Sex after 40: How do you stop feeling invisible?

How do you stop feeling invisible when you’re a 40-something divorcée devastated by the breakdown of your marriage? Tuesday Jones knew that in order to feel sexy again, it was time to take a step into the unknown.

Lying in bed, I smiled to myself as I watched Matt* gather up his clothes off my hotel room floor. Gorgeous, athletic and, at 25, almost half my age, his satisfied grin suggested he’d enjoyed himself as much as I had.

‘We should do this again,’ he said, before he closed the door. Yes, we should, I thought. Not that I’d be waiting for his call. There were plenty more like him: men in their 20s and 30s wanting sex with someone like me – attractive, single and, crucially it seemed, in my late 40s.

Later, leaving the hotel, I caught sight of myself in the mirror behind the receptionist’s desk and wondered, what would the ‘me’ of a few months ago make of the self-assured 48-year-old reflected back.

Physically, I looked different – slimmer body, tighter-fitting clothes, better groomed – but more subtle was how I carried myself. I was walking taller, a confident new air about me. During the previous few months my life had changed dramatically, and so had I. Six months earlier, my husband of 22 years, Simon*, who I’d been with since I was 18, left me for another woman. Until then I’d only ever slept with two men. I was devastated.

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We have two children – sons aged 21 and 19, both at university – and had built a successful business together. Simon’s affair was with one of our clients. He confessed after returning from a supposed business trip, which was actually a week at her place, cementing their relationship.

‘You can keep the house and I’ll buy you out of the business,’ he said coldly. ‘A fresh start for us both.’

Discovering Simon’s infidelity hurt dreadfully, but the idea of starting over was terrifying. We’d drifted apart, our sex life had fizzled out to next to nothing.

We had many friends whose marriages had survived affairs; shouldn’t we at least try to save ours? But when I said this to Simon he simply replied: ‘I don’t want to be with you any more’.

Those words crushed me. I spent the next few weeks distraught, trying to work out what to do next. I imagined what my no-nonsense mum, who had died of cancer three years earlier, would have said. Probably that my marriage had become tired and unfulfilling long before Simon’s infidelity.

‘I won’t become the tragic cliché of the middle-aged divorcée who can’t get over her ex and never has sex again,’ I told a friend.

‘In that case,’ she said, ‘start dating.’

But I felt unattractive, invisible – the idea of putting myself out there scared me. Simon had stopped paying me compliments years ago; sex was something we occasionally got around to and didn’t make me feel remotely desired. Feeling unseen by my husband had permeated my sense of self – if he wasn’t interested in me, why would anyone else be?

For three months I worked on my appearance, hoping to at least boost my self-confidence, even if I couldn’t face dating. Stress from the break-up saw me drop a couple of stone. I started running, got my hair cut and bought new clothes to fit my slimmer shape. All this distracted me from the pain of Simon leaving. Gradually, I began to feel a craving for intimacy – physical not emotional.

I also kept thinking about how, in the early days, Simon and I would flirt with one another. The way, when I was younger, strangers would flirt with me, and how good that felt. I wanted to experience that again.

Confiding in a single girlfriend, I said I wanted sex again – but without commitment. She told me about the dating app Tinder, explaining that it worked by matching couples based purely on physical attraction. You upload a picture, and it shows men according to a specified age range and location. See someone you fancy, swipe right – if they do the same it’s a match and Tinder lets you start messaging each other.

I decided to download it to my phone, but finding a photograph for my profile picture highlighted how invisible I’d become. I had lots of my children, my dog and my husband, but none of me. I’d always hated having my photo taken because, during my marriage, I’d felt increasingly awkward and frumpy. Photos provided proof of what I felt I’d become.

So that evening I put on a dress and some make-up, then took some pictures of myself in my bedroom mirror. Little did I know that those photos would lead me to the kind of sexual enlightenment I doubt my adulterous husband imagined for me when he talked about fresh starts.

