Kate Garraway, YOU’s frank and fearless new contributing editor, reveals why sex is far more enjoyable now she’s in her 50s – and intimacy is the key to her happy marriage.
When I told a 22-year-old TV colleague I was writing an article celebrating sex, his first response was: ‘Why do they want you to write about that? You’re 51 and married – what do you know?’ The idea that women in the prime of their life don’t have or even don’t know about sex is hilarious. Just because we’re not posting saucy videos, or shouting about it on social media, doesn’t mean we’re not doing it. So I was fascinated to read the YOU 2018 Sex Survey, which proved what I’d always suspected – that middle-aged women are, on the quiet, a seriously sexually literate bunch.
According to the survey, the over-40s would rather reveal their salary than talk about sex, but they know what they want in bed, and have discovered the real secret of good sex: intimacy, connection and fun. And given the chance, would opt for the sex life of their 40s rather than their 20s. This really resonates with me: sex now is far more enjoyable than when I was in my 20s. Looking back on my early romantic life, I was more worried about what impression I made on my dates than what I thought of them. I would approach them as though they were job interviews, trying to wow the man so that he would ask me out again and I got the ‘job’.
In hindsight, this attitude carried on into my relationships. I was putting on a show, doing all sorts of crazy acrobatics trying to be a great lover and look perfect at the same time: being in the right light, having my hair falling over one shoulder… all my energy was going into the performance, very little into how I was feeling about the whole experience. I was more concerned with fitting in, trying to find love and trying to hang on to it. Ageing might have its drawbacks but it brings with it hard-won wisdom and a wonderful sense of freedom.
Women over 45 are far more interested in sex – and are more adventurous in bed – than our culture would have us believe. But forget collecting notches on a bedpost; the survey confirms that most women have had fewer than ten sexual partners. That’s more than enough to learn what you like – midlife women know what works for them and if they don’t, they have the confidence to go on a little adventure to find out. Quite simply, sex in your 40s and 50s can be the best of your life.
But I’ll admit, when I turned 50 last year I had a mini crisis. I’d been happily married to my husband Derek Draper, 50, for 12 years, and we have two amazing children, Darcey, now 12, and eight-year-old Billy. So I had nothing to complain about. But 50 is a big number. You suddenly realise you probably have fewer years left than you have lived and the spectre of old age with all its worries looms on the horizon. I started to wonder if this was the beginning of the end. So I used that milestone to take stock of my life and think about how I wanted the next few decades to be.
My French friend Sylvie said, ‘You Brits are too buttoned up – you should do the Two Week Sex Challenge. I’ve just done it and it’s amazing…’
The Challenge involves having sex every day for 14 days, whether it’s convenient or not. With two young children and working full time I could see why they called it a ‘challenge’. Gone are those early in the relationship child-free moments of spontaneity. You know – the pasta boiling over because something suddenly became more appetising as you sipped some wine before supper… With the kids around, even if they’ve gone to bed, it’s tricky. We can barely get through an episode of The Bridge without one of them coming downstairs with a bad dream, itchy leg or ‘growing pains’, which they resort to if no more specific malady is present and just want attention. So this was going to be tough. But Sylvie did have a mysterious glow so I decided to give it a try.
Scheduling a daily slot to jump on each other sounds unromantic. Everyone loves the idea of unplanned passion, don’t they? And this isn’t, but that’s the point. In midlife, with all its pressures, spontaneity can be hard to come by and sex gets squeezed out, so the commitment to daily romance pushes sex back into the centre of your life. Unfortunately for us Derek broke his foot on day eight (not experiment related!) and ended up in a wheelchair for six weeks. But having already set aside the time, we kept it for each other. It forced us to make time to be intimate, which I think is key to a happy marriage.
We haven’t repeated that stunt, but it was a tremendous reminder of the benefits of regular sex – releasing all sorts of hormones that reduce stress and make you feel happy, which then rubs off on your close relationships. Sex with your long-term partner can, I believe, encourage a real reconnection via conversation because you end up talking about all sorts of things and concerns that you’ve perhaps been meaning to bring up. It’s often the little things for us: misunderstandings about what the other one said or meant. It always amazes me how easily two people who live together can get the wrong end of the stick, particularly if they love each other. But when those barriers are broken down and you are in that blissful state, you are more free and open with each other.
