Saint Valentine is upon us once again (apologies for the unfortunate visual metaphor), and we’re subject to a barrage of marketing, aimed at helping us celebrate (translate: wring the most money out of) this one day festival of love.
And whilst I move the vase of red roses to one side, and scribble my musings on my pink scented note paper one thing struck me: how much of the imagery around Valentines solely focused on youthful twentysomethings.
It’s like nobody over 30 is romantic or God forbid having sex (I appreciate that’s not the most romantic phrase), and if you’re over 50 or pushing 60 - forget it.
Even the film world tends to pander to the idea of women over 60 as sexually inert tea cosies, dressed in beige fleece and settled into a life of bouncing grandchildren on their arthritic knees: there is a rich cinematic tradition of representing women in this demographic as saintly mothers and asexual mothers.
Whilst in the US cinema is starting to embrace the idea of later life sexuality (Hope Springs, Something’s Gotta Give), research by Dr Susan Liddy of the University of Limerick demonstrates that UK and Ireland are not as enlightened as studies demonstrate "midlife sexuality is absent in the vast majority of films produced in Britain and Ireland."
But whose reality is this? Let’s look at the evidence: with the spike in midlife divorce in both the US and UK increasingly it’s the over 50s who are single and dating again, meanwhile divorce amongst all other age groups is in decline, says the Office for National Statistics (2009).
And Boomer daters are not just seeking platonic companionship, increasingly women are expecting to remain sexually active throughout life, and a US research study revealed that 60 per cent of women over 60-years-old and in relationships continued to be sexually active, with sexual satisfaction experienced amongst 60- and 70-year-old women was similar to those women in their 30s and 40s, and from our own research 83 per cent of UK Baby Boomer women said that sexual fulfilment isn’t just for the young.
Equally, and just to shatter a few more stereotypes, researcher Dr Holly Thomas discovered that those women sexually active in their 60s and beyond were not necessarily in committed relationships, with 13 per cent active but without a ‘steady romantic partner’, busting the myth of the ‘golden couple’.
However, the spectre of 60-something women as sexual beings is an idea culture has yet to acknowledge: whether we’re aware of it or not women are and want to be sexual beings well into their 70s.
In fact 2015 was something of a landmark for female midlife sexuality with FDA approval of Flibanserin, the Female Viagra aimed squarely at pre-menopausal women suffering with low libido. The journey towards approval has been plagued with difficulties, including concerns surrounding potential side effects, however women’s advocate bodies such as Even the Score have lobbied vigorously for female sexual dysfunction to receive the same attention as male dysfunction.
There remains marked disparity in the prioritisation and treatment, so whilst the FDA has 26 drugs approved for male dysfunction, until recently the figure for women was a big fat zero when in fact on average more US women than men suffer from sexual dysfunction, affecting up to 43 per cent of women.
So if you subscribe to the belief that sex is a fundamental human right, as endorsed by the World Health Organisation, you’ll understand the efforts that have to be made to redress the balance in research and treatment, even if drugs aren’t always the answer.
And therein lies the rub (I have to be careful about the metaphors I use here): some feminist commentators point the finger to the feminist advocates behind female Viagra as simply Big Pharma sponsored lobbyists, quick to suggest that the pharmaceutical industry is cynically looking to repeat the success of Viagra.
Comments like ‘feminism is the only Viagra I need’ kind of miss the point here, because undoubtedly women approaching menopause do suffer with a perceptible decline in libido, and patting them on the head and telling them to busy themselves with macramé is as helpful as the empty panacea of ‘you go girl’ feminism: empowerment is not a universal cure.
Society’s reluctance to fully engage with midlife women is illustrative of how far we have yet to go to recognise women’s value and ‘capital’ within society. Whilst say the beauty industry is starting to reconcile the idea of beauty as not just the preserve of twentysomethings, fashion retailers have a long way to go.
This is an audience no longer (if ever they were) willing to retire into the background, no longer willing to settle. The fact that 66 per cent of midlife women initiate divorce is very telling in that respect.
This is a wealthy consumer audience, interested in looking good and having fun 63 per cent said they were enjoying life now more than when they were younger: surely a marketer’s dream date? Yet this is one love affair that yet to ignite: perhaps it’s time we stopped putting Baby Boomer in the corner.
Rachel Pashley is the global planning director at J Walter Thompson