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‘Not Just for the Young’: Embracing Sexuality Can Be Liberating for Older Women

How do women explore their sexualities in a society that insists women turn asexual as they age?

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"I’m 51 and I’m buzzing!" said Selma* (name changed for anonymity) with a smile as vibrant as the beaming sun. “I feel that my body has just started telling me what it wants clearly, and I’ve just about learnt how to listen to it without judgment."

Selma, a Pune based woman, a mother, a teacher, and an entrepreneur had been seeing me in psychotherapy for about three years when she made this resounding statement in my office.

Having completed fifteen years of marriage to a man she described as a ‘sweet, gentle person’, Selma had begun her therapy journey out of a desire to seek answers as to why she felt so sexually numb in her body throughout her marriage.

Despite her partner being loving, she hadn’t felt comfortable in bed in her 20s and 30s when they first began their courtship, and it was only in her late 40s and now, in her early 50s, that she felt a new chapter of her sexual and emotional life had opened for her.

How do women like Selma explore their sexualities in a society that regards it as improper and insists women turn asexual as they age?

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‘Sex Is for the Young,’ and Other Myths

Selma explained that, where she was from, most of her female friends shared sexual numbness at some point, and many had justified not being sexually active as a regular part of ‘every marriage’.

“Sex is inherently shameful. Sexual pleasure always feels a little bad. When a woman shines sexually, she gets hurt," were some of the common narratives prevalent in the urban Indian context that Selma brought up in therapy. One of the most common ones being, “If you are absolutely normal, you should become less sexual as you grow older.”

In our urban Indian setting, there has been a strong, linear, one-dimensional narrative about middle-class, Indian female sexuality.

Often, this narrative begins with ‘sex is bad’ and ‘sex is a secret’ at home, or ‘sex is strange and funny’ in the Biology lesson in school where the teacher uses complex scientific jargon from a 7th standard textbook to uncomfortably describe the functions of a penis and a vulva, leaving teenagers more curious and unguided than before the lesson.

The next part of the narrative shapes itself into ‘I’m curious but I won’t admit it’ in college, a less restricted but equally unguided Indian setting where young adults mostly explore adolescent ideas of romance influenced by heterosexual representations in Bollywood.

This is often followed by, ‘I will get to have endless sex once I’m married’ but ‘now I’m tied to one person forever and my freedom is dead’ which leads to humorous stereotypes about the old ball and chain narrative about men, women, and gender non-conforming people and their participation in conventional long-term relationships being a 'sexual freedom killer'.

This unidimensional, youth-focused, linear narrative often ends with, ‘sex dies after seven years of being together’ and ‘now I’m old, my time for pleasure is over’ in heterosexual society, leading people to judge each other’s adherence to normalcy by comparing themselves to their adherence to this narrative.

As a sex and trauma therapist with 15 years of clinical practice, who has studied the subject in multiple countries and cultural contexts, I can attest to this narrative being quite superficial and largely untrue.

Having served hundreds of urban Indian adults through a creative, artistic, sex therapy lens, I write with confidence that the basic “get married and have children” narrative of Indian sexuality is just the very tip of a deeply submerged iceberg of diverse sexualities in a beautifully chaotic ocean of Indian people and their complex lived experiences.

My upcoming book, Unashamed, addresses this iceberg in-depth.

Through the deep digging work of psychotherapy, tons of inner courage and gentle self-compassion, Selma was able to shine light on the repressed Indian truths of thousands of older women like her, and in turn help herself heal.

Equipped with these tools, she uncovered the impact that the sexual trauma she’d experienced in her 20s had had on her younger body.

Selma was eventually able to change the narratives around sexuality that she had internalised as part of her training lessons in Indian womanhood.

These somatic insights about her body’s repressed language had led her to feel more open, her inner voice sounding less doubtful, and her feelings less numb.

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Age Doesn’t Influence Sexual Satisfaction, Then What Does?

“They say things get better with age. Sex is no different.” says New York-based senior sex therapist Esther Perel in Psychology Today. I find her insights in line with what I witnessed in my office in India.

By a large measure, sex and sexuality have less to do with sexual gymnastics, complex sexual techniques and positions, kinks and fetishes, and more to do with a gentle self-acceptance for one’s and one’s partner’s being, one’s flaws and imperfections, the ability to be in the present moment and lots of experience, patience, and practice.

The concept of sexual maturity is what influences sexual satisfaction rather than age.

