I stopped reading erotic stories about 20 years ago, when I thought the only sources were magazines written by men, for men. So when I was asked to write an article on Dirty Old Women, an anthology of erotic prose and poetry written by “women of experience,” I asked our editor, “Why me?” Now, after reading modern erotica written by older women, I am enlightened.
Since sex seems wild and out of control, society often can’t reconcile the persona of a sexually mature woman, enjoying many forms of sexual expression, with the nurturing, measured, grandmotherly type. It’s time we were able to hold both.
What is erotica? It is not merely a more literary-sounding word for “porn.” Erotica can be bawdy, raunchy, or smutty. It can be softly hinting, delicious, or delirious. Song lyrics can be erotic poetry. Ever listen to Marvin Gaye’s Let’s Get it On to set the mood? Or Maria Muldaur’s teasing voice as she sings in Midnight at the Oasis, “You won’t need no camel, oh no, when I take you for a ride”?
A recurring news story recounts how older adults have discovered sexting. That’s a form of erotica. The Netflix series, Grace and Frankie, stars Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda as women who learn to own their sexuality by designing a vibrator specifically for arthritic older women.
Erotica can be a spicy backdrop to real life, or even nostalgic, because you don’t forget how to engage in sex—it’s like roller skating. (As Melanie sang back in the 1970s, “I’ve got a brand new pair of roller skates, you’ve got a brand new key.”) Erotica can remind us of some wild times we used to have, or would still like to have, or it might bring alive a safely daring side to our sex life.
Our culture still asserts that women lose their sex drive after menopause. Although estrogen production ebbs or halts, it’s believed that testosterone, the libido-stoking hormone present in women as well as men, may not—and erotica can stoke those flames. The new erotica pushes back on a culture that says women “dry up” after age 50. (There are products for that.) It empowers women to break free from shame, social convention, and their own inner critics to write openly about desire. It can show younger women new role models and how we celebrate our sexuality as we age.
Lynx Canon, the editor of Dirty Old Women, curates regular readings at the Octopus Literary Salon in Oakland, CA. Women read their erotic poetry and stories to standing-room-only groups of mostly women over 50, although men and younger adults come, too. She says, “I hope that when we stand up there with our wrinkles, gray hair, and unabashed desire, we reassure young women that it’s not over at 30, 50, or even 90.”
Mature erotica gives older women a voice. Sensuality and sexuality are exquisite as we age and by writing about it, we show women and men how to use fantasy and poetry to communicate. Erotica for women is more than “Tab A goes in to Slot B” or fingers running along perfect skin and toned muscles. It can be about the way a lover makes us feel: sexy, confident, beautiful, passionate. Like creativity, sex can transcend age.
Donna George Story, a contributing writer to Dirty Old Women, believes “we need more writers to acknowledge that the sexual urge and the erotic imagination are as worthy of a complex literary treatment as anger, jealousy, ambition, or love in its PG-rated form.” A complex treatment is needed because women’s sexuality is complex. As Billy Crystal said, “Women need a reason to have sex; men just need a place.”
Another fabulous thing about women writing erotica is that men can read it, too, and learn more about what women want. People magazine supposedly asserted, “If a man reads erotica written by women, especially older women, he will learn things he couldn’t get out of a decade of Playboy or Penthouse.”
By reading more erotica and talking with nearly two dozen people, I learned some new things. I knew the terms for older people in May/December relationships: daddies, sugar daddies, and cougars; but I never knew that the term for younger people who seek out older adults is Geri-Jumpers (Geri for Geriatric). I didn’t know that romance novels, which offer widely ranging types of erotica, make up 34 percent of the U.S. fiction market. I didn’t know there was such a buffet of erotica written by women.
Erotica gives us terminology to use, even if we aren’t comfortable speaking out loud. And language is important to women. I once had a partner who yelled, “Go-Go-Go-Go-Go!” at a critical moment. I didn’t know what to say then, but after reading more erotica, I have a few phrases to offer the next lover that might excite me more than encouraging me to slide into home plate.
So if you’ve given up on erotica like I had, explore the available buffet. As Rosalind Russell said in Auntie Mame, “Life’s a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death!”
I now have more reading material for late nights under the covers with a flashlight. I can read what I want, when I want. Wait … is that a flashlight or are you just happy to see me?
Dori Gillam speaks on aging well, aging in community, and planning for a good death. As a Seattle native, she has a bachelor’s degree in educational psychology and has worked for Sound Generations, AARP, and the Center for Creative Aging