French Women Don't Get Fat and Do Get Lucky

By Pamela Druckerman
Sunday, February 10, 2008

PARIS

If I have to get old, I want to do it in Paris.

It's not because of the dank weather, the constant personal snubs or a fetish for unpasteurized cheese. It's because, quite frankly, I'd like to keep having sex.

In the United States, my odds would be grim. Through our 40s, we American women manage to arrange romps on a fairly regular basis. But the latest national statistics show that by our 50s, a third of us haven't had sex in the last year. By our 60s, nearly half have gone sexless in the previous year. Once we hit our 70s, most of us might as well hang up an "out of business" sign. (Needless to say, men fare much better.)

So much for the gym-bodied baby boomers who promised to make 60 the new 40, using Botox as an aphrodisiac. Among today's 50-plus women, the problem of sexlessness is as bad or worse than it was for older women two decades ago.

But not in France. Frenchwomen simply don't suffer from the same dramatic, post-40s slide into sexual obsolescence. Just 15 percent of Frenchwomen in their 50s and 27 percent in their 60s haven't had any sex in the past year, according to a 2004 national survey by France's Regional Health Observatory. Another national survey being released next month will report that cohabiting Frenchwomen over 50 are having more sex now than they did in the early 1990s.

Try not to hate them: Frenchwomen don't get fat, and they do get lucky.

The idea that older women are desirable goes right to the top. Before Nicolas Sarkozy hooked up with his new bride, 40-year-old Carla Bruni, a French magazine suggested some matches for the newly divorced president, including 50-ish TV presenters, writers and an extremely buff sailing champion. After all, Sarkozy, 53, had just been dumped by his then 49-year-old wife Cecilia, who had famously obsessed him and who had had no trouble finding other suitors.

This post-menopausal sexiness is palpable here. In the lingerie section of an upscale department store, I recently watched a gray-haired man earnestly inspecting the black lace bra and panties that his similarly aged companion had just picked out. "That's just what's needed," he clucked, handing his credit card to the clerk.

So why are older American women sitting around feeling bad about their necks, while their sisters across the ocean -- craggy necks or not -- are off being seduced?

For starters, Frenchwomen d'un certain âge have much better role models. Sure, Hollywood still employs a handful of preternaturally preserved actresses in their 50s and above. But even these women, such as Susan Sarandon, tend to be famous precisely because they've defied the laws of aging. And they're mostly denied unfiltered close-ups and romantic leads.

French cinema, however, is in the throes of a revival for 50-ish actresses, many of whom got their starts as fresh-faced teenagers in the early 1970s. These women aren't all airbrushed versions of their former selves, nor does the interest in them seem to be mostly nostalgic. "They have roles not as old women but as women. Which means they're still considered to be desirable," says Danièle Laufer, author of the book "50 Ans? Vous Ne Les Faites Pas" ("50 Years Old? You Don't Look It"). "Fifteen or 20 years ago, you wouldn't have seen this. I think they refuse to give up power."

The actress Nathalie Baye, who's 59 and looks it, has made some 20 films in the past decade, including romantic roles. She told an interviewer that at the 2003 César awards (France's version of the Oscars), Meryl Streep asked her whether "things were as difficult in France as in the U.S. for actresses of a certain age. I told her that thankfully, French cinema is very faithful to its women."

These French actresses are products of the generation of '68, France's sexual and social revolution. But in the French version, women weren't expected to forgo high heels and chivalry in exchange for equality. So it's not surprising here when successful women retain their charms. In the United States, the two can seem mutually exclusive. The right-wing talk-show host Rush Limbaugh felt free to question Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's candidacy in December by sneering, "Will Americans want to watch a woman get older before their eyes on a daily basis?"

Of course, things aren't all rosy in French bedrooms. France has its share of lonely widows and divorcees. All the Frenchwomen I spoke to also stressed that older women must keep up their looks to stay appealing. Liftees are becoming a more frequent sight.

In the United States, men tend to treat older women who've done age-erasing work with either horrific awe or chaste respect. France is more sanguine. Last year, Paris Match magazine put a photo on its cover of a topless 50-something Arielle Dombasle -- looking like a reengineered 16- year-old -- to celebrate her new cabaret act.

American women seem to have internalized the message that wrinkles aren't sexy. A 2006 study called "Sex After 40?" led by Laura Carpenter at Vanderbilt University concludes that middle-aged women who live alone have trouble seeing themselves -- and others -- as potential sex partners. And then there's the famous demographic bottleneck: Men die sooner, and many of the ones left standing prefer younger women. Impotence can leave even married couples sexless.

All that happens in France, too, of course. But when the French writer Elisabeth Weissman interviewed dozens of older Frenchmen for the book "Un Âge Nommé Désir" ("An Age Named Desire"), she found that "they see in maturity a form of eroticism." French Playboy's photo spread on the 43-year-old Juliette Binoche in November carried text that gushed, "The more time passes, the more her inner beauty glows." Wisdom -- combined with regular exfoliation -- is sexy here.

Another reason older Frenchwomen have an easier time is that they're apparently less choosy about their bedmates. A study of older Americans published last year in the New England Journal of Medicine found that 88 percent of sexually inactive women ages 57 to 64 had actually met a willing partner. But about half the women said that they hadn't met the right person.

This isn't just a matter of taste. The Vanderbilt study also found that middle-aged, unmarried men and women in the United States suffer from "sexual conservatism," even if they've been married before. For many women, the study notes, "disapproval of sex before marriage applies to every marriage."

Older Frenchwomen seem open not just to non-marital sex but also to the extramarital variety. Overall self-reported levels of infidelity are practically identical in France and the United States. But because the taboo on cheating is weaker in France, what would be guilty flings in the United States can blossom into long love affairs over here. "When [French] people have multiple partners, they have stable partners, and not one-night stands. This is not the case in the U.S.," says the French researcher Alain Giami, who co-authored a paper on French and American sexual habits.

None of the Frenchwomen I spoke to thought that married men made ideal companions. But all of them said that they could be a reasonable compromise until the "right" fellow comes along. "It saves your life, you live like a woman," says Nathalie Samson, 50, who dated a married man for six years until she met her current boyfriend. (He was single.)

Samson, who co-owns a boutique in Paris, isn't the lithe Frenchwoman of the American imagination. But she's wearing a stretchy black dress with a plunging neckline and flipping through pictures from her recent birthday party, in which her 52-year-old boyfriend gazes at her with obvious rapture. She describes this period of her life -- post-divorce, her three kids out of the house -- as her most uncomplicatedly sexy one. "Now there's just the seduction between a man and a woman," she says.

Older women in Paris don't actually look any better than the ones in New York. The difference is that the French typically don't see sex as a privilege for the young and beautiful. They see it as one of life's most basic pleasures -- something women or men would not give up without a fight . . . or in my case, perhaps a second passport.

pdruckerman@gmail.com

Pamela Druckerman is the author of "Lust in Translation: The Rules of Infidelity From Tokyo to Tennessee."

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