A Sex Manual for the Over Sixties

By Thomas Malloch

I read this story, once. A Manual for Cleaning Women. By Lucia Berlin. It wasn’t really about cleaning, though. More about loss. And maybe you’d say much the same about my ‘manual.’

Manual. Hmm. Let’s start with that.

You see, a woman of my age tends to dryness. At first you think, a little bit more foreplay, get the heat on your cheekbones, feel your lips regain some youthful plump, that moist, velvety tumescence, and then he can slip right in there as easily as he has always done. Right? No.

If he keeps the manual stimulation going, it’ll be burny-burny the next time you pee. Maybe it’ll be a UTI or maybe just urethral irritation. When I say, just urethral irritation, let me emphasise that this diminution in the diagnostic hierarchy is NOT matched by any diminution in pain, and believe me, either of these problems is going to influence that next sexual encounter.

And even should you feel yourself getting wet, become aware of that areolar tightening, note the increased frequency with which you swallow your saliva, in short, feel aroused, please proceed with care. That superficial ease of entry may not be matched at deeper penetration. And if it seems hot and dry to you, you can be sure it will be as glass-paper to him. Don’t believe me? Ask him next time.

So, what to do? You can go to your doctor if you like. He, and it usually is he, will want to change the terms of reference to something more familiar; that is, something more familiar to him. Like, for instance, the medical options for menopausal symptoms, symptoms that you haven’t had for five years or more, except for the dryness. He’ll  take you through tablet and patch treatments, side-effects and contra-indications, cancer and cardiovascular risk and maybe finish off suggesting an oestrogen vaginal preparation that he’ll tell you to try for two months.

‘Then what?’

‘Well, it’s recommended for short-term use only.’

‘So, I’ll need to stop it then?’

‘Not necessarily. You can continue with it. Maybe cut the dosage but we would want to review you at that time.’

‘What for?’

‘Blood pressure, breast examination, routine checks.’

‘I’m not sure I’m happy about all this medicalisation.’

He’ll make that offertorial gesture with his hands, pout his lips, leave the interpretation to you. I’m a medic. What did you expect?

And what did I expect? I’d complained of dryness and urinary symptoms. Didn’t mention sex. Why so coy? Why wait for him to ask? Why resent that he didn’t? I mean, that’s not like me.

And then a week or two will pass. You’ll have the notion, and afterwards your lover will say, ‘That was easy. Problem solved, it seems.’

‘Yeah, as long as I keep using the pessaries.’

‘I thought it was a course.’

‘No. I can cut the dose after a few weeks but if I stop altogether, the dryness will return.’

‘Hold on. So how often are you using the pessaries just now?’

‘Every night.’

‘So for the foreseeable future, my manhood gets bathed in a pool of female hormones, every time…’


‘I don’t know that I like the sound of that. What happens to my dick? I don’t want it shrivelling away to nothing…or worse.’

‘What would be worse?’

‘Dropping off.’

…I miss that. That absurdity.

I stopped using the pessaries, though.


Three months after that conversation, on a weekend, I had another urinary tract infection. No fever; so probably limited to the bladder (cystitis); burning pain on passing urine (dysuria); a cloudiness, probably signifying blood (microscopic haematuria); and running all the time to the toilet (frequency of micturition). I couldn’t get rid of the urge to pass even though all I could force out was a dribble (strangury). A whole new vocabulary to be learned of a weekend on self help sites but not much actual help from bicarbonate of soda or paracetamol or the litres of water. And on the Monday morning?  No appointments.


‘Can I get Dr Strawhorn to call you back?’


‘I’m not sure.’

‘Find out! Now!’

And she did. And he did.

‘Your symptoms seem typical. I don’t think we need to see you but if you could hand in a urine sample, we’ll send it to the lab to confirm. Meanwhile, I’ll pop a prescription over to the pharmacist. Can you make sure that you take the urine sample before you start treatment.’

My darling George, all care and guilt, plonked the pharmacy bag down on my bedside table, green cross towards me. He looked at my glass.

‘I’ll get you some fresh water.’

When he came back, it was to find me examining a tube of K-Y jelly.

