Jewish Journal

Viagra and Love

by Ellie Kahn

Posted on Mar. 30, 2000 at 7:00 pm

I've been thinking about sex.

Now that I'm over 50, I'm enjoying sex more than I did in my youth. Will the fun last, I wonder?

Many people assume that aging means the loss of sexuality. I don't want to believe it. Maybe, as we get older, our pictures of what constitutes sex just has to change. Maybe our sex lives won't look like what we see in the movies (and maybe I won't ever have a body like Julia Roberts). Maybe we have to accept various changes -- and losses -- but can still have great pleasure.

I decided to do some research, starting with my father. My friends are impressed that I can talk to my parents about sex without cringing or blushing. I know more about my mother's sex life than I do about her views on Israeli-Palestinian relations.

When I asked my father about his sex life -- he and my mother have not been married for over 40 years -- he said, "I love sex!" He's 81. I asked him if sex has changed as he's gotten older. "Sure it has," he said, "because your body changes. You do different things for pleasure, but it's still fun. Also, I like Viagra."


"It's none of your business."

I guess there's only so far a daughter can delve into her father's sex life.

When I was in graduate school, 20 years ago, Dr. Ben Weininger, then a 73-year-old psychiatrist, was one of my favorite teachers. A founder of the Southern California Counseling Center, Weininger co-authored a book called "Aging is a Lifelong Affair." There's a great chapter on sex.

Weininger, who has since passed away, didn't agree with the common belief that older people can't be sexual.

"One of the difficulties is that people associate sex mainly with intercourse," he wrote. He said that people can have intercourse as long as they live, if they're otherwise healthy. But he added, "Intercourse is not the problem... closeness is."

Claire Ollstein, a marriage and family counselor in West L.A. agreed. "I once worked with a couple in their 80's," she said. "They'd been married for over 60 years. The husband was reading books about sex, and he wanted to try some new things with his wife. He was angry that she wouldn't do any of it. The wife complained that she had always met her husband's sexual needs -- that he'd do his thing and just roll off and not meet her needs at all."

I thought about times in my own relationships that I wasn't getting my needs or wants met -- sexual or otherwise. Usually, I have found, it has to do with me not clearly asking for what I want. It seems so simple. But judging from all the books on the topic, and conversations with friends, it's not.

Ollstein told me that the woman she mentioned said that all she wanted was for her husband to put his arms around her. "I inquired if she'd ever asked him to do that, and she said, 'He should have known, after 60 years!' Her husband replied, 'You never told me.'"

How sad, to spend all those years together, but feel so alone.

According to Weininger, sex is not a problem when there's love. "It's really simple," he says. "If you have a loving partner and you want to make love, you make love. If a person is afraid to be close to another, he shuts off the sexual part of himself. If he is open to other people, he needn't concern himself with whether he has sexual intercourse or not. Being sexual is touching someone's hand, hugging, and kissing, as well as having intercourse if that is desired. What is essential to me is affection and hugs."

I recently saw a pamphlet called "101 Ways to Make Love Without Doin' It." Some of the suggestions listed were: "Snuggle up together," "Do things for each other without being asked," "Listen to hurts," "Cook each other's favorite food," "Make a list of things you like about each other," and "Touch each other in a loving way."

Good advice for couples who are getting older, right? The list, however, was prepared by high school students in Iowa, when asked how they could show their love besides having sexual intercourse. Out of the mouths of babes.

Thinking of alternatives to intercourse brings up a sexual dilemma many elderly face: What if there isn't someone to make love with? Many people outlive their spouses or lovers. Does their sexuality have to die, too? If one's partner is ill, do they have to give up sexual pleasure? According to the experts, definitely not. An upcoming seminar on "Aging and Women's Issues" will explore this issue and others (see box).

In his Outreach Lecture series, "The Nature of God and the Nature of Man," Rabbi Harold Schulweis sums up how our lifelong sexual desires intersect with the divine: "The human child is created in God's image and that is the religious spiritual basis of his or her self esteem," he says. "The body in which the infant is born is not corrupt.

It is good -- and so is the libido of human beings. Sex is good, and nowhere, even in the more ascetic traditions within Judaism, is celibacy praised."

Ellie Kahn is an oral historian, freelance writer and the owner of Living Legacies Family Histories in West L.A.

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