In fact, sex and trauma therapists go a step further than sexual maturity and include the mechanics of sexual connection between people, and the value or the meaning behind those experiences that each individual creates, that influence sexual satisfaction.

While certain individuals experience sexual maturity very early in their lives, during their youth, due to their specific life circumstances, others experience it later on when they start to feel more comfortable in their skin.

So, the narrative that ‘older women are mostly asexual or that age leads to asexuality’ is quite a myth indeed.

For a lot of Indian women, youth is a time riddled with body surveillance. It tends to be a time, due to the norms of our society that need shifting, where the feelings of unsafety in our bodies tends to be at their peak, there is an inability to wear what feels good to us due to the fear of sexual violence on the streets, and there is the inability to walk on the streets without any fear - all of which leads to a mental and sexual conditioning that keeps us in a state of ongoing fear.

Chronic fear and hypervigilance is the opposite of relaxation and this is largely what leads to many Indian women experiencing older age brackets as a time of sexual maturity - where they find their voices, and feel more comfortable pushing back on the societal conditioning of fear and also on unwanted advances of harassment with ample courage.

The ability to choose one’s clothing, to say no and be taken more seriously, and to fully relax in one’s own body becomes easier as a woman ages in India. There are fewer ‘eyes’ on her than before, when she was younger and a greater subject of scrutiny by her parents, her in-laws, her co-workers, and her children.

Sex then improves because an older woman is more able to free herself from sexual shame and guilt, and sometimes, with the right guidance is able to heal from her sexual wounds.

So when a woman is older and of decent health, the better her sexual experiences tend to be.

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Menopause Can Be Brutal, but It Can Also Be Sexually Freeing

Esther Perel relates sexuality and age in another pertinent way. She brings in youth obsession as a marker of sex negativity.

“If you are really youth-focused - as a person or as a society - then you probably think more negatively about sex in later life. The more youth focused we are, the more we look at age as one massive decline”, she explains.

When women begin therapy, they often describe their experiences of menopause and sexual ageing in binaries to me. At one end of the spectrum, not being young is a form of exhaustive relief - “Neha, now that I’m done bleeding, nature is telling me I have dried up.”

Parallelly, inside Perel’s office, her clients say, “'That’s it, the shop is closed. Leave me alone. Let’s head to our own beds.”

On the other end, when older women are single, there is a rebellion against social norms, “Neha, I don’t have to worry about menstruation or pregnancy or if the guy can be my husband anymore. I can finally focus on myself and do what I want!”

These binaries help many women define where they would like to stand on the sexual spectrum.

Through inner work practices, older women can be guided to, and often do liberate themselves from youth-obsessed binaries, embracing greater balance in how they see their changing sexuality.

“If you don’t see youth as the focus or primary criterion, and instead hone in on the confidence, experience, entitlement that age brings – fully understanding that you can finally do what you want, realising that you’ve done what you’re supposed to do, fulfilled those roles - then, I believe that sexuality often improves with age. The key is the switch from a focus on performance to a focus on experience, from outcome driven to pleasure and connection”, adds Perel.

Many older women share feelings of self-confidence and power that arrive for them as they mature. Mutual masturbation, sex toys, and cuddling seem to be preferred over aggressive youth-obsessed acts of virility and sexual strength. 
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‘Healing Is More That Fixing What’s Broken'

In particularly patriarchal households, sometimes women are told that having any version of personal power is inherently a corruptive force. But is it?

I believe healing connects us back to ourselves and puts us in touch with our inherent power. In fact, it is trauma, and particularly sexual trauma that acts as a corruptive force, distorting and disrupting health - mental, sexual, emotional, psychological, financial, and even spiritual health.

Our society thinks that healing is fixing what is broken, and this is why so many urban Indians do not access therapy and personal healing, because who wants to admit they’re carrying trauma in this society?

When we silence something by force, that part of us often surfaces back up in need of control and power. True power is about self-leadership. It is a place of knowing why we are doing what we are doing.

In my practice, everyday I witness older Indian women taking the step towards powerful self-leadership. As a shapeshifting society, we need to learn how to support our women in doing so.

(Neha Bhat is a sex and trauma-focused psychotherapist who works between India and the US. She employs trauma-focused therapy for survivors of sexual violence, offers crisis-counseling, and uses art as a radical tool of living and coping against systems of oppression. Her debut book, Unashamed by Harper Collins releases in May 2024.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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Topics:  Women   Women's Day   Sexuality 

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