The title of this blog is a rearrangement of the International Planned Parenthood Federation’s Byline, ‘From Choice, a World of Possibilities’ as it is a byline I most identify with and within which I want to locate my thoughts on sex, sexuality and the aging woman! I like the byline, it seems very innocuous, and we have even been challenged that it does not speak to people nor does it reflect clearly what we do at IPPF where I work, which is making sexuality and it’s practice, safe, pleasurable, based on choice and providing the tools to do so – contraceptives, sexuality education, support for safe maternity, preventing unsafe abortions, identifying different forms of sexualities and supporting them and sex that is practised without coercion. But for me, that byline resonates very powerfully.
Choice and what it means is not what we always think about, we just make them – from the mundane, what to wear each morning, to the school we would want to go to given a choice, choices about careers, everyday decisions, everything is based on choice and the freedom to do so. Supposing then, we were not given the freedoms to make these choices? There are countries where women are not allowed to show their faces, their legs and pretty much about everything else for example, the choice we take for granted in choosing what we wear very morning then does not really apply to them – can you imagine, not to have the choice to choose whether you want to cover up all your body or expose it as you wish, ready for any consequences, but still a choice.
There are countries and families where people are not allowed to choose spouses, spouses are chosen for them and so the choice to look around, know someone and choose a partner, good and bad are taken away, there are many countries where fornication is a sin punishable by death and the rampant sex by choice that I imagine African people are having (or insinuated) especially amongst young, unmarried people, choosing who to see, have sex with etc would have been taken away! Most of us don’t even reflect on those denied choices and rights when choosing our sex partners – we do it without even thinking about it – who to love, and how to love, but imagine how it must be for lesbian and gay people, because of rampant homophobia, gay people are often forced into the closet, have to be furtive about who they love, often have to pretend to be what they are not because they do not have freedom to choose. So many women and girls are illiterates simply because they are women and not given a choice of whether to go to school or not, they are just stopped and told that schools and presumably knowledge is not for women/ girls! So you see why this byline thoroughly speaks to me? Choice is a fundamental right that we all take for granted. Ok, so why does it apply to an aging woman?
These days when you do work on sexuality, there almost seems to be a dichotomy, older women are targeted for their reproductive functions, while young women are targeted for their sexual health. In case you don’t know, the implied belief behind this dichotomy is that young women under 30 are having sex for pleasure while those over 30 are having sex to have babies! So then where does it leave women who are over 45, not having children anymore but still having sex, pleasurable I would imagine?? So the question is, what is the choice of an ageing woman like me in terms of accessing sexual health information and rights in order to have pleasurable sex without having to pretend to be a young woman who is under 30?
In talking about access, one has to discuss the whole notion of the way we view older women’s sexuality in Africa or at least in my corner of Africa (I have to let you know that this is not an academic treatise, just based on anecdotes, and all other things that cannot be verified ‘scientifically’!). Older women are often respected in Africa once you hit a certain milestone. As chronological age is not often efficient in Africa, most women are supposed to stop having sex when their children start having children – in my culture it is a taboo to be pregnant when your child is also pregnant. So if we go back a few decades, we can safely deduce that this will be around 37 and 38 (yeah, can you imagine stopping having sex at 38??). My deduction is that if you start having kids at 18 given that women didn’t go to school anyway, and you have a daughter first, by the time she is 18/19, she is also married and starting to have kids which the effectively stops you having sex at 37/39. You might risk it, but given that there was no access to contraceptives, the chances of being pregnant were very high so I can imagine the number of women then as it is now, who risked getting down, got pregnant, went through unsafe abortions and lost their lives – who says sex is not a death sentence for some?
So back to me, what is an ‘oldish’ woman like me supposed to do for good sex? How do older single women who are still dating navigate sex safely and for pleasure? I am sure a few people reading this are already making judgements, why are you over 40 and single anyway? If you are single, there must be something wrong – you could not find a man because you are or were bad when younger (so should know about sex anyway, wink, wink) or was married and no longer married (again, bad!). But of course as with all things concerning me, I always ignore naysayers and traditionalists anyway.
So back to the issue of over 40 woman and sex. The first challenge is of course finding the man to have sex with! In the West, a lot of people are on their second or third spouses, always freeing up potential partners for men and women of all ages to marry or at least have guilt free sex with. In Africa, people marry and stay in their marriages even when they have not spoken to their spouses for 20 years, much more, having sex with their spouses! What this means is that in Africa, finding single and not crazy men over 40 is almost an impossible task!
So what is a single older woman to do? Simple! You just include men in bad marriages, men who are just adventurous and have never taken their marriage vows seriously anyway and men 10 years + younger than you in your sex ‘pool’! So you have all of them there, how do you choose the one that can if nothing else, provide sexual pleasure? To make this slightly analytical while also trying to help you, we will go through each category of men I have described above and eliminate them (let’s see where it leaves you and I). Ok, let’s take the man in an unhappy marriage, he is in practice a single man, he is not engaging with his wife and so has the emotional capacity to fall in love with you, and you fall in love with him. He is very available like a single man, you can take holidays together (you can assuage yourself by believing that the wife is also not sitting around, moping), and he can certainly satisfy your sexual needs. This of course only works if you do not want marriage, do not have any hang ups about sleeping with a technically married man, no religious beliefs or religious and fundamentalist friends to remind you of the hell you are surely going to go to, or you do not really believe in marriage anyway.
