Sex & Love: The New World

He expected to end up alone. so did she. Joe Germana, 49, had been married to Jane, "the love of my life," for 17 years. Diane Barna, 51, had been in a committed relationship with the same man for nearly a quarter of a century. Then, three years ago, Germana and his two young daughters returned to their Parma, Ohio, home after a brief shopping trip and found Jane dead from a medication reaction. "It was an absolute kick in the gut, a nightmare," he says. "Dating was the last thing on my mind." When Barna's longtime partner died last year, she, too, thought her romantic life was over. "I knew what love was, and not everyone gets that lucky," says Barna, a legal secretary who lives in Olmsted Falls, Ohio. "I had a great job, a good circle of friends, a lot of interests, and I thought I just wasn't going to settle for something in pants."

But love at midlife is full of surprises. You'll see.

The 77,702,865 Americans born between 1946 and 1964 came of age in the era of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. And while the last two may have lost some appeal over the years, sex and relationships remain front and center as the oldest boomers turn 60 this year. That's largely because more boomers are single than any previous cohort of forty to sixtysomethings. According to the Census Bureau, 28.6 percent of adults age 45 to 59 were unattached in 2003, compared with only 18.8 percent in 1980. (Of those, 16.6 percent were divorced, 2.9 percent were widowed and 9.1 percent had never been married.) And many of these singles are on the prowl. In a recent AARP survey, up to 70 percent of single boomers said they dated regularly. Of those between 40 and 59 years old, 45 percent of men and 38 percent of women have intercourse at least once a week.

In the 1970s and '80s, gay men and women who didn't have the option of marriage pioneered this pattern of evolving social connections. But for boomers in 2006, the issues have shifted. Gay or straight, they worry about the effect on --their kids, especially if they became parents late in life. It's one thing to get an all-clear from a 23-year-old son or daughter but quite another to date around when you've got a preschooler in the house.

Images of middle-aged sex are beginning to permeate popular culture, from Jack Nicholson and a nude Diane Keaton in "Something's Gotta Give" to Charles and Camilla (together at last). Romance novelist Susan Elizabeth Phillips, who has nine New York Times best sellers to her credit, often includes passionate older couples in her books. "In the one I'm working on now, the secondary love story is between this geezer rocker and a woman who was once his groupie," she says. "They're both in their early 50s." In real life, there's Mick Jagger, still seeking satisfaction at 62. Author Gail Sheehy, who defined life journeys with "Passages" in the 1970s and "The Silent Passage" (on menopause) in 1991, has a new offering: "Sex and the Seasoned Woman," which promises to prove that women over 50 are "spicy... marinated in life experience."

That's a sea change from a generation ago, when older singles were out of the game. "You were supposed to stay home and be a grandparent at 50," says University of Washington sociologist Pepper Schwartz, 59, a twice-divorced single boomer herself and the author of "Finding Your Perfect Match." But boomers, Schwartz says, are "very clear about what they want, and they're willing to go looking for it." A whole new industry is gearing up to help with everything from drugs for erectile dysfunction to sex toys designed to appeal to boomers' more elevated sense of style (higher-quality silicone, according to Rebecca Suzanne, marketing manager of Babeland). Gyms across the country are introducing low-impact classes to attract boomers who want to firm up flabby thighs and jelly bellies in order to attract an equally fit partner. Boomers are flaunting their sexuality. "It's a situation of enjoying what's there," says Helen Gurley Brown, whose 1962 book "Sex and the Single Girl" ushered in a new era of openness about women and desire. "Sex is such an enjoyable activity at any age," says Brown, 83. "Why delegate it only to the young?"

