Closing in on 54 and having internalized endless cultural messaging that this would be a horrible, shriveled up, unsexy phase of my life, I’ve been surprised to find myself more content than ever in my skin — as a person, writer, mother, partner, and wife. Maybe because, in addition to having tasted professional success, feeling supported by a great network, and knowing what I want — and finally feeling entitled to it — I’m newly released from a long list of realities that hobble us uterus-havers. Monthly PMS can wreck our moods and leave us so bloated it literally hurts (plus it’s hard to feel sexy when none of your clothes fit). A decade of perimenopause can up our anxiety, eff with our sleep, and give us periods so intense our bathrooms look like crime scenes and so unpredictable that we can’t wear light colors without worry. Then there’s the exhaustion and ego blow of mothering young children in a culture that pays lip service to the importance of parenting, while failing to support us as we do it. In all, it’s a mood killer.
So it just makes sense that on the other side of all these stressors, on a cocktail of hormones that suits me after some trial and error, I find myself more fit, better rested, calmer, and happier than ever.
I also feel sexy AF. Sexier than ever before. Sexier, I swear, than I did in my 20s, 30s, or 40s. I asked sex educator and female empowerment performer Mama Gena, 63, about this, and she told me, “When we continue to use our sexuality in midlife and beyond, instead of abandoning it, we become riveting and powerful, like an experienced female flamenco dancer… We know what we want. We know how to ask for it. We know each moment counts and are ready to savor each delicious drop of life.”
The numbers show it’s so. A 2019 survey of 2,003 Americans over 50 found that almost a quarter think they’re more adventurous in their sex life, largely thanks to a decrease in inhibitions now that they’re older. Another study reveals that while menopausal and post-menopausal women report having less sex, it’s not due to lack of interest but lack of access (many straight older women have partners who suffer from erectile issues; others are widowed). Sure, decreasing estrogen levels affect vaginal dryness and elasticity, but Betty Dodson proves that with the help of a little lube, toe-curling orgasms are available into your 90s.
I wanted to test drive my new confidence and the data suggesting that sexy can be forever. I also wanted the frisson of flirtation and the thrill of seduction, without the follow-through. But how? I’m married. I don’t go to bars. And New York is a bustling, all-business town, so walking down the street here isn’t anything like it is in, say, Paris, where there is plenty of looking.
And then a sex therapist I know told me of her female patients in midlife who go on dating apps just for the swiping, fun, and validation. No follow through — just matching and messaging. Sign me up! This would get me what I was looking for. And give clues to whether actual males who gaze are necessarily complicit with the Male Gaze that tells us the cut off for female sexiness is something like 29.
“Great, let’s upload some photos!” my ever-game husband enthused when I suggested my plan.
Lumen — Not So Incandescent
I uploaded some shots (me in shorts and a sunhat, in a bikini, wearing a scuba mask). Then I crafted a profile to head off confusion at the pass. “About me: fit, fun, feminist AF. Researcher.” That was honest. “Looking for: good conversation.” I mean, aren’t we all?
The next day I saw I had been “liked” 46 times and had over a dozen messages. Most of the guys were in their 60s; many were retired. Otherwise they were a diverse group in terms of race, ethnicity, career, and desires. A 50-ish “manager” told me he was “a one woman man.” A 70-ish former construction worker wanted a woman with a motorcycle. Props, dude. Paul, an “HVAC” guy, implied he had been a legend in the disco era. I immediately deleted a self-described male chauvinist, because WHY? There was a truck driver looking for someone religious, a life coach looking for fun, and a mechanic looking for “anything.” An extremely buff therapist asked me how I felt about dating outside my race. I told him and an oil platform operator that I sought conversation, and I asked them about their Lumen experiences. They and other men I eventually asked admitted it could be rough; they felt the odds were against them (men in the aggregate do in fact tend to get less action on dating apps than women do). As a dating app newbie, what really struck me was how vulnerable these men were making themselves and how badly they seemed to want connection. You’re beautiful, and I think you’d like me if you gave me a chance, was a common message. I didn’t feel validated... I felt sad, and a little guilty.
Also I was learning that when it comes to hypothetical hooking up in my 50s, I’m hypocritically into younger.
Tinder — On Fire
So I also went on Tinder, the world’s most popular dating app, where 85% of users are 18 to 34. I blurred my face; put up much racier photos; and described myself as a fit, fun, feminist AF 40-something who wanted “fun.” I hoped that was a message to guys who’d want to hook up. Because when it comes to social research, I believe in going for broke.
Within days I had over 3,000 right swipes. Like a slot machine addict in Vegas, I played Tinder for hours, often with my amused husband at my side. I focused on self-described 30-year-olds who looked like (and often were) models and athletes. I wasn’t shy — I messaged them first after we matched because why not? “Hi, I’m new here, you’re cute, how does this work?” And I hit the motherlode. Literally dozens of guys responded, their messages ranging from novel-length I want to do you and here’s how it’d go down scenarios, to Hi, you are very attractive, I’d love to meet you for coffee. Respectfully yours… I asked a sampling of these younger men if they were into older women and why. Yeah, definitely. Older women know what you want and that’s hot, was the basic response. Another common answer was: Married older women don’t want a commitment, they know what turns them on and know what turns men on because they’re experienced.
So who are these guys, exactly? Fellows with mommy issues? Nah. According to Dr. Justin Lehmiller, a psychologist and author of Tell Me What You Want, MILF fantasies are “extraordinarily popular.” In his 2018 survey of more than 4,000 Americans, 88% of heterosexually identified men said they’d had a fantasy about an older woman at least once before, and 42% said they had these fantasies often. And it’s not just younger men. The older the men he surveyed were, “the more likely they were to fantasize about older women.” According to Lehmiller, this makes sense. MILF and GILF (yes, it’s a thing) fantasies are less about age and more about power. “Men are more into sexual submission than you might expect,” he told me. “They find the idea of a woman taking charge sexually to be very arousing. Part of the appeal of MILFs is the fact that they’re seen as sexually confident and powerful.” And that, my dears, comes with age.
The data are in. I was sad to take down my Tinder profile — I mourned letting go of the photos and messages from dozens of hot younger men who wanted to please me. But my app interlude improved my already great sex life with my husband. “All these guys desiring you is a turn-on,” he’d say. I learned what I’d hoped to and more. Stand in your power and your confidence and your sexiness borne of years, women in midlife and beyond. It’s very, very real.
With reporting and research assistance by Jane-Claire Quigley.