December 7, 2021

Sara has been looking for something — not a partner; more a constant, decorous lover — on dating apps for a year. A divorcee in her late 50s, she soon grew tired of the Milf-hunters on Bumble and Tinder, where the average age of users is around 30 and people in their late teens and 20s account for about 15% of the pool. And so Sara went on Lumen, the dating app for people over 50, and was promptly inundated with offers more urgently, earnestly sexual than anything the youngsters had come up with. Openly, her fellow 50-somethings — as well as 60 and even 70-somethings — requested to have sex with her. “I’d love to get to know you sexually as well as every other way,” ran one fairly typical message.

Those she went on dates with frequently turned out to be married, or single and committed to a polyamorous lifestyle. Most, like her, weren’t aiming for a conventional monogamous relationship. One man, around her age, had recently left his wife and two daughters to live in a bedsit and sleep with as many “girlfriends” as he could muster. Rana, a 47-year-old who tells men up front that she is only interested in having lovers, and will never again embrace monogamy, says that every last one of them has joyously accepted her terms.

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Once, boomers’ sex lives were seen as an embarrassing topic; now, they’re exciting, worthy of attention from HBO, even. The remake of Sex and the City, And Just Like That, in which original cast members are now in their 50s, starts this week, and it has been heralded by some as the best instalment yet. “Let me tell you,” said star Sarah Jessica Parker in a recent interview, “there’s still a lot of sex in this version of Sex and the City.” As the series will make abundantly clear, sexual glamour is no longer the preserve of the young, although that’s partly thanks to technologies that keep people looking younger longer. Porn has also helped shift the relationship between age and sexiness, certainly for women, thanks to the rise of the Milf category.

Long a feature of the intellectual elite, the rich and the landed, sexual libertinism among the middle-aged is hardly new. It is newer for the middle classes, though, who became, in the West, less monogamous after World War Two. John Updike, in the Sixties, became known for a set of novels in which bored and angry married people, of varying degrees of affluence, took to sleeping with other people, including their friends’ wives and husbands. “Welcome to the post-pill paradise,” he wrote wryly in Couples (1968), set in 1963. (Working class morality before the Seventies was likely to preclude sexual and marital high-jinxery.)

But the picture of suburban, middle-class libertinism has changed. In the Sixties, the typical practitioner was younger, bored and miserable: the average age of couples getting married was lower, and women had fewer opportunities. But this stereotype has been replaced by a breed of boisterously exploratory 50-somethings in unashamed pursuit of personal fulfilment. This is partly because most moral strictures around sexuality have been eroded — including the final taboo of fidelity, which can now be dressed up as “ethical non-monogamy”, a phrase that now recurs on dating apps.

We have the progressive young to thank for this: Sietzke, a 57-year-old divorcee with four lovers, tells me that “people my sons’ age” — they are 25 and 28 — have “also helped by making it easier to bring these things up, to talk about them openly”. But “ethical non-monogamy” actually leaves some young people, especially women, frustrated or worse in their quest to find someone to settle down with; it’s actually well-to-do older people who seem to be reaping the sexual fruits. Some of these are bitter: STI rates in the over-50s doubled between 2002 and 2012, and have kept steadily rising.

And so we are at a strange pass. As the olds are merrily fucking, rates of sexual activity in the young have dropped. The preoccupation with being ‘correct’ is perhaps to blame, as well as the sheer barrage of terminology evident on all apps, but particularly on Feeld, the “dating app for couples and singles”, which describes itself as “a space where you can explore your identity” and “start connecting with open-minded humans”. Scrolling through an account, I struggled to understand what the men were saying. “A Dom [dominant] looking for FWB [friends with benefits], etc etc, I don’t prefer ONS [one night stands]…” wrote one. Another, defined as a “Man Queer”, introduced himself thus: “Playfights, cuddling, kissing, lake swimming are all good things. Maybe you want to do them? Say hi, make me feel pretty J.” A pan-sexual 29-year old’s “interests” were “crossdressing, pegging, cum play, lingerie, eye contact”.

The men might have been lovely people, but the way they presented themselves romantically was alien and didactic, even to me, a fairly liberal 39-year-old. The rise of these highly specific demands come, I suspect, from the infiltration of an identitarian politics into the bedroom — one that prizes kink and the erosion of boundaries as ‘inclusive’. Living on the internet has also given many young people a sense of entitlement to instant, bespoke results. Schooled in getting exactly what they want, they’re met with the confounding reality that humans are messier and needier than is convenient.

Back in the over-50s pool, there seems to be less taxonomising of self and kinks, and those who have had children seem less phased by the complications of having ‘lovers’ rather than either casual hook-ups or a conventional relationship. Many are simply going for broke, hoovering up what sensual pleasures they can — because they can. “As you get older — it’s sort of an Eastern idea — you sort of think, all you’ve got is now, which is much more valuable than a future I really think,” says Sietzke. In other words, age is a freeing agent. “There’s a liberation that comes from being older,” says Rana. ”You know life doesn’t last forever, so there’s an added incentive to give anything a try.”

Rana also points to the fact that being “financially independent” helps. Young people, understandably, are more likely to be focused on the future, and with getting on the housing ladder out of reach for most of them, especially those in the south, the quest for a partner is also a strategy for accruing financial stability and property — and a basis for having children. After her divorce, in her early 50s, Sietzke recalls being constantly told by well-meaning folk that she would meet someone again. It irritated her. “Finding someone is such a construct — someone? What do they mean by that?”

When you’ve had marriage and kids, this perspective makes sense. But for the millennials yet to pull off financial stability and a family, the old, unsexy quest for ‘someone’ may feel more natural. Libertinism is perfect when your traditional romantic life, and its fruits (children), are behind you. Those with the desire for a family and a home in front of them may feel that the joys of free love are not theirs to enjoy. Yet.