Of course polygamy complicates it a bit. If you are very African, actually let’s make it an African man, you really can decide to have a ‘2nd or 3rd or 4th wife’, (even in lenient Africa, going above 4 ‘wives’ will be generally frowned upon’!). So in a way, as an older African woman, looking for sex, love and marriage, – not necessarily in that order, and not fussy about your number in the scheme of things, a ‘good catch’ if you want all three might actually be a boyfriend who is married to ‘only one woman’ unhappily and so very eligible! (An aside – reminds me of the former beauty queen in Kenya, in her 30s , so ideally should not be ‘oldish’ and slightly desperate like the rest of us, and beauty queen to boot, who ‘fessed up to being the ‘2nd wife’ of a famous and young politician. Her piece resistance, she is very happy as long as the man does not abandon the 1st wife and kids for her (the irony!). So another advice to my fellow ‘oldish’ other African women looking for sex, love and possibly marriage, make sure the man you are hooking up does not abandon his other wives for you! You don’t want to perpetrate the notion that we are ‘men eaters’!
The second type is even trickier! To all that know him, he is very happily married even though his closest friends know of his escapades. He woos you like he is single, but you can only see him at 12 midnight occasionally or maybe if he is really in a ‘happy’ marriage, he might only be able to get down in the middle of the afternoons in some friend’s place (he needs to be home at 7 latest to be with his wife and kids, and keep up the pretence!) and you will be very lucky to get holidays. As he is a player, you should at least be able to get pleasurable sex out of a whole sordid affair if you to use protection to protect you (and his poor wife) from sexually transmitted diseases/HIV to making sure you do not fall pregnant. You really do not want to tell him you are pregnant (believe it or not, it’s becoming easy for women over 45 to fall pregnant these days – I have two friends who i will protect here by not revealing their names who got pregnant at 45 and Halle Berry who is currently pregnant was born in the same year as yours truly!). And I cannot imagine a worse thing than going to a gynaecologist and asking for an abortion at 47. With this kind of man, you should never expect marriage (even if the wife drops dead and he becomes single, he won’t marry you!), you should not fall in love which is a bit difficult as women mostly can’t make love without feeling something regardless of what women say (except those in sex work and porn, but that’s just work). Your expectations should not go beyond sex and seriously, you must insist that the sex is good – he must give you the full works – oral, good sized penis, clean and buff body, ready to experiment and put you first – it has to be very good! If not, please let him stay with his wife. As with the first type, you must not have strong religious beliefs about hell or marriage, nor tell friends who do or have common sense to try and make you disengage. This type if you ask me, should only be used for stop-gaps – when you are desperate for some action and he is available, and he is a stopgap until you find your man (he would have provided so much pleasure that you will know how to guide your ‘ideal’ guy when you find him!)
The third type is the man 10+ years younger than you (ok, i know it is very hard to call the someone who you could sire a ‘man’, but trust me, I have been told off by a potential amorous partner who was 12 years younger than me. When I questioned his ‘manly’ credentials, I was told – “I am a grown man, I work, earn my own money and have my own apartment – if that is not being a man, what is? If you have sh*t issues dealing with a man, then deal with it.” So of course I looked at him differently after that – won’t tell you what happened after – this is a guide, not my life story!)! If you are brave enough to date the younger man (be ready for people asking you how old your son is, and if you are lucky, asking if he is your brother!), the man might be a good match and catch. But remember you are over 40 so it’s not likely to lead to a family of husband, wife and two children. Forget I mentioned Halle Berry and my friends, your probability of having kids after 40 decreases significantly (except of course you attend miracle churches, then you can have kids even if you are 100, but for the rest of us, very unlikely). I’m yet to meet a young African man who is 30 and does not want marriage and children. He will be attentive to you, might even fall in love with you and you with him. You probably have to hide the relationship as people are more judgemental of older woman dating a much younger man. There’s nothing that screams desperation more than that. There will be a million people asking how you are sure he is not after your money? You will of course be richer and more accomplished so will put gender roles out of the window. If you expect a man to take care of your bills, please don’t date a much younger man except he inherited lots of money, and if he did, he would probably be dating a much younger woman who is as smart as you are J and if he does date you, it will be novelty factor and would hardly count as being your ‘boyfriend. Even though he is single, you can’t readily introduce the younger man to friends and family (they might start thinking of planning an intervention for you) and you definitely do not want to take him to office functions. We are African women, remember, this oyinbo/muzungu thinking does not work at all – no one will respect you if you turn up with a ‘boy’ as a boyfriend. There is the risk that those you supervise might not trust your judgement anymore. And you certainly don’t want to be fodder for office gossip. If you are a brave woman and the young man is very confident in his own skin, this can actually last more than a lot of your other relationships. You are not dating a married man (at least one ‘sin’ has been eliminated and you should ideally be getting good sex, if you get past the fact that your body would have aged considerably more than his and might not be able to keep up with his ‘moves’).
Your final option is single, successful, close to your age, takes time to fall in love with you, pleases you and might even want to spend the rest of his years with you. (Ok, in my dreams, let me know when you find him!).
I am going to talk about ‘oldish’ sex next time – what do we need to do when we find the appropriate or inappropriate man (get out of here, I just want sex!), but writing this has made me think about my choices again, maybe I don’t have as much as I think I do? Maybe if I had let my father or older male relatives take this choice out of my hands now, I might actually have a ‘half’ man who might save me a lifetime of forced celibacy. Although knowing the marriages I know, I am not sure a lot of married women are getting sex either. But if as a result of forced celibacy, I do not commit any sin (yeah, the greatest sin if you believe our religious fundamentalists is to have pleasurable sex outside marriage – instinctively I think they will be more forgiving of you if they think the sex you are having is bad) and then find myself in heaven, who knows if getting down will be allowed there and the more important question, with whom???
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