People always say that communication is the key to better sex and, for me, that’s absolutely the case. If you don’t feel that issues are being resolved it can be very hard to have good sex; and some women feel too angry and frustrated to have sex at all. But, paradoxically, making love can leadto freer discussion and can unlock other blockages in your relationship. Now we have an afternoon during the week, when my husband is working at home, that is wonderfully uninterrupted. And we do try to go away on our own two or three times a year – sometimes to a hotel just outside London, other times to somewhere a bit more adventurous. This September we’re going to Ibiza for a friend’s 50th. The trouble is, I always feel a little bit guilty about leaving the kids, even though they’re with grandparents. Derek bans all talk of them, which works – well, for the flight out at least.
Getting in the mood might be a struggle with all the business of life, work and childcare on your mind, but taking some time to make yourself feel good is such a boost. A friend puts body moisturiser on every day because it makes her feel desirable. I have started doing it, too, and it really works. It’s like wearing sexy underwear even when you know there’s no chance of anyone catching sight of it. If you have the skin of a lizard and it’s like the Bolivian jungle down there, you’re not going to feel particularly hot (unless that’s what makes you feel hot). Couples need to make an effort for each other, too. Derek is a keen groomer. We both know that we are far from having perfect bodies, but who does? No, he doesn’t look like Daniel Craig emerging from the ocean and we would probably all like a bit more of that – but he could certainly say that I don’t look like Ursula Andress either.
I don’t think men worry as much about our physical imperfections as we do, so I have tried to feel freer about my body (pregnancy helped me, too – I felt renewed wonder at what the body can do, and Derek told me I looked beautiful and sexy with the bump). It’s a shame because when I look back to my 20s my body was amazing but I couldn’t see it then. After my first marriage ended in 2002 I went out with someone who made me feel very sexy. He was ten years younger than me and full of the joy of youth, which was wonderful after all the sadness of divorce, and a great confidence boost. (I was clearly ahead of the curve, as the YOU Sex Survey finds that 72 per cent of women would, at the least, consider going out with a much younger man.)
Derek and I were set up on a blind date in September 2004 by GMTV’s then political editor Gloria De Piero. In those days you dated people you knew or because someone had suggested them. It’s very different now – a 24-year-old friend says she hasn’t been asked out face to face or through a friend in six years because everything is done on apps. I wouldn’t have picked my husband from a picture on a dating app, and I don’t think he would have picked me either; I’m definitely not his normal physical type, but we had chemistry from the start.
In the early part of our relationship, sex was actually out of the equation for a time: a month after we met, I became seriously unwell and spent the next two months in and out of hospital. I had a cyst on my kidney and the doctors were concerned it was something more sinister. On our early dates, I’d been groomed and polished to the max but the next minute I was in a hospital gown with unshaven legs. When most couples would have still been in the glamorous ‘dinner and cocktails’ phase, Derek found himself sitting by my bed sharing my hospital food. But it meant we talked: about life, the universe and everything. And the stuff you are usually advised not to bring up on early dates – family, children and commitment. It fast-forwarded our relationship and by Christmas we emerged feeling very clear about each other.
By the time we were ready to continue the physical side of our relationship, we were in a very different place. That intimacy changed our sex life for the better; we felt so close that we could move forward in a relaxed way. I was always attracted to Derek physically – he has wonderful eyes and I love that he is so big. I’m very short, so he felt solid, warm and comforting. But it was also his mind; what he said and the way he said it. I do think the mind is the sexiest organ of the body. We went away that February and that’s when he proposed – in a jacuzzi in Cairo – just five months after we met.
One thing that’s maybe unusual in our relationship is that we are open about finding other people attractive. But maybe that’s because, in my experience, the men who pretend to never look at other women tend to run off with them! At the school fête last week there was a very hot ice-cream seller. I mentioned this to Derek and for the past week he’s been teasing me about Mr Whippy, Nobbly Bobblies and 69s. But this kind of banter keeps things healthy. I also like making him a little bit jealous every now and again; reminding him that I am alive and someone might fancy me – especially as he knows I would never act on it.
It’s all part of the fun and humour that come when you ‘get’ each other. Of course, feeling fit, glamorous and vibrant gives me sexual confidence but not as much as feeling loved and treasured – with all my flaws. It’s been wonderful to discover that 50 wasn’t the beginning of the end at all. If this is midlife sex, bring it on! Millennials don’t know what they’re missing.