First, I set the age range at 40 to 50. Within an hour I’d matched with a 43-year-old who asked for a date. But as we exchanged messages I knew it wasn’t going to work. He wanted to share his life story: the breakdown of his marriage, how much he missed his kids. His questions focused on how I’d become single and what I wanted in a man. I sensed ‘no-strings sex’ wasn’t the answer he wanted.

‘Lower the age,’ my friend said. I balked when she suggested 25 to 35. But almost immediately the ‘likes’ started coming in – by the end of the evening I’d had more than 300 from men within a 7km radius of the nearest city. And I’d matched with a gorgeous 32-year-old called Chris*.

Flirty messages quickly turned to talking dirty. I thought I’d feel self-conscious, but it was all such a turn-on. When he asked me to meet him for dinner the following evening I knew it was a prelude to sex and, swept along with it all, immediately said yes.

I spent the next day getting ready – removing body hair, exfoliating every inch of skin. I got my nails done and blow-dried my hair. It was surreal, knowing that this was all to make myself attractive for someone 16 years my junior.

I was nervous, but that only gave the whole thing an edge of excitement. Knowing he fancied me just from seeing my picture gave me confidence. Fleetingly, I wondered whether, if I found him boring at dinner, I’d still want to sleep with him.

But I enjoyed every minute. A successful entrepreneur, Chris was witty and amusing, as so many of my younger dates have been. Better still, he showered me with compliments, telling me my photograph didn’t do me justice.

Knowing he knew my age, that he could see the lines around my mouth and eyes yet still fancied me, made me feel sexy and wanted. When he asked if he should book us a hotel room, I said, ‘No, I’ll do it.’ I wanted him to be the one to leave afterwards, not me.

The next few hours passed in a steamy blur. Chris was as interested in making sure I got what I wanted as he was in satisfying his own needs – I hadn’t expected it to be this good or for him to want to impress me.

When I woke the next morning he’d gone, and I was glad. I wanted sex again, but not with him. While that’s not something I’d openly boast about, I didn’t feel ashamed. Part of the thrill was that he was someone new, different.

You might ask, what’s in it for these men? Psychologist and dating coach Jo Hemmings says while many women in their 20s and 30s are after something that will lead to a relationship, many men of a similar age aren’t.

‘So,’ she explains, ‘along comes an older woman who has kept herself in good shape, looking for little more than fun from a man who probably doesn’t have children or an ex-wife and is free both in time and inclination to share that with her.’

This goes beyond the cliché that an older woman is likely to be experienced, Jo explains. ‘There’s an attraction in how older women have a certain confidence as well as a much more relaxed approach to dating, with fewer long-term expectations.’

I’ve slept with 18 men in the year and a half since Simon left, including a 26-year-old mountain biker, a 33-year-old retired footballer and a young sailor turned model.

I never worried they might change their minds on meeting me – they swiped right – and I’ve never backed out either.

I saw one of them a few times, but most have been one-night stands. During Covid restrictions, I’ve gone back to a couple of favourites for phone sex – sharing explicit pictures and erotic fantasies without an iota of shame or embarrassment.

Once every few weeks I change the app settings and take the age limit back up, but that’s yet to work out for me. Men my age are looking for girlfriends or wives. They don’t want to flirt; they’re not open-minded enough for commitment-free sex. And, for now anyway, that’s not for me.

I’m careful – I meet these men in hotels, or invite them to my place, but only after I’ve checked them out on Instagram. I make sure they have friends and a history and aren’t anonymous loners. I always tell a girlfriend who I’m seeing and where.

I’ve only confided in a couple of friends. They’re both single themselves, enjoying similar sexual adventures, and don’t judge.

I won’t be hooking up with young men for ever. There will come a point when I’m ready for commitment and will want what men my age offer. But for now, I’m enjoying feeling visible and desirable to younger men who I thought looked past women my age.

As much as I love the sex, I also like the dynamics of this younger man/older woman scenario, too – it gives me a sense of being back in control, having written myself off when, actually, the only thing holding me back was my tired old marriage.

*Names have been changed.