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the long view

Marie de Hennezel says her new book, A Frenchwoman’s Guide to Sex after Sixty,

In a saucy new book called A Frenchwoman’s Guide to Sex after Sixty, we meet an adventurous woman who discovers, at the age of 68, that she is a female ejaculator. Another woman, single at 63, satisfies herself by fantasizing about the male and female bodies of old flames.

Men get creative too. When a beloved wife loses interest in sex, an aging musician, determined to remain faithful, finds a new outlet through erotic encounters with an imaginary lover in his dreams.

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These, and other seasoned adults, confide their innermost passions to author Marie de Hennezel, a 71-year-old French psychotherapist whose recent books have focused on the art of aging well.

De Hennezel doesn't sugarcoat the obstacles to sexual fulfilment past a certain age, nor does she insist that every senior should be chasing orgasms. Instead, on the line from Brittany, France, she makes a case for "slow sex" – a Tantra-inspired approach to lovemaking for older bodies and open hearts.

What do Frenchwomen know about sex after 60 that others may not?

Well, this was the title chosen by the publisher – I didn't pretend that I knew something that other women in the world would not know. But something struck me when I was reading books written by American women. There was a kind of obsession with looking young at all costs – women must be sexy, slim and do aerobics and have wrinkle-free faces. In France, the women I met were convinced that charm was more important. They understood that the important thing was not to try to regain the sexuality they had when they were 30, but to be open to a completely new and different kind of sexuality.

What are the joys of lovemaking later in life?

What improves is when you shift from a sexuality centred on reaching orgasm and just enjoy the physical encounter, skin-to-skin with someone. Women say performance is no longer interesting to them, that they try to develop the ability to be erotic and seductive. You take your time, be tender, be playful and deepen your emotional fields.

What is "slow sex" like for men?

Often, men need to be helped. Women can be initiators because they can reassure a man and show him that he can explore this kind of sexuality. Very often, it's something new for a man.

You mention women who reach their sexual peak after the age of 60. How common is this?

It's not common, but it is possible. What all these women have in common is their ability to surrender themselves to the partners and this is the key: To surrender with confidence.

What does it mean to "surrender" during sex?

It means we just let our hearts and bodies do their thing – they already know how to make love. For example, the famous French composer Michel Legrand is in a relationship with one of our well-known actresses, Macha Méril. I had dinner with them recently and he said to me, "I never know what will happen with Macha."

That is exactly what makes it erotic. This man, of course, is 85. He can't make love as he did when he was 40, so he just allows himself to not know what is going to happen, to be slow, to be sensual. They both said they experience a kind of spiritual sexuality.

"Slow sex" sounds like a form of mindfulness.

Yes. I met [mindfulness pioneer] Jon Kabat-Zinn and he said, "Your book is exactly sexual mindfulness." It's making love with consciousness, connecting with the other and this circulating of energy – yin and yang.

Why did you include a chapter on couples who no longer have sex?

I tried in my book not to preach that sexuality was the only salvation – I tried to look at every aspect of age and desire. Many couples stop having sexual intercourse in the second half of their lives. They say they feel satiated with sex. If, in a couple, everyone is okay with that, it's not a problem.

What's the best way for women make peace with their aging bodies?

It doesn't matter whether the body is older or not. If a woman is full of energy, that's what men like. If she's open to discovering new things, if she's interested in a creative life, an intellectual life or a spiritual life, she brings something to another person. The men I interviewed said they were more attracted to an older woman full of desire, experience and charm than a cold, younger woman who lacks self-confidence.

Is it true that French women seldom reveal their entire bodies at once, to preserve a sense of mystery?

There is some truth, yes. It can be part of this dance, not to show everything – an erotic way of seducing.

What makes intimacy a dance of distance and closeness?

Being intimate doesn't mean that you know everything about the other person, or that you are constantly with the person. When you are too close, I think it extinguishes desire.

In the sexuality of youth, which is open, you have to be fast and strong. This is contrary to what is going on with older people – to be slow and tender, to play between distance and closeness, trying to find the good rhythm and letting the imagination do the rest. I think it's full of discoveries.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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