When I was a teenager (not exactly the good old days) I had disdain for most popular culture of the 80s and instead I longed for the mythical 60s, a time when baby boomers were free and liberal and apparently dancing naked in the mud. This was in contrast to my young adult events, such as the Safe Sex themed freshman mixer at my college (accessorize with condoms!). Things had taken a sharp turn from “Why don’t we do it in the road?” to girls at my high school being labeled sluts on a regular basis. I thought those free-loving people of my parent’s generation had it made. It seemed as though there had been a brief window of time in which people got to have sexual exploration that was easy and fun, didn’t require waxing of any kind, and was not full of angst. And that time had passed.
Now as a sex therapist, I am in the amazing position of getting to talk to people of all generations about sex. I love what I do. I love getting to see the world through different eyes. And, spoiler alert, I have learned that pretty much everyone has some sexual angst. The hippie generation didn’t escape it, contrary to the copy of Joy of Sex in every Bay Area parent’s bedroom. Yes, we snooped.
Now I have had real conversations, with vibrant sexy baby boomers, who tell me about sexual fantasies that have caused them shame for years. I have witnessed the grief about years lost from people who felt they had to wait for their parents to die before they could be open about who they love or who they are. I have processed sexual abuse with people who had never heard of this happening to other people before. I have talked to people who have had sex with multiple partners in the hot tubs at Esalen under a full moon and still they worry that they have missed out on something and are forever lacking in some nameless way.
I have listened to Kay and Jim talk about how elusive sexual excitement is for them now. When I ask about great sexual memories, they wince and glance at each other before saying, “All our good memories are when we were high. But now we are sober.” Drugs gave them moments of carefree sexuality but it didn’t translate into long-term immunity to sexual hang-ups, instead, it left them feeling more shut down and unaware of how to access that abandon again. I hear about regrets and I hear about fears that a partner of 20 years still hasn’t really seen who we are.
I hear from people who went to the book party for Our Bodies, Ourselves and are too embarrassed to tell their partner that sex has been painful for awhile now. And people who marched for rights while deep down they still feel undeserving. And I hear stories about seducing many while feeling alone.
I am not writing this to say that people of that generation are hypocrites. They are not. At least not any more than the rest of us. I am writing to say that sexuality is complicated and fragile and confusing for all of us. Believing one thing in your head is different than taking it into your full being and applying it to yourself. Whether the external noise and pressures around you are saying you need to repress your sexuality to be good or to share your sexuality without discrimination to be hip, it is still pressure. It takes focus and self-trust to sort out the external noise and find your own way. There is no free pass for doing your own work to develop your sexual freedom.
But the good news is it is never too late to do that work. That is the clearest lesson I am learning from talking to my parents’ generation about sex. You can show up at seventy and learn new things about your own sexual story. You can engage your curiosity and discover passion in unexpected places. And you can heal old wounds and forgive yourself for missteps along the way. What can make it easier for any of us is listening and sharing and being open to one another, without expectations or assumptions about how it might be for them. Oh, and listening to ourselves without all the external noise of a generation or a movement or even a community.
I have had to let go of my fantasy about a golden age of sexuality. And that is ok. In fact, it is good because it inspires me to help people find their own golden age right now in the midst of whatever is going on for them. I understand that it will need to be unique to them, inclusive of their vulnerabilities and markers of aging, celebratory about their desires and relationships, and growing and changing along with them. No one needed to be the best free-loving hippy of all time and no one needs to be the best queer DIY Burner either. They just need be figuring out their authenticity. And I am excited to keep listening.