In my forties I’m suddenly haunted by the number of men I’ve slept with

illo of woman looking back to a past scene through binoculars
'We lose touch with that it felt like to be us... We can look back with binoculars, but it will look different, because we are different now' say Rivkin and McMeekan - R.Fresson/A Human Agency

Dear A&E,

I wish I hadn’t slept with so many men. I am in my mid-forties and have been with a lovely man for many years and I am suddenly haunted by all the bodies I have encountered, particularly as most of the sex was very unsatisfying. I don’t know why I’m suddenly bothered by it.

– Love, Disconcerted

Dearest Disconcerted,

Something seems to happens at those extreme points in our life where we feel either truly safe or problematically splintered: the paper of time folds over; two points meet and we feel a need – viscerally – to connect with the person we were.

Sometimes it can happen when external events trigger a feeling. Emilie’s husband felt it when his daughter reached the age he was sent to boarding school. There he was, looking at an eight-year-old and wondering: “How was this even possible?”

Perhaps you have young women in your life, and you wonder how to prepare them for the maze of sexual politics; how to protect them from the confusing morass of cultural messaging. Saint or a sinner? Sexy or frigid? Goddess or whore. FFS. You, like us, grew up with the emergence of the Ladette: those hard-drinking, hard-partying girls were the wallpaper to our twenties. So, you partied hard. So what?

Here you find yourself, dear Disconcerted. And “here” is the safe, held place we talked about above. You are coinciding with yourself. In contentment, you have come face-to-face with all the women that you are and have been. And so you wonder: “How did I get here?”

Distance is created over time. We lose touch with what it felt like to be us – way back when. We can look back with binoculars, but it will look different, because we are different. But with that distance, as a happy side dish, comes perspective.

Now that you are a “monogamous midlife woman”, don’t be conned by the patriarchy into thinking that your sexual behaviour was deviant. Women – corseted in shame by society’s sexual expectations – find ourselves hardwired to believe that we have somehow degraded ourselves or depleted ourselves by having sex. Used goods. Tarnished. De-valued.

So, there were times in your twenties and thirties when you went out wanting the proximity of another human body. Maybe you wanted to have lots of sex. Fabulous.

But these were also the wilderness years when it was, perhaps, harder to soothe and companion yourself through this life. Now and again it will have been very disappointing and they weren’t so handsome, funny or eligible the next morning. We’re assuming that having an orgasm (or even finding pleasure) was touch and go. Even with real chemistry it’s pretty rare (our research tells us) to have mind-blowing sex during a one night-stand.

Perhaps the combination of bad sex and bad light of day left you feeling a little shabby. We are all looking for connection and sometimes we crave touch. The magic of skin on skin. The potential solace of another human. Or sometimes, dear Disconcerted, wild is wild and why the hell not?

Maybe you were a pirate: dancing and shagging from dusk ‘til dawn with all the swagger of Jagger. There is nothing you can do to change what has happened, so instead of looking mournfully at your past self, wearing those shame-tinted binoculars, be kind to her and love that girl on the rampage. Perhaps you could quietly sit down and write her a letter, telling her what you know is true: “You are going to be fine. You are going to be loved, you are safe. And all that fun that you are having? Don’t worry about it, it’s all part of growing up.”

The patriarchal insinuation that, somehow, that girl needs to do penance in order to be forgiven makes us incandescent with rage. You do not need to forgive yourself. You just need to accept yourself. You are not broken or spoiled. This sort of reflection generally happens, as we said, during moments of fracture and fulfilment. The middle is the murky bit when we are just ploughing on.

Remember these adventures didn’t lead you to a dead end, dear Disconcerted. You were driving your own car. Ok, so it was only a provisional licence and there were times when you put your foot through the floor and did one of those slightly scary swerves that left you heart-poundy. You thought “that was close”, and then you drove on. Brave girl.  You turned out to be rather a good driver because – as it turns out – you got yourself to exactly where you need to be. Now? Onwards.

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