Ellen Bennett discovers how and why the phenomenal success of the Fifty Shades trilogy has been driven by women over 50
Sexual intercourse began in 1963,” according to the poet Phillip Larkin. So by his reckoning, the first generation of sexually liberated women are now comfortably into their 50s and 60s. Small wonder, then, that these women are driving a seismic shift in the way society thinks and talks about sex.
From reading matter through to hobbies, dating and even bedroom activities, women’s expectations and boundaries are shifting. This first caught the public imagination with the runaway success of the soft-porn pot-boiler Fifty Shades of Grey by EL James, but experts say it’s symptomatic of a much more fundamental change.
Responding to demand
Last week, news hit the tabloid front pages that a provider of audiobooks to the visually impaired, Calibre Audio Library, had been inundated with calls from readers looking for the Fifty Shades trilogy – most of them older women. Calibre’s head of audiobook production, Christine Ronaldson, said: “We have to respond to what our members want to read. Our decision to add this popular series reflects this. We believe that people who are visually impaired should have the same access to books as sighted people.”
It’s not just in the bookshop that women’s habits are changing. As relationship patterns evolve, with more single and divorced people than ever before, a raft of online dating sites catering specifically to the over-50s market has launched. According to one, seniordatingroup.co.uk: “Technological advances and a surge in over-50s hitting the internet has caused a surge in senior dating enthusiasts.” Other websites for the over 50s include undertheclock.co.uk, datingover50s.co.uk and over50sdates.co.uk.
Women who find themselves single late in life, whether through divorce or widowhood, no longer feel that their romantic life is necessarily over. Paul Fitzpatrick, head of marketing for Datingagency.com, says: “When online dating first became popular, it was seen to be geared almost exclusively to first generation daters. But long gone are these days as this is the age of the ‘silver surfer’. Today’s over fifties are tech savvy, adventurous and aren’t afraid to put themselves out there.”
Fuelling a shift
Sex therapist and author Gina Ogden believes the ready availability of information and entertainment relating to sexuality is fuelling a shift in women’s attitudes. “Women over 50 are redefining
themselves,” she says. “The old message that life ends when the menopause begins is 100 years out of date. We are broadening the notion of sex.”
Ogden says Fifty Shades of Grey has been just one part of this “glut of information” – “it was like dropping a pebble into a huge pond that was already there, and that really resonating and rippling out,” she says.
As the population ages, there are more women over 50 than ever before, and those women are more healthy and active than their predecessors. Hormone replacement therapy is mitigating the effects of the menopause for many women, while Viagra is keeping their
male partners sexually active well into their later decades.
The sociological changes of the 60s and 70s are reverberating through the decades to be felt today. It was this generation of woman that first took the pill, that pioneered working mothers and free love. Now they’re reaching retirement, they’re redefining boundaries once again. “Even those women that weren’t liberated themselves in the 60s and 70s have some kind of history to look back on,” says Ogden.
“I have a friend who did something I thought was mad, and she said to me – “I never got over the fact I wasn’t at Woodstock”.”
With their children fully grown and independent, their successful careers drawing to a close or behind them, and their independence intact, many
mature women are having the
time of their lives. Phillip Larkin ended his poem with the words: “So life was never better than / In nineteen sixty-three.” Not anymore.