Why indeed? Although boomers usually still meet the old-fashioned way--through friends, neighbors or relatives--a growing number are searching online. Jim Safka, CEO of Match.com, says that people over 50 make up his site's fastest- growing segment, with a 300 percent increase since 2000. Some sites, like PrimeSingles.net, cater specifically to the over-50 crowd. Others attract boomers with more-specialized requirements like religion (BigChurch.com for Christians and Jdate.com for Jews) or sexual orientation (OurPersonals.com for gays). "Even 25 years ago, most people were reliant on their friends to fix them up," says family historian Stephanie Coontz, of the Evergreen State College in Washington. "People in their 40s and 50s don't want to be hanging out at bars. Now they have access to this incredible pool of single people their age."

The web helped Joe Germana start dating again. Two and a half years after Jane's death, he began to think about "reconnecting." He missed "the sweetness, the intimacy of a woman." But he was uncomfortable going to bars or clubs. "I'm in my 40s, not my 20s, and I was never a player," he says. "The thought of hitting on people just wasn't what I'm about." His thoughts wandered to his college girlfriend, and, amazingly, he found her on Classmates.com. They exchanged emails and discovered that both had lost spouses and had other experiences in common. After two months, they reunited. "There were huge sparks, a lot of mutual attraction, and a weekend that was very passionate," he says. "It felt so natural. In the back of my mind I thought, could we pick this up where we left off?"

The answer turned out to be no. Like many men his age, Germana was looking for a new life companion. But many boomers aren't eager to settle down. American women in their 40s and 50s are better educated and more affluent than any previous generation of women at midlife, and that has transformed the way they view dating. They don't necessarily want or need to center their lives on a man. In the AARP survey, only 14 percent of women said their most important reason for dating was to find someone to live with or marry, compared with 22 percent of men. College professor Katherine Chaddock, 58, coauthor of "Flings, Frolics and Forever Afters: A Single Woman's Guide to Romance After Fifty," has a full schedule with work, her writers' group, her book club, her kids' visits home from college, her mixed-doubles tennis matches and her --trips to the gym. For now, Chaddock says, her ideal relationship would be a "flex time" romance. "I could really enjoy on a fairly long-term basis somebody who lives and works about 100 to 200 miles away, somebody I saw every weekend, Friday through Sunday," she says. "Then we'd take a break and I could go back and talk to my cats and do silly stuff and wear my teeth-whitener strips around the house."

Although even the most fit 50-year-old can't compete with her 25-year-old body, women are learning to accept some of the sags that come with aging--and using a little cosmetic surgery to cope with the rest. Peggy Northrop, editor in chief of More magazine, which aims at women over 40, says midlife women "are not so uptight about their bodies as they were when they were younger. Their feeling is: if I'm naked and smiling, what's your problem?"

For boomer women, this freedom at midlife may turn out to be an unexpected benefit of the feminist movement of the 1970s. "People used to say to me that because of all these changes in our society, a lot of women were going to end up lonely in their old age," says Coontz. "Well, you couldn't prove it by the ones I know." Single women in their 40s and 50s often have vast friendship networks that they've developed from college through years in the workplace and community activities. "They take vacations to meet up with friends and they have very rewarding lives without a partner," says Coontz. "It's a stunningly new ball game."

Victoria Lautman, a single mother in Chicago, thinks of herself as a poster girl for the fortysomething divorced woman. "That's not because I've got men coming up the wazoo," she says. "It's mainly because I'm very social. I give a lot of parties." Lautman, a broadcast journalist, says she is far happier than she was when she was married. "The traditional view of the divorced woman is that they're just in purgatory, waiting until the next heavenly messenger shows up," she says. "I would so much rather be alone for the rest of my life than be mired in a bad relationship." At the moment, her 11-year-old son is the main man in her life. But she's definitely looking ahead. "At some point, when my son's a teenager, he's not going to need me," she says. "And when I'm 52, hopefully I'll still pass for 42, and I won't have to go for the 80-year-olds."