‘That’s not for any time soon,’ he said. He was looking all defensive. ‘Or maybe not at all…Your tablets weren’t ready. So I took a wander.’ He pointed to the tube. ‘That was in the sexual health section. I just thought…you know’

‘Oh, right.’

Ten days later, I was lying on top of him, feeling with my hand for the K-Y on the bedside table, then pushing myself to a kneeling position astride his pelvis, squeezing some jelly on to my middle finger, and then…when I looked down I saw Big Dick, emerging from somewhere between us. For that moment, you couldn’t say to which pelvis he belonged. I looked at George, my face already twitching and him already starting that dirty, big, raucous laugh.

‘Oor Wullie!’


People laugh less frequently as they grow older. And so it was with us. But in the bedroom, it was different. I’d maybe be standing side-on, in front of the wardrobe mirror and say,

‘Would you look at that tummy roll. It’s like a second set of boobs. What am I going to do?’

And George would look up, one eyebrow raised, ‘Maybe a couple of nipple tattoos?’ then pull me on to the bed. ‘Works for me.’

The K-Y worked too. No urinary symptoms for the next two years. Such a simple solution. Just lubrication. It became part of the foreplay. George didn’t like the viscous feeling in his fingers but he did like holding my head between his hands, carefully, gently, like I was a precious, rare and delicate being. And I liked that too.

But not the gel in my hair.

So, I ended up doing the application. Any excess, I just rubbed into his hairy chest.

Once we ran out.

‘What about Vaseline?’ I suggested.

‘You kidding? Petroleum jelly? Can you imagine? All that friction. We’d ignite!’ And then he’d sing, Come on Baby Light My Fire, and roar.

The other place we laughed a lot, was dance-class, especially at the beginning, when we were so inept, so self-conscious, so lacking in any sense of timing. But then you realise, everyone else is just as bad, too intent on themselves to notice you. You start to relax, move those hips unconsciously, catch the rhythm of the Rumba, drag that toe across the dance-floor, choreograph that retreat as he advances, and you realise. Dancing. It’s sex without the penetration. And when you dance with someone else, someone else who dances better than George, it feels like adultery. And so to the bedroom again. Afterwards, my head cradled in his arm, George would sometimes say, ‘We were dancing there.’


My birthday is the fifteenth of December, George’s, the ninth of January . For twenty-five days each year, I was a year older than he was and of course if people took the short cut of calculating from year of birth only, then I always seemed to be that one year senior.

‘An older woman’s a boon,’ George would say.  ‘Just what’s needed for a callow youth such as myself.’

Anyway, after the kids were away, Christmas and birthdays tended to get rolled up into one. Presents would be communal. Single, big items. A Persian rug, an Edwardian wingback chair, a painting perhaps, and one year, a King-size mahogany sleigh bed, with a mattress so thick and heavy, that it was a two-man job to change the sheets. And it was great for sex. The warmth of the mahogany and the solidity of that high tail board at his feet was so much better than the ice-cold trellis of wrought iron, George said.

But it was a nightmare to sleep on. The mattress was so efficient that it seemed to trap all of your body heat. I’d wake up in the middle of the night, sweaty, feet burning, legs restless, ruing the loss of that old wrought iron bed. I’d have to go downstairs to the kitchen, and walk barefoot on the ceramic tiles. I was still doing that, even after switching to our one tog summer duvet. It was January, for God’s sake.

A month of sleep deprivation later, the sleigh was in the spare room and we were on a cheap divan, my feet dangling over the bottom of the mattress. Bliss.

Not so good for sex though. George seemed to slip down the bed when he was on top, unless he assumed the plank position.

‘What’s the plank position?’

‘Something I used to do when I went to the gym,’ he said. ‘You dig your toes in and raise yourself, either on to your forearms or your hands; kind of like doing a press-up except you just hold that position.’

‘How long for?’

‘Well, I used to do it for two or three minutes.’

‘Well, that won’t be long enough.’

In fact, on his forearms, grinding away, he could manage quite a long time. Quite long enough. Then he got tennis elbow. Both sides. Not something you’d usually consider as a complication of sex. Pity, he nearly had a flat abdomen again.

