“Like a sexy knitting bee” The midlife women bringing the world real sex stories

WHEN, three years ago, Marie-Louise Cochrane came to the end of her marriage, she found herself in midlife, reflecting on all her beliefs, including her attitudes towards sex.

“I thought, what am I keeping and what am I letting go of at this stage of life? I’m interested in this idea that in adulthood you leave parts of yourself behind to be acceptable, and that the second half of life is about reintegrating them, about finding those bits that you left behind.”

Cochrane started to seek out conversations around sex – and found that the kind of talk she was looking for, the kind of frank, open stories, were rare and few. “I had this idea that I would like to hear women talking about the happy stuff around sex. But I wasn’t coming across that so I started this project. I would tell women that I met at networking events, or at church, or through work that I was collecting happy stories around sex. Either women would respond with, ‘wow that’s amazing’ and often they would go on and tell a story or they would back off and be a bit horrified.”

Those that were interested, she observed, would have quite a striking reaction. “The energy would go up in the room and people would start giggling and laughing. I had a real sense that there’s something here about giving women permission.”

Among the people she enlisted to her cause was friend, poet and comedian, Heidi Docherty, in whose Edinburgh home she now sits for a rainy afternoon chat.

“She invited me for dinner,” Docherty recalls, “and I think I was about halfway through a potato when she said, ‘I’ve got a proposal. It’s about women’s sexuality.’ I thought I was just coming for dinner.”

Docherty, a professional storyteller, wasn’t a newcomer to performance that delivers a frisson. She had been part of Mel and Sue-type comedy duo, Parma Violence.

The two soon formed Red Velvet Revelry, a series of storytelling and music events around women and sex, based on the tales that Cochrane was collecting. Their current show, which has been commissioned by the Scottish Storytelling Festival, incorporates their own stories and those of other women, and aims to reach further. Titled Ladies Who Like It, it is, says Docherty, “the permission slip to talk about sex”, and includes stories from a diverse range of women including a swinging schoolteacher, a disabled activist, a BDSM advocate and others. Cochrane tells her own story about her first visit to Ann Summers.

HeraldScotland: Heidi Docherty, left, and Marie-Louise Cochrane who are doing a show for the Scottish Storytelling Centre title 'Ladies Who Like It' about midlife sex. STY ALLAN Pic Gordon Terris Herald & Times
5/10/21

“The invitation to listen,” adds Cochrane, “is not just to women, but to those who care about women and their stories.”

What’s fascinating, partly, is Cochrane’s background. She has been a Catholic church secretary and a drugs counsellor, and for many years she has told stories, for kids, around food, as the popular children’s storyteller, Mrs Mash.

Aren’t we all more open about the issue already? Cochrane acknowledges that “maybe someone women do already talk about these things”. But, she says, “There are whole subsections of women who are not talking about it for various reasons. One of the things about the show is we’ve got these happy stories and some slightly humorous songs. They ask questions like, Is there something wrong with me? How do I ask for what I want?”

Their aim was to reach a diverse group of women and invite them to tell their stories. “I had some stories from younger women but most of the people who were willing to tell me their happy stories were older women, partly because of the age that I am.

“I have a lot of beautiful stories from women who are a lot older than me and I think there’s something around older women being more comfortable with their sexuality, in reflecting on their sexual journeys.”

For her, this isn’t about erotic content. “It’s about lived experience and sharing – it’s created for women to hear other women’s stories. If those stories are similar to your own then that confirms your own experience and if it’s different to yours and it’s told with a humanity and warmth, it can allow a woman to think, ‘Oh, I hadn’t thought about that – I’d like to try that.’”

Cochrane had been a professional storyteller for 16 years when she started the project. In all that time, she observes, she had never been to a storytelling event that had sexual content. “There are lots of traditional stories where there must have been sexual content in the past, but right now sex is just not part of the culture in Scottish storytelling.”

It’s not that sex storytelling doesn’t exist at all globally. The North American phenomenon Smut Slam International, for instance, runs events around the world and describes itself as is “a global network of community dirty-storytelling open mics and events, created by Cameryn Moore”. It provides a space in which audience members can put their name in a bucket and have the chance to stand up and tell a real-life sex story on stage.

Cochrane attended a Smut Slam when the event came to the Edinburgh Fringe, and was hosted in the Safari Lounge and found it “very sex positive”, but that unlike her own events it is “outrageous” and has “got more of an edge”.

“This is a more Edinburgh version…it’s a warm invitation to talk about sex, a safe space. It’s not dirty stories. It’s not telling tales out of school. It’s not being disloyal to your partner. It’s women being able to reflect on their own experience, what they like and what they don’t like.”

Even its title, Ladies Who Like It, suggests a mild-mannered attitude that’s more fur coat, nae knickers than explicit hardcore. “The context is that I am a woman who has been born and brought up in Edinburgh and so for me to get up and tell stories with sexual content has an edge,” says Cochrane.

 

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“We’re not so sexually confident that we could do it in our sleep. It’s not like that. This is something that we think is important so we’re willing to take the risk of doing that and being a bit vulnerable. Plus all the women who have told us their stories have been a bit vulnerable.”

Docherty describes it as a bit like “a sexy knitting bee”.

Any discussion of storytelling about sex, of course, has to include the 1996 classic play by Eve Ensler, the Vagina Monologues. Cochrane recalls that four years ago her 82-year-old mother organised a reading as a fundraiser for women’s groups at the Southside Community Centre.

“That was quite a brave thing to do, so she’s a bit of a role model,” she says. “But the thing about the Vagina Monologues is it’s quite hard to listen to. Even some of the language is difficult because I’m not used to it. This is different because of the warmth. This is a warm tone.”

