At the Stein Senior Center in midtown Manhattan, lunch is $2. It’s open to anyone, regardless of how senior a person considers oneself, though there is a line drawn at age 60 (under which the price goes up to $5).
I can’t speak to the quality of the tilapia at Stein, which I didn’t try because tilapia is the fish version of pigeon. But culinary promise is not what fills the dining hall every day around 11:30 A.M. (an underrated lunch hour). The people are there for the same reason that most people are anywhere, because of the other people.
I went there to talk specifically about human connection in the form of sex. In almost any other area of life—careers, academics, money—getting advice from elders is normal, expected, even. But asking a person who has had a full life’s worth of sex about said sex is usually off the table.
In advance, our video producers Nic and Jaclyn had asked the director of the center if she could let people know that we’d be around, so they wouldn’t feel surprised by a camera crew asking them about sex during lunch. But instead we got there and walked into the teeming lunch room of 60 or so people, and the center director was like, this young man has an announcement, and these good people who came to eat tilapia were not expecting anything of the sort. I looked at Nic to see if he’d take this one. He backed up and yielded the floor. The room went from raucous to silent. There must have been some good announcements in the past? No big deal, I just want to ask you about … physical intimacy.
“You mean sex?”
Yes, I do. But not in a gawking, infantilizing way, we’re doing a story about how sex is underrepresented in depictions of old age—or, I mean at older ages relative to—you know, what is age? Ha. The glossy-magazine columnists don’t know anything about life, am I right? They assume that everyone is of childbearing age and has pigment in their hair and has been married at most once? So, we’re hoping some of you might talk with us about sex?
Silence. Then people asked what they always ask, which is how old I am. Someone asked if my mother knew I was here, as a joke. Both to them and to me, age was an elephant in the senior center. That was at least partly because we were in a place where people congregate based on this one defining feature—not based on a hobby or a cause or a worldview, but on the age of their bodies. At some point, you become part of the monolithic “older people” (which tends to mean over 65 years, as defined by the AARP, at least).
Stein’s 60-year-old cutoff is a line drawn for many city programs subsidized by the Department for the Aging. Sixty years might seem an odd place to draw a line defining old age, especially as nearly 20 percent of the city is now over 60. This is an enormous group of people, one that can include a 60 year old alongside a person who was 40 when that 60-year-old was born. At that point, you enter that enormous group, and then if you talk about sex it’s dear or eccentric, you’re a gag in an Adam Sandler movie, or a novelty news piece about chlamydia outbreaks in nursing homes.
This archaic portrayal is untenable. In 1900, the number of Americans over age 65 was around 3 million. It is now 16 times that, around 48 million. That day at Stein Senior Center, our ages were especially palpable because talk of sex among this enormous (and rapidly growing) group of people remains a taboo among taboos. Some of them didn’t want to talk to us—and certainly didn’t want to be part of the internet, perhaps wisely—but once we broke through the initial awkwardness most were instantly more comfortable than I was. With a single question, like do you have sex advice for your younger self, this barrier just sort of drops, like a video game where you’ve accessed a new level.
* * *
The oldest person who regularly lunches at Stein, by her estimation, is Herta Weiss. She has lived in New York for most of her 92 years, since immigrating with her brother at 15 and enrolling in hairdressing school in the Bronx, where she met the man who would become her late husband of 70 years. She says sex was integral throughout.
“At 70 years you don’t do what you did at 20 years, 25 years, 30 years,” she explained. Expectations change with bodies and tastes, but the importance of physically expressing love never diminishes.
“What I think is very important is to make the woman what we used to call ‘hot.’ You don’t use that word anymore? I think it’s necessary to be able to do that, kiss her and hug her and be able to hold her, stuff like that,” said Weiss. She is now seeing a man who is older than she, and sex is no less important than when dating in her youth. Her current boyfriend—who she describes as “not bad looking, but he’s an older man”— induces hotness by telling her he’s never seen a woman as beautiful as she. (“And I say, come on, stop that!”)
A key element of the relationship, as her mobility has waned over the years, is that her boyfriend lives in the same apartment complex. And she’s comfortable telling him exactly what the plan is on any given night, be it sex or holding one another in bed, or sleeping apart.
The importance of self-possession, of knowing what you want, was an abiding theme at Stein. A 74-year-old named Joanie, thrice married, seemed in a particular state of assurance. After two marriages ended badly, she decided she needed to figure herself out. “I realized that I had this negativity in me,” she said, “and that I was drawing to me all of these wrong choices. And that if I continued like that I would be getting married all the time. I decided that I’m going to really change.”
After time out for Joanie, her third marriage was “hugely successful.” It ended with her partner’s passing, so now she is dating on the Internet, which is also going swimmingly. “I’m finished with marriage,” she said, with zero ambiguity. “And I am finished also with long term relationships, where you live together and whatnot.”