So, for a time, I went on top. I liked it but not as much as I used to. When we were young it was my preference but not now.

‘Why do you think that is, George?’

‘Because when you were young, you were pregnant half the time.’

‘Yeah, but it’s not just that.’

The truth is I became a lazy lover. My pelvis seemed to work all by itself, but otherwise, I didn’t move much. I didn’t seem to need to. Besides, I liked him simultaneously in and on me.

George’s tennis elbow lasted for eighteen months. So, some innovation was required. One evening we tried the missionary position again and, quite instinctively I think, George lifted his left leg over my right, placing it on the bed, knee bent towards the edge.  No more slipping. No more need for the plank position.


Twenty years ago, or thereabouts, I watched a TV programme about orgasms. Thermal images culminating in a shot of the cervix dipping into a pool of semen, lapping it up like some wild animal. Her beast within. My beast within.

And then I saw her. Older than me, easily past the menopause and yet, there was her uterus behaving as if reproduction was still possible. Even if there hadn’t been penetration, if the orgasm was a result of masturbation only, the uterine response would have been the same; primitive, necessary and presumably, desirable. 

I looked at this older woman as if she were a member of some new species. Not cat-walk beautiful, but assured, confident, relaxed, radiating health and well-being. Sexy.

It came to me. That network of pelvic nerves and chemical transmitters needed expression, needed the stimulation, needed the sex. Sex ought to be a habit, I thought, like bran flakes in the morning, five-a-day fruit, climbing the stairs instead of taking the lift.

You don’t always get an orgasm though. But then, that’s not always the point. In the days before Mr K-Y, I’d occasionally wake in the night to find an insistent wee George, poking me from behind. I’d welcome him in, enjoying the comfort. We’d lie still for some minutes, two drowsy spoons, then fall off to sleep again. Nice, and no sleep-disturbing damp patches later on, either.

Even with Mr K facilitating, the occasion sometimes passed without climax but it was seldom anti-climactic. How to explain? It was as if anorgasmic sex was just a form of foreplay, preparation for the next time; like all our married life was one, long, sexual continuum, with periodic spikes of greater or lesser intensity; every kiss, caress, yearning look, as important as that uncontrolled muscular shudder, that explosion of white you’d see in my brain if we’d ever got to shag inside an MRI scanner.

Looked at this way, it meant that our every sexual contact embodied all the previous ones and logically would also be embodied by all our future ones, maybe even already embodied. All time, all sex, co-continuous? Now there’s a thought I wish we could have shared.

And therein lies the nub of it. We, George and I, had all of that accumulated experience, but it was peculiar to us, not a transferrable commodity. People try to be kind. You’re still young. No, I’m not. Or, I’m sure you’ll meet someone. Then what? Or worst of all, have a fling if you want to. I don’t. Beyond the obvious superficiality, where’s the shared experience in that? I need the hinterland. When a man pads up behind me in the kitchen and slips his arms round my waist, I want him to feel my paunch, think this is the mother of my children. When I cozy up on the couch in front of the TV, I want to be able to undo a shirt button, slip a hand inside, find a mole below the left nipple. I want that ease of familiar physicality, to know that when he runs his fingers down my spine, the next place they’ll alight is on my Venus dimples. I just want you, George, just want you back.


Death. We talked about it a lot. What would be a good death? In flagrante delicto, he said.

‘What about me?’

‘Simultaneous in flagrante delicto. La Grande Mort. Picture it. Two stiffs, inseparable. We could share a coffin. Be buried together.’

Or burned.

Tomorrow is the ninth of January. In the afternoon, Robert and Kirsty, and Peter and Amy will call in, and I’ll take them for a walk along the harbour wall to the lighthouse, check the wind direction and then scatter you on those big grey waves. Afterwards it will be tea and scones and reminisces. I shall not weep.

In the evening, when all have gone, I shall don your dressing-gown, unwashed since last you wore it, wrap it tightly round me, arranging it so that the collar is at my nose. I’ll smell your presence, turn the dimmer to its lowest, then light a candle for your birthday. It would have been your sixty-fourth.

Will you still need me…

When I’m sixty-four?

More than ever, my love.