It’s also worth noting that there are few similar events around male sex storytelling. A bunch of men gathering to tell frank, vulnerable, honest stories about their sex life and how they feel about it seems like even more of a rarity. Talking honestly, rather than boasting, about sex has mostly been a female field. The vast majority of high-profile figures in the sex advice world are women: Esther Perel, Helen Fisher, Tracey Cox. Women are also finding new ways to tell ever more frank stories on TV, from Sharon Horgan’s Catastrophe to Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You.

HeraldScotland: Rob Delaney and Sharon Horgan.

Though Ladies Who Like It is mostly an upbeat show, with stories on themes like transformation, evolution and celebration, Cochrane observes that not all of the conversations she has had with women have been about “happy stories”. Some, she says, have been “not so happy”.

“Those stories are important and need to be witnessed,” she notes. “But if you’re in an abusive relationship how do you then talk about it if you’re not allowed to talk about sex?” This, she believes, is one of the reasons to encourage all conversation about sex. “If we can’t talk about sex then here are all these other things we can’t talk about. That’s a problem for society.”

One of the stories in the show is from Penny Pepper, an activist and writer of explicit fiction, including the collection Desires Reborn. “She was brought up a punk,” says Cochrane, “and that’s part of her whole identity. She wasn’t just a disabled woman, she was a punk disabled woman. She was a writer with a sex life and she is willing to talk about her sex life and she’s written a book of erotic stories with characters who are disabled.”

I have interviewed Pepper myself, for my book about the menopause, Still Hot! and was struck by the strength of her message about representation in erotic literature. “Disabled women having sex is not a thing you read about and it’s time that we did,” she said. “It needs to be there for other disabled people, it needs to be there as a story, needs to be shown for endless reasons. It’s a story from the great, contrary melting pot of humanity. And every human being deserves their place in it.”

How we talk about sex is of most importance within our sexual relationships. Cochrane recalls that during the early stages of the project she met a man with whom she has since forged a relationship. The first thing she did, as a “subconscious test” was mention what she was working on. “I told him I was doing this project about women’s happy stories of sexuality, and the fact that he didn’t flinch and we went on to have an interesting and informed conversation was a real sign to me that here was a man who was worth speaking to.”

The result is, she says, she is now in “a very conscious adult relationship of two people who are able to talk about it fully”. She even, in those very early days, broached the subject of having sex during her period.

Docherty feels that working on the show has been life-changing. “Marie-Louise has reawakened a sense of blossoming for me because she’s been very brave and she’s found a new sexuality and sensuality in her life. I had this idea that other day that when we become mothers we become mums. And we lose a bit of our sensuality and our sexuality. But we are reawakening now with having grown up children. So we’re kind of going back a little bit to our former selves. We’re reblossoming.”

Both she and Cochrane recall the messages they absorbed in their childhood and teenage years – the exhortations to be a “good girl”.

“Just be careful,” observes Docherty, was the one piece of sex education her mother gave her. Things obviously have moved on since their teenage years and they both talk about having done their best to be frank about sex with their now adult sons – Docherty has two, Cochrane has three. But, Docherty observes, things are not exactly rosy for young people either. There is still relatively little talk of female pleasure. “There is quite a lot of pressure now to be over-sexualised and for young girls to be pressurised by the large amount of pornography that has become so accessible and is becoming more hardcore.”

Cochrane observes part of the problem is that even now the adults who are parents or guides to the young people are “grown adults who still don’t have permission to talk about this stuff.”

Among her hopes is that people will leave the show feeling more comfortable about sex and themselves, and that would have an impact on speaking to young people in their lives.

Though their story-collecting aims to be diverse, the duo are of course, strikingly, two middle-aged women creating a show about sex – and doing it at the point in life when, according to popular view, we’re supposed to quieten down about the subject. Sex in midlife and older is still a relative taboo, even in spite of attempts by television series like Wanderlust, starring Toni Colette, or Sex In The City on its continuing journey into midlife, to bring it to our screens.

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Libido does, of course, lessen for many women during the menopause, as it does for many men in midlife. There’s no denying that many people are quite happy not to make sex the centre of their universe.

Many would relate, for instance, to the memorable rebuff a menopausal Kristin Scott-Thomas delivers in Fleabag. “Honestly, can’t be arsed, darling. I’m going to go back to my room and have one more Martini.”

But research has shown that there’s a strong link between a healthy sex life and higher quality of life as individuals age. Communication, according to one study from the Annals of Family Medicine, has been found to be a key factor influencing whether women keep sexually active after midlife. In her book, Great Sex Starts At 50, sex expert Tracey Cox begins with four ultimate tips, the last of them being that we “talk about sex”. She observes too, that in midlife, many couples stop having sex without even talking about it.

What Docherty and Cochrane are doing in other words is key. They are starting a conversation. They are helping us talk about this, for many, difficult subject. “I would love it,” Cochrane says, “if people went away feeling, ‘Oh, I’m going to speak to my partner or my friends more about sexuality.’ I’m hoping what we’re doing will open that conversation for women and their partners, male and female, and nonbinary. I’m hoping this will help people talk about sex.”

Ladies Who Like It is at the Scottish Storytelling Festival in Edinburgh on October 19

 

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The Herald Scotland

The Herald Scotland

The Herald is a Scottish broadsheet newspaper founded in 1783. The Herald is the longest running national newspaper in the world and is the eighth oldest daily paper in the world. The title was simplified from The Glasgow Herald in 1992