have changed gratifyingly fast about this.
Seventeen years ago, the famous journalist Lynn Barber interviewed singer Marianne Faithfull and wrote something that still haunts me, especially when I put on my saucy Lonely bustier or any other potentially age-inappropriate garment (and then take it straight off).
"[David] Bailey is at the camera; Marianne in a black mac and fishnet tights, is sprawling with her legs wide apart, her black satin crotch glinting between her scrawny 55-year-old thighs, doing sex-kitten moues at the camera. Oh please, stop! I want to cry — this is sadism, this is misogyny, this is cruelty to grandmothers."
Would Barber still write it like this today? I'm not sure she would. Maybe Faithfull would be applauded as a role model for middle-aged women. (I met Barber about then, actually. She was in her 50s and was very nice, but certainly wasn't glammily trussed up.)
And less than two decades later, women aged 50 and over seem to be coming into our own. We no longer have to go directly from glamazon to frumpy meatball-stirring mama when we get a hair on our chin. There are certain women who are held up — unhelpfully, often — as exemplars of this trend of hotness: Nicole Kidman! Michelle Pfeiffer! Some freakishly preserved supermodel! Blinking Helen Mirren, of course.
Ladies, be my guest, of course you can be a sexbomb after 50. Knock yourselves out with your va-va-voom any old time. But if, as Lady Gaga says, sex is a kind of riddle — half poison, half liberation — I'm not sure trying to be a vixen with a concession Gold Card is the answer to it.
Instead of offering freedom, it can feel like we're still suffering with the pressure to look hot, hotter, hottest, whatever our age. Sometimes you just want to wear flat shoes (and still get a f***).
Kingsley Amis, a heroic rooter, described his libido like "being chained to an idiot for 50 years". He was relieved when he lost his sex drive. And if it means still being obsessed with marketing yourself every single bloody day as a must-have-sexual-product, I can see his point.
A sex symbol becomes an object. And who wants to be a thing?
American writer David Foster Wallace warned: "If you worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you."
Still, DFW was a bloke. Whereas Gail Sheehy, in her book Sex and the Seasoned Woman (I know, icky title) offered this: "The middle years, between 50 and 65, constitute the apex of adult life ... for women, the passage to be made is from pleasing to mastery."
Whoa! Hold up there, Gail. Surely sex is not something you have to get right, like stand-up paddleboarding? And mastery? Isn't that for chess players and entrepreneurs and other patriarchal constructs?
But then, what would I know? I have been mostly wrong about sex for most of my life.
It's not surprising, really. No one ever talked about sex in our family. No, scratch that. We more than "not talked about it". By its very absence ("Don't mention the war!") it was more present than if it had been able to be acknowledged in a matter-of-fact way. This is pathologised as a syndrome called sexual anorexia, although I'm not sure it is unusual enough for a special name. I was probably just like any other kid, growing up with the discomforting awareness of the disconnect between how adults presented themselves in the day-to-day real world and their much darker, secret, interior lives. Like everyone, I was living in a dual reality where there were always two things going on at the same time. Were adults walking around reading the airmailed Guardian and talking rationally about Reagan and Thatcher or were they really brutish and animalistic sex beasts? It was so puzzling. How does one learn to hold these different realities together? (No wonder a friend of mine's 10-year-old asked: "Are you going to have sex to have another baby? When you're going to do it, do you mind if I watch?" Smart kid.)
In the absence of any show-and-tell in my own life, I gleaned my random knowledge from a combination of television shows like Kenny Everett and a clandestine copy of a book, Down Under the Plum Trees, published by Alister Taylor. With no real role models or chance to talk about it, the concepts of femininity and sexuality appeared to be drawn perilously narrow. Sexuality was apparently something you were not entitled to have and enjoy unless you had a thigh gap and looked like a Solid Gold dancer or Demelza on Poldark.
I thought sex was primarily about one's body. Great sex was an athletic feat involving piston-like thrusts and acrobatic changes of position, like a sort of naked Crossfit. Since I was awkward and sunken-chested and unsporty, this was a terrifying prospect to me.
