Rosalind Jacobs cartwheeled onto the stage in the opening scene of her autobiographical play That Certain Age.
She said she used to cartwheel everywhere as a child. It made her feel alive, proud and beautiful. Jacobs, who is 59, said she now looks “like a cushion that’s lost its stuffing. Breasts dangle hopelessly as if they just got tired of hanging on, as if they too had lost their sense of purpose.”
Jacobs’ play, which was staged at Wits on Monday August 20 as part of Drama for Life’s Sex Actually festival, highlighted the issues of ageing and sexuality.
After the performance, the all-female audience of five discussed body image and sex in what Jacobs called the “invisible age” , when a woman is not yet “a lovely old little lady” but is no longer considered a “hot babe”.
The discussion was moderated by Dr Catherine Burns of the Wits Institute for Social & Economic Research (WISER). Burns, who studies the history of sex, said people did not like to think of older people as sexual beings.
She described the strong reaction her acquaintances had to The Mother, one of the few films which showed older people having sex. In Roger Michell’s 2003 film, Daniel Craig plays a 32-year-old man who falls in love and has a sexual relationship with his girlfriend’s 65-year-old mother, played by Anne Reid.
Burns said: “Many people have told me it’s the most revolting film they have ever seen … They had to turn it off or leave the cinema because it disgusted them.”
The idea may be unpalatable to some, but older people are sexually active and they risk getting sexually transmitted infections. Burns said older women were vulnerable to HIV infection because their vaginal tissue was thinner and more likely to tear.
Older women might also be invisible to HIV/AIDS awareness campaigners, who often targeted the youth. They might lack knowledge about condom use.
She said negotiating condom use might also be difficult, since menopausal women could no longer tell their partners they wanted to prevent pregnancy.
Audience member and Wits graduate Margaret Fish said: “Many older people don’t feel that they have a choice if they want to keep that man. And how are they going to say: ‘I’m afraid you might give me a disease?’”