What does intimacy look like for seniors? There’s no end to sex scenes and other steamy content featuring the young and unwrinkled, but past a certain age, popular culture largely draws a blank — or treats sex as a punchline.
Last year, the artist Marilyn Minter set out to change that, gathering a group of men and women aged 70 and older in her New York studio to showcase a lesser-seen side of sex and relationships. In erotic and colorful images, the seniors are stripped down to lingerie or briefs; they hug, kiss and caress each other in the heat of the moment. The photographs beckon our attention to challenge something still seen as taboo, showing playful, loving moments of pleasure.
“There’s so much contempt for elder sex. Even one of the models that I worked with said, ‘Who wants to see all these?’” Minter recalled in a video call with CNN.
“My whole thought process going into it was that we’re pioneers,” she continued of the unabashedly sexualized context. “Nobody’s ever shot elder people affectionately, and with any kind of elegance. And that was my goal — to make to make them look very desirable.”
A handful of the ensuing images were originally published in the New York Times Magazine, accompanying a candid editorial feature about seniors’ sex lives. Minter is now publishing the series in full in the forthcoming book “Elder Sex,” and exhibiting them at New York gallery LGDR. The exhibition, which opened in April, is her first solo show in the city since the Brooklyn Museum mounted her retrospective “Pretty/Dirty” in 2016, and features highlights from her five-decade-long career, as well as other new bodies of work.
In “Elder Sex,” Minter utilized one of her signature aesthetics, which she has explored in both hyperrealistic paintings and photographs: jewel-toned, close-cropped compositions of glistening bodies, seemingly shown through the glass of a steamed-up mirror or window. But despite her credentials as one of the most important and boundary-breaking artists today — and despite stars such as Lady Gaga and Lizzo posing for her — Minter couldn’t find enough real couples willing to participate.
“We wanted to (include) all races, all types of sex,” Minter explained. “We had a lot of trouble getting models. I’m 74. I asked all my friends — in mixed-race relationships, in lesbian relationships — and none of them would do it.”
In the end, Minter cast actors along with the few people who had agreed. She paired them together in her studio, photographing them behind a panel of frozen glass — a trick to achieve the steamy, wet look without battling the ephemerality of water vapor. During their shoots, Minter said all her models, who were as old as 89 years old, told her they still had regular, enjoyable sex lives. Their sentiments matched the people interviewed for the New York Times Magazine article, who described deepening intimacy with their partners later in life, as well as learning to navigate and appreciate their needs as their bodies aged.
Minter believes there’s a sense of freedom in sex later in life that, for many people, can take time to reach.
“When you’re young and having sex, it’s a little more performative than it is when you’re 80,” she said. As an older person, “You’re thinking, ‘This is me. Take it or leave it. I’m just going to enjoy myself. I’m not going to fake anything here.’”
Minter acknowledges that sex and self-image is fraught for women of all ages — older women are rarely seen or taken seriously as having intimate needs, while for younger women, sexual agency is often a tightrope walk — too much of it and you can be “excoriated and slut-shamed,” Minter said.
“When you’re 25, there’s just so much fear about young women owning sexual agency — it’s just terrifying to people,” she said.
But the artist sees some progress in who gets to be seen as desirable on our television screens, reflecting a burgeoning broader shift in cultural attitudes around sex. She pointed to photographs in People magazine comparing the characters of “The Golden Girls” and “Sex and the City,” who are the same age at the time of the latter’s reboot on HBO Max (which is owned by CNN’s parent company, Warner Bros. Discovery). “The 50s look a lot different in the 2020s!” a caption exclaimed.
Though “The Golden Girls” also delved into romance and intimacy — and was widely-viewed as remarkably sex-positive for its time — there’s a stark contrast in how women in their 50s are presented across the two shows.
“I thought, ‘Okay, here’s why it’s different,” she said. “Number one: People live a lot longer, and they’re healthier… Number two: there’s this thing called Viagra.” Minter laughed, adding: “But who retired at 54? To a home in Florida with three other ladies? What?”
She hopes “Elder Sex” will not only serve as a much-needed visual reference for what intimacy can look like at older ages, but will also resonate for people who feel like their desires — and lives — are overlooked.
“It gives permission to people who feel shame about their sexual urges,” she said. “I want this to give them permission to explore that and erase the shame.”
“Elder Sex,” published by JBE Books, is available now.