In team sports I just prayed the ball would never come anywhere near me. I recognise this as the identical feeling I experienced in 1982 at the derelict Hamilton Lake roller rink, when Marco Baggins (can't remember his actual name) produced his gigantic erect penis, the first I'd ever seen. (Was it really that whopping? It certainly seemed that way.) What was I supposed to do with it? I had no idea. I probably seemed prudish or repelled but I was just petrified of getting it wrong and no one had ever told me what to do. (No porn back then — at least not in our house. And, I should add, I'm not sure that porn is that helpful in any practical sense, really.)
Back in 1982, I felt like the horny guy was going to give me a mark out of 10, when really he was probably just grateful to be touched, even clumsily. Kind of sad really, when you think about it — the times when we are most physically vital and capable of sex, there is the most paralysing fear. All that passion, wasted.
So what have I learnt? I'm not sure I've got any better at sex. I've certainly not got vampy. But, turns out, you can be sexy and have great sex without having to be a sexpot. This really is a liberating and transformative thing to realise and I wish I'd realised it earlier.
Turns out sex isn't about bodies after all.
Alain de Botton's School of Life argues what seems a bit filthy is actually "an endeavour to reach some rather pure and honourable goals by bodily means. "What we are really seeking via sex is usually something very admirable and entirely in line with the values in the rest of our lives. Closeness to another person and warm recognition of who we are."
This school of thought argues we're much less divided in ourselves than we might think. Our sexual longings, even pervy ones, are not really as divergent from our "real" selves as we might suppose. We can make peace with the apparent unacceptability to our "normal" selves of who we are around sex.
In a small but useful volume simply called Sex, the School of Life argues that one thing that makes us unaccepting of ourselves is the background suspicion that other people, particularly the people we know and like, have more straightforward sex lives than we do. We know all our own erotic oddities and quirks from the inside. It can be hard to imagine that other people are like this too.
"It might feel weird to imagine the carefully suited colleague or considerate friend furiously masturbating or getting excited at the thought of being flogged by a masked stranger — it feels brutish and degrading to think of them in these terms even if these are familiar features of our own erotic landscape. Very sweetly, we give others credit for being wiser and more moderate than we are ourselves. The fatal outcome is we see ourselves as freakish when we're almost certainly close to average."
That is a comforting thought. So is the fact that sex is about a longing for acceptance. Another person's willingness to do the most intimate bodily things with us is the outward sign of their inward acceptance of who we are. My partner sees me in all my weirdness and still loves me. That's why sex is good these days.
I do know the sense we need to hide, deny and bury key elements of who we are is not very good for us. When we repress things that are important, they make themselves heard in other ways. In The Examined Life psychoanalyst Stephen Grosz calls this, "The bigger the front, the bigger the back." The "dirty" parts of ourselves can show up disguised as greed, harsh opinions, bad temper, the longing to boss other people about, alcoholism or other forms of risky, damaging behaviour. The much-maligned Freud was right after all. But his lasting contribution was to put his finger on the price we pay for disavowing powerful parts of ourselves.
It would help if we could acknowledge from early on that discovering how to "do" sex can be quite tricky. We seem to talk about sex all the time, but with an assumption it should be great and easy, so we become very worried and anxious when it isn't. The better starting point is the notion that sex may be awkward, there may be communication difficulties and many chance to feel ashamed or unsure. That is, talking about sex in a matter of fact, helpful, cheerful sort of way, without projecting your fears and shame on to it.
The good news is that it gets easier as you get older. Not because you look like Elle Macpherson. Sex is not a separate thing, reserved over there for supermodels. All sorts of things can be sexy.
This is great news for women of my age, who don't feel inclined to wear leather pants or get a boob job.
Pamela Madsen, author of the delightfully named Shameless: How I ditched the diet, got naked, found true pleasure and somehow got home in time to cook dinner, welcomes how in a woman over 50 there is a willingness to finally let go of the myths that may have haunted her for her entire life. She may be finally ready to let go of long-held body image issues, trauma and wounds from past heart aches or failed relationships, and even abuse.
"She simply cannot tolerate missing out on what is possible for her." It's a different kind of me too. But me, too.