The longer they're single, the harder it is for boomer women to settle down. Cecilia Mowatt, 45, a lawyer turned consultant, always thought she would be married, but time passed quickly. "I was busy leading my life, doing my corporate career, all the Junior League stuff and philanthropic stuff to give back, and I kind of forgot about what I wanted to do for me in terms of a personal life," she says. But she admits she has become accustomed to her freedom and has come to cherish it. "Marriage is no easy thing," she says. "That partnership requires work every single day, and a commitment that's incredible."

For boomer men, the new rules can be bewildering at first but ultimately liberating. Lawyer Alan Kopit, 53, re-entered the dating scene in 2003 after a marriage that lasted nearly 18 years. "It used to be that a guy called the girl and set up the date," says Kopit, who lives in a Cleveland suburb. "Now a woman can just as easily call me and ask if I want to get together." This shift makes dating a lot more balanced, he says. A generation ago, it was the women who sacrificed a postdivorce social life to care for the children. But Kopit, like many divorced dads, is always thinking about the effect dating has on his daughters, ages 16 and 12, who live with him four nights a week. "I have to fit dating around my parental responsibilities," he says.

Even though he knew things weren't going well, Joe Germana tried to revive the relationship with his former classmate. He calls this effort "simpleton thinking with the brain between my legs." But they both had full lives and lived hundreds of miles apart. The situation was impossible. Eventually, they stopped communicating. "It was horrible," he says. Heartbreak in your 40s is a much slower-healing wound. But he still wanted love in his life, so a few months later he signed up on eHarmony.com, figuring that having to pay a fee might "weed out" women who weren't serious. After weeks of e-mails, he finally found a woman with potential. She liked classical music, bike rides and walks in the park, and had two kids close in age to his own. She worked in an office, as he did, and was recently divorced.

Only one hitch. She was 10 years younger.

In past generations, the age game always worked in favor of men. The assumption was that they could readily date down the calendar while women couldn't. But as Germana was about to find out, those rules have changed. Germana and the younger woman hit it off on their first date, and things moved "slowly, very slowly" until her 40th birthday. He bought her 40 long-stemmed roses and says he was "rewarded" for his patience. And so it began--lots of passion and lots of late nights. Paradise? Not exactly. "The lifestyle was killing me," Germana says. "I'm not used to all those late nights." He began to long for his quieter and more sedentary lifestyle. The younger woman took off on her annual camping trip with her kids. By the time she came back, the relationship had fizzled. "She needed someone younger and more exciting," he says, "and I needed a break since I was half dead."

Women in their 40s and 50s fantasize about younger men for the same reasons older men have always chased hot young babes--pure and simple lust. But reversing the sexes adds some interesting quirks. Think of the groundbreaking affair between Samantha Jones, the aggressive publicist on "Sex and the City," and her gentle boy toy, Smith Jerrod. She guided his career, gave him the benefit of her experience and expertise, and he gave her compassion and loyalty when she battled cancer. And he was one amazing lover.

In real life, Kim Cattrall, the 49-year-old actress who played Samantha, is in a relationship with 27-year-old Alan Wyse, a private chef whom she describes as an old soul. "He's not a very young 27-year-old," Cattrall says. And, she adds, "he's in the culinary world, and making food is a very nurturing thing." After playing a sexually adventurous character, Cattrall found it hard to have a relationship with a man her own age because she thought they were trying to compete with Samantha. A younger man, she says, doesn't feel that need to outdo her. "The thing I really enjoy," she says, "is that I can show him my world and what I think about something. He's not closed down." She recently introduced him to the movie "Harold and Maude," the story of a special relationship between a 20-year-old man and a woman in her 70s. He loved it, of course.

But men who date younger women say that's their only option if they want to have a family. Even though Jim Bixby, a 46-year-old chemical engineer in Chicago, lives in a big city, he's finding it tough to meet women and started looking online about a year ago. In the first part of 2005, he had about 18 dates with six different women. "I was so jazzed," he says. "Then reality sank in. At some point, I realized I was drawing from the DNA cesspool." A number of the women had what he calls "extreme behavior" and a lot of "issues." One constantly swore even in ordinary conversation, and another e-mail correspondent turned out to be from Poland and was looking for a way to come to the United States. When he looks into his future, he's hoping he'll be a father instead of a 60-year-old dating 24-year-old women. "That's just gross," he says.