If there is a downside to intimacy at older age, she said, it’s the declining appearance of men’s bodies, generally. But in its place tends to come a tempering of undue self-importance, and with that an ease of connection and an ability to communicate easily and effectively.
“Communication is the key all the time—to everything, even intimacy,” said Tonya Nash, who has been in a 40-year relationship. She believes that fairy-tale romance is mostly a myth, but one that should be kept alive in some ways. It takes discipline and work as years of familiarity erode the inherent novelty of sex.
So it’s important to be inventive, I offered, and that really seemed to be the key: “Yes! Get that pole, dress up like a puppy, who cares.”
Arlene Heyman is a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who lives and works on Manhattan’s upper west side. Her explanation for our narrow field of sexual confidantes is informed by in-group psychology: We see older people as “toxic,” so you go to people who look more like you to get information, despite little reason to expect expertise.
Heyman draws her expertise from a wide purview. She ran in literary circles in the 1960s before medical school at the University of Pennsylvania diverted her into the more overt study and manipulation of the mind. It was not until this year, at age 74, that she published her first book, titled Scary Old Sex.
“Sex is scary at all ages,” she clarified when I visited her recently and her office-home, a sprawling relic of a time when raising multiple kids in this neighborhood was a reasonable proposition.
“First sexual experiences are usually awful,” she reminded me. “If you really care about someone, you can’t get it up, you’re dry as can be because you’re nervous— anything can happen.”
And it’s a too-common mistake to read that as an indicator of incapacity or unworthiness or lack of love. It’s more likely the opposite.
“There’s this idealized image that people have of sex among the young, and then the young suffer terribly because they don’t reach that idealized image at all,” Heyman explained. “They worry how they’re doing, the amount of time men spend building up their abs and muscles. There are all kinds of worries at all ages, so it’s a matter of accepting our humanity and that nothing goes perfectly. But once in a while, it does.”
Heyman’s stories are unique in that they deal regularly with couples in their 60s and 70s, as she puts it, “portrayed as real people who make love and get jealous and fight with each other. That’s taboo.”
Because by the time you’re that age you should have your emotions together?
She nods. “It’s a crazy stereotyping of old people, and the world does it to them, and we do it to ourselves.”
Heyman doesn’t consider herself an advocate, though. Her work is simply novel because literature is full of young and middle-aged couples, and older men with younger women, but the older female perspective is lacking.
“I didn’t write the book with the intention of breaking through stereotypes or of helping old people see themselves as human,” Heyman said. “I had no idea people would take it that way. I’m just writing about people living. One is always interested in oneself and one’s cohort, so I just thought that’s interesting, I want to write about these people. People on a cruise fighting with each other or whatever.”
In the aforementioned scene on a cruise ship, a retired doctor and grandmother finally talks frankly with her husband, using sex as a proxy for insecurity in the relationship: “We can’t try anal intercourse because you think I’m filled with shit to the brim. You have no sense of anatomy. I can take an enema! You can use a condom!” It’s an earnest fight, a culmination of a decade of dwindling physicality. It’s the type of fight that is unique to a long-term relationship more so than age.
“It didn’t occur to me the fact that characters are old was something wild,” Heyman told me. “I didn’t realize that it would have that impact but it seems to, and I’m very happy it’s called collateral benefitting as opposed to collateral damaging. If it helps old people see ourselves as part of a life cycle, that will help young people, too.”
The thing about younger people asking older people for sex advice is they tend to tell you—apart from complaints about the appearances of older men—about compassion, communication, empathy, respect, and knowing what you want. As life goes on, sex advice seems to become less about the physics of oral sex and more about how to connect with a person. That doesn’t mean in long, monogamous relationships, or necessarily in any romantic way at all, but insofar as sex is always an acknowledgment of a particular thread of humanity. At Stein, sex advice to one’s younger self included “be more sure of myself,” “proceed from love,” and “know what will work for you.”
Being good at sex means being comfortable with yourself, not just physically. This takes practice, but not necessarily 60 years. The number of corporeal tricks that can be recommended for all penises, all clitorises, or all ears is low. Apart from the few ways that our bodies tend to be extremely straightforward, we are extremely varied and complex. The advice to be dispensed about how to approach that variation is the advice of how to live.
Maybe that’s why we tend to be attracted to self-composure and confidence—figure out life, and you’ve figured out sex. Maybe vice versa? Heyman put it more succinctly: “Do well in life, it helps.” (She was only partly talking about money, which “has a sexual smell to it,” if primarily as a suboptimal indicator of general competence.) Her best sex advice, at any age, is rather to practice generosity. She also said kindness, which I reflexively rephrased as “just being chill”—an awful habit of speech I’ve been trying to break—and she corrected me: “Warm.”
So now I’m trying to say “warm” wherever I would have said “chill.” As in, if you do plan to go by Stein in search of wisdom, note that the cafeteria clears out by 12:45 and becomes a Zumba class, and it’s pretty warm.