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Joan in black slip with a smile at once dreamy and wicked

Desire Perfected: Sex After Forty

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Mabel Hampton, an African-American lesbian in her eighties, recently said to me, “Joan, there are some women I can’t touch because the desire burns my hand like a blue flame, those women, those women!” We both laughed, but I was also humbled by the depth of Mabel’s erotic feeling in the ninth decade of her life.

This knowledge of our own desires, perfected over many years of lesbian loving, can be one of our most enduring comrades in the later years of our lives. I say “can be” because I recognize that not all lesbians have been able to or have even wanted to fully explore their sexual selves. But for those who have been inspired by trust or need or opportunity to push at their sexual boundaries, the years after 40 can provide a canvas for perfected pleasures.

I am not writing about sex as a sociologist or as a psychologist; I am speaking as a 50-year-old woman who has been sexually active with women since I was ten. My own sexual journey began in 1950 when I became best friends with Roz, the butcher’s daughter. We incorporated sex play into our relationship when I first shared with her the wonderful secret of masturbation. Then in weekly bouts of fantasy sex play, ensconced in her parents’ double bed, we enacted such scenes as “The Sheik and His Harem,” with Roz and me playing all the parts. In the year 1950, I put my head between her thighs to use my mouth to give her pleasure and I can still remember the softness of her skin against my cheeks. Our relationship changed in high school when Roz took commercial courses and I took the academic route; she married early and I found Greenwich Village.

Over the years, I have explored butch-femme sex, androgynous sex, intergenerational sex (where I lusted after much older women), S/M sex, group sex, back room sex, sex for money and, in a ten-year relationship, domestic sex which included much of the above. I have made love when I was in love and when I was not, for many days and for one night. I do not mean this list to be flaunting; when I came out in 1958, one of the most important freedoms I was choosing was to move my body into the world under my own control. In those days, the vice squad made sure that we never forgot we were obscenities, but their harassment and the general intolerant social atmosphere did not impede my erotic progress.

I have used every day of my lesbian life to exercise this independence of desire. I think, in some way, many of us have made the same choice — to be the guardians of our own bodies and the explorers of our own desire. This erotic self-possession is one of the gifts of our lives in exchange for the loss of societal privileges of heterosexual marriage, the domestic sphere and other “normal” protections of womanhood.

Having a lot of sex or being comfortable with sex does not mean that the body is always one’s friend or that aging does not offer challenges that change the erotic terrain. Issues like physical well-being, body size, menopause, emotional fragility are always there, waiting to be incorporated into daily moments of intimacy. I have always been a big woman and now I am bigger. Sometimes I’m caught up in the old battle of hating my body for its fullness of flesh, that will show the effects of aging in a more dramatic way because there is more of me to show it. Menopause is a natural occurrence and so is the feeling of loss that can accompany it. I cry and yell more than I have ever done. I feel a small moment of victory when my wandering period returns. Because of a chronic illness, I often do not feel physically safe and I think a lot about death.

And yet, in the face of all these challenges, I have a comrade to strengthen me — my developed knowledge of what gives me pleasure in love making and my willingness to put my body into play. Even when I am most at war with biology, I can find the life force to take all I have learned about loving and once again be the adventurer, the discoverer of new worlds, as I move down my lover’s belly. To my old-time sense of sexual bravado have been added the woman-loving-women insights of lesbian feminism that have helped me to value myself more as a woman, making aging an honored process.

We will all find different ways to keep our erotic identities alive as we change, different sources of inspiration and stimulation. I found mine in being open to what new generations of lesbians were doing with their bodies. I went to sex parties, talked to leather women and saw clearly what I could do and what I did not want to do. Then when I was 47, fighting the depression of illness, I found the ground I could stand on. Gay Women’s Alternative of New York asked me to read some of my erotic stories. I realized that I did not want to read about sexual desire in everyday clothes, that I wanted some way to mark the specialness of the language, so I decided to wear a black slip and black stockings for the reading. I wanted the audience to see a large older woman’s body as I said the words of sex. This wearing of the black slip publicly became my signature. I had found a way to transform perceived losses into newly acquired erotic territory.

I wanted the public revelation of my aging larger body to be a statement for all older lesbians; I wanted to proclaim our image and with it, our knowledge. Sexual self-discovery and issues of self-presentation do not stop at any decade’s door. The desire I experience as a 50-year-old lesbian woman is not the same as the passion I pursued in earlier years; my desire has deepened and I experience it as a gift I bring to my lover. Stretched out on the bed, waiting for her, I sometimes feel as if I am bursting with sexual knowledge, that carried in the fullness of my breasts and hips is all the wisdom I have gleaned from pursuing the touch of women for half a century. I do not feel arrogant or invulnerable to rejection, but I do know the ground I am lying on. I have never traded sexual desire for security; I have no economic or legal monuments like a twenty-year marriage to mark the end of lust and the beginning of safety. I do have my own person, my own body, that has led me to a lifetime of new places, new resistances, new compassions. This accumulated wealth of sexual self-knowledge that many of us have is not often discussed in our communities and, thus, we are still learning about the political and personal implications of our sexual wisdom. We need more discussion of our lesbian sexual vitality and explorations at all ages to stimulate our desires. Not a discussion that will make any lesbian woman feel inadequate because she did not “do that” or doesn’t “want that,” but discussions that allow each woman to put new value on the moments of desire she has experienced.

As I have come to enjoy my own middle-aged sexual wisdom, I have also come to recognize it in other older women I see around me. Gray hair and textured hands are now erotic emblems I seek out. As I curiously explore the lines on my own chest running down to the valley between my breasts, I caress those same lines on the chest of my lover. I still want strong love making, I still want to play and pretend and seduce. But a moment comes when all of me is stark naked in body and imagination and then I know all of who I am and who I am no longer and I rise to offer this honest older self to my lover.

As if to return the gift of acceptance, my body has rewarded me with new sexual responses. I now have multiple orgasms, a delightful occurrence that did not begin until my mid-forties; I have jettisoned leftover feelings of shame and some youthful reluctance to accept oral love making. I allow myself much more time to look at my lover’s body, to stroke her and caress her. Part of this tenderness comes from my sense of our combined years — almost 90 years of life between us — and thus even time becomes an erotic ally.

I have learned to incorporate safe sex techniques into my love making in a way that preserves my desire and recognizes the agony of this time in our sexual history. I keep packets of condoms at the side of our bed along with a large tube of KY jelly, one for the dildo play we enjoy, the other for the occasional dryness that makes greater lubrication necessary. The first time I faced my lack of wetness and realized that my internal desire would no longer always have an external marker, I was deeply distressed. I had always loved the gush of wetness that was the body’s own voice and, at first, I was ashamed at this change of language. I had to find the words to ask my lover to help me. As she anointed me, I felt a new sense of seriousness about love making, similar to the sense of taking responsibility I feel when I am smoothing a condom down over our dildo. These conscious acts taken to allow for a spontaneous physical pleasure become spritual moments of sexual reclamation.

While I have felt fear and change and loss, I have, even more, felt a glory in my love making in my fifth decade. The glory comes from knowing I am using everything my 50 years of living as a lesbian have taught me, not just about our bodies, but about the wonder of our risk takings, the strength of our autonomy, the courage of our choices.

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© 1991 Joan Nestle. Published in Lesbians at Midlife: The Creative Transition, edited by Barbara Sang, Joyce Warshow and Adrienne J. Smith; San Francisco: Spinsters Book Company, 1991.

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