But not impossible. Thanks to the pharmaceutical industry, physical limitations to sex as men get older are vanishing. The percentage of men suffering from erectile dysfunction increases dramatically with age. Viagra and its cousins are helping men stay sexually active, although that can pose unexpected challenges for women, says Dr. Lee Shulman, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Northwestern University and a board member of the Association of Reproductive Health Professionals. If a man has "36 hours of an erect penis, that's a lot of pressure, especially for those women for whom intercourse has become painful," he says. "She may try more oral sex to keep him at bay, but eventually, he's going to want to do the horizontal mambo." The solution: vaginal lubricants and moisturizers and possibly local estrogen therapy for women who want to stay in shape for sex.

As joe germana continued his search, Diane Barna was also tentatively starting to date. She tried online dating and "absolutely loathed" her experiences. After being in a couple for so long, she found the new rules daunting. Who makes the first call? Who pays for dinner? Does the three-date rule still apply? Who brings the condom? And (a really delicate issue) how do you ask if that someone has been tested for HIV? On all except the last, there are no real guidelines, says syndicated columnist Amy Dickinson, but she advises her readers to have a very specific discussion of their sexual histories. "Getting an HIV test together is the modern equivalent of exchanging class rings," says Dickinson, a 46-year-old single mother herself.

But Barna couldn't do it. "Oh, God," she groans. "That's kind of intimidating."

Though single boomers are having sex regularly, only 39 percent invariably use protection, according to the AARP study. "To me those are pretty alarming figures," says Linda Fisher, AARP's research director. From 1990 to 2004, the cumulative number of AIDS cases in adults 50 and older grew sevenfold, from 16,288 to 114,981. The increase reflects people who were infected early on and have survived because of antiviral medication, but experts who study aging and AIDS are concerned that the problem of new infections in older adults may be more serious than the statistics reflect.

Many boomers just don't have a sense of danger about sex. They came of age before the HIV epidemic and never learned how to negotiate condom use or testing with their partners. In fact, women over 50 are at risk for developing HIV from heterosexual sex because their thinner vaginal walls are more susceptible to cuts and tears. Women of all ages represent the fastest-growing segment of new HIV cases, and the number of new infections among older women is rising rapidly: between 1988 and 2000, women's share of AIDS cases among those 50 and older nearly doubled, from 8.9 percent to 15 percent.

One day, Germana's younger girlfriend shared her tale with Barna, a frequent --lunch companion. Despite the failure of her friend's relationship with Germana, Barna was intrigued. "There I was, alone, hearing about this really nice guy who takes care of his kids, works hard, who is close to my age, who somebody else thought was kind of boring. I thought, give me some of that boring. He sounds absolutely perfect." Because there were no hard feelings, the younger woman agreed to act as a facilitator, e-mailing pictures and asking Germana if he wanted to meet Barna. The answer was yes.

Six months later, Germana and Barna think of themselves as a serious couple. "This is a good person, a good man, and I'm very comfortable," says Barna. And the three-date rule? Not a problem. "At our age," says Barna, "if sex presents itself, if you're comfortable with your partner, why wait for three dates? Just go for it." Germana agrees that age shouldn't be a barrier, but having a full life in your 40s and 50s puts different strains on dating. "There are more pressures just from life itself," he says. "You are generally established at work, working hard, long hours, you have kids and family obligations--and just obligations in general." His daughters were troubled at first by his dating, and he thinks they were worried that he wouldn't spend enough time with them. But now he says things are OK. Barna says her adult son had no problem with her dating again. In fact, she believes he's happy for her. "He's probably thinking, 'I'm not going to have to take care of Mom'," she says, laughing. "Besides, I know he wants me to be happy." And for now, she is.

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