Advice for Gray Daters: A lot more conversation, a little less action

Feb. 14, 2018

By Laura Stassi

It’s Valentine’s Day, so let’s talk about sex. I’ll go first, with a confession: Even though it’s already been a few years since my gray divorce,  I still feel clumsy and clueless about the social and moral aspects of sex for people 50 and older.

I suspect I’m not the only one. How else to explain online dating dudes who go by the names MrHuge and GratKissor (hah, more like BadSpeller) and Milfhunter65 — Milf as in “Mother I’d like to f**k.” Yes, these are actual user names of men 50 and older on the online dating sites Match, eHarmony, and Our Time. Then there’s my “favorite,” Makusqrt12, who says he’s looking for someone honest, hard-working, and freaky. Clearly, we’re soul mates. Not.

So what are the rules for sex and the single gray woman?

“I don’t believe in any kind of rulebook, or playbook,” the Rev. Debra Haffner tells me. “But I really believe you have to communicate before you have sex. I think hooking up, if I use today’s vernacular, rarely ends up in good sex – and even more rarely ends up in a real relationship.”

Haffner is minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church in Reston. She may seem like an unlikely person for me to turn to for advice. But Haffner’s also a nationally acclaimed sexologist — someone who studies the science of human sexuality. She earned a master’s degree in public health from Yale decades before earning master’s and doctoral degrees from Union Theological Seminary in New York City and Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, California, respectively.

Her resume includes serving as president of the D.C.-based Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, and writing several books including the award-winning Beyond the Big Talk: Every Parent’s Guide to Raising Sexually Healthy Teens. Think of Haffner as the baby boomer generation’s Dr. Ruth, or Pepper Schwartz without the publicity machine. (In fact, Haffner and Schwartz, a sexologist whose many projects include relationship expert for the Lifetime TV series Married at First Sight, have been close friends since meeting professionally in 1991.)

Haffner says it’s understandable that I may be confused about sex. “In this country, we generally teach sex education between eighth and tenth grade, with the expectation we’re giving people information for their lifetime.”

But bodies change, of course. “Very few people talk about the fact that most men will reach an age where they don’t have an erection that’s strong enough for intercourse without intervention,” she said. “We don’t talk to women about lubrication, and intercourse becoming painful.”

And when sex is defined only as intercourse, she says, then some people decide to give up instead of making accommodations for their aging bodies. “So people stop touching each other,” she said. “They stop kissing. They stop engaging in any physical intimacy because they have to give up a certain act.”

Also, being in a committed relationship doesn’t necessarily make a person more knowledgeable or skilled.

“I think what they are is efficient,” said Haffner, who’s been married for 35 years and has two grown children. “They know how to get their partner to orgasm, so they keep doing what they’ve been doing, and they move quickly.”

Haffner says she’s not going to judge if, let’s say hypothetically and figuratively, one wants to just get back on the horse. But she believes everyone – gay or straight, single or partnered, young and not so  – deserves a moral and ethical sexual relationship.

She defines this as:

 Enthusiastically consensual. “It’s not a matter of giving signals or coyly expecting things,” she said. “And no one should be having sex with someone you don’t really want to be having sex with at that moment.”

Non-exploitive. “People aren’t objects; they’re not using each other. There’s a shared understanding.”

Honest. Haffner says this includes asking and answering questions such as: Where are you in your life, and what are you looking for? If this works out, would you like a relationship, or are you just playing? Are you planning on moving anytime soon?  Do you have other partners? If we entered into a relationship, would it be monogamous?

Mutually pleasurable. Both partners are as committed to the other person’s pleasure as they are to their own. “How do you know what will please the other person? You ask,” Haffner says. “Sex is a matter of learning somebody. We’re all different; there’s no formula.”

Protected against sexually transmitted infections.

So how do two people develop a moral and ethical sexual relationship? With shared values and time but above all, with communication. When you’re 50 or older, “you have a life,” Haffner said. “You come with your loves, your commitments and your values, things that have broken your heart and the relationships that have worked and those that haven’t, and what you know about yourself.”

“So this idea that you’re going to find that soul mate whom you will instantly meld your life with – I don’t know how much it happens at 21, but I definitely don’t think that’s what’s happening at 50 and older,” she said. “What’s happening instead is a lot of talking.”

But it’s worth it, she assures me. “Those of us who are midlife and older should feel that we’re entitled to good sexual and romantic lives,” she said.

Amen to that.