Christie O. Tate was in her mid-40s when she noticed a change in some of her closest friends. She was running a lot back then, she told me, and she was part of a group of moms who would go for long runs together. At one point, several members of the group were going through divorces and Tate noticed something odd. The married friends (including herself) would talk about kids and husbands and television and work, and the divorcing friends would talk about sex. “They were going on the apps. Going on all these dates. They were having fun, inventive, exciting experiences in the bedroom. We called it “chandelier sex”. As in, having sex while swinging from a chandelier. I don’t know if that’s a thing people really do. Maybe it should be called trapeze sex? Or sex-swing sex? You get the point.”
I did get it, since a few years back, before I met Tate, I would have been in that group of divorcing friends myself. When I’d married 15 years earlier, there was no such thing as an app, and the only online dating platforms that existed were match.com and J-Date, which, at the time, seemed about as depressing as placing a want ad or asking my uncle to set me up with that really nice widower from his office. This was all before the days of swiping and sexting. It was before I’d heard the term sex positivity or even body positivity. A lot can change in 15 years, and for women who have spent years focusing on marriage and family, emerging into this new world can be exciting and enlivening. That, anyway, was what Tate was sensing from her divorcing friends. What’s more, she was jealous — not of their divorcing (she was happy in her marriage), but of their ability to explore their own sexuality and desire as adult women.
Tate explained this all to me a few weeks ago when we met for coffee. Somehow, despite the fact that we were both memoir writers with a keen interest in the subject of female friendship, I hadn’t realized until recently that we both lived in Chicago. Tate, a high-achieving woman by every measure, moved there from Texas to earn a master’s degree at the University of Chicago before attending law school. Today, she has a successful law career and is the author of the bestselling memoir Group and the soon to be released B.F.F. When a local magazine asked me to interview her, I floated the idea that rather than Zoom or a phone call, we meet for coffee like in olden days.
As we leaned back in our velvet chairs, she described to me how it was around the time she was finishing this book that she experienced what she describes as cognitive dissonance around her divorcing friends’ sexual adventures. She was very happy in her marriage and had no plans of leaving her husband or finding other partners, but she wanted all the other parts. “I wanted the freshness, the vitality. I wanted to be interested in my own sexuality again. These friends of mine sort of shattered the myth I’d bought into that after 45, your sex life devolves into once-a-month missionary just to keep the relationship going.” Tate had done years of therapy and self-reflection, working hard to overcome an eating disorder and improve her relationship with her body. That relationship was finally in a good place. “So I thought to myself, why shouldn’t I really get to enjoy it now. I credit my divorcing friends with nudging me toward the question, but I was determined to resist the narrative that there was nothing exciting in this area of midlife sexuality unless I got a divorce or had an affair. I wanted to fight for a new narrative.”
It would seem these days that Tate is not alone. From the novel turned Hulu series Fleishman Is In Trouble, to the second season of White Lotus, to the reality series Couples’ Therapy, popular culture seems to be particularly interested right now in grappling with the unique challenges and rewards of married sex. Perhaps this is an inevitable consequence of the great relationships reckoning of the Covid pandemic, which forced many couples to forego the usual distractions and external stimuli that keep us from looking deeply at our long-term relationships and the quality of our sex lives as our kids grow older or prepare to leave the nests.
Tate sat down with me and discussed her latest self-improvement project — to improve her sex life and sexual intimacy as she navigates midlife.
Kim Brooks: What was the first step for you in this process?
Christie Tate: With my husband, I started out small, just trying to be the initiator, to actually state my desire, owning my desire. I grew up in a traditional Catholic household, and I felt a lot of body shame. This shame didn’t abate as she aged or found a life partner. I would still hide my breasts or worry about plunging necklines. I found herself buying into the cultural narrative around age-appropriate dress. Now I’m pushing back against that, which of course changes how I feel about my body and about sex. The second, and maybe most important change, though, is talking — just talking more about sex with my husband, not just our sex life but about sex in general. Being more open when a sexual observation or thought comes to mind. Not censoring myself.
KB: Can you give an example?
CT: We had fallen into a pattern where he would always initiate. Lately, I try to be the initiator. It sounds so small. But what it’s done for me is I’ve had to state my desire. I have to tell him what I want him to do. And owning that feels like a great start. I’m out of the dug out. I’m in the ballpark.
KB: Are those things you used to do when you were single? Or is it entirely new for you? One thing I notice among other moms is that often, women who are raising kids and running households feel like they’re managing and controlling so many things, putting so much labor and forethought into keeping the wheels moving. So the idea of managing or controlling or directing sex can kind of seem like more work. It’s easy to get tired and become more passive. Is that what happened for you?
CT: Not exactly, though I have also seen what you describe with friends. For me, I grew up Catholic and I got a lot of body shame. So from an early age I felt like my body was not a thing I wanted to put out there, even with a partner. Now I’m working to really undo that. I stopped hiding my breasts. I got my first plunging neckline. And of course that impacts my sex life. But another, maybe more important thing is I set myself a goal that when my husband and I are in intimate situations, I have to say what I want. That was hard for me. It took months of practice. It’s been so good for our relationship. It’s led to more communication. We’ve spent more time talking about what we want. How we both want a certain sexual vitality that doesn’t just happen naturally. We have to build it in. There has to be an intention or otherwise it will not happen.
KB: In the course of your career, you’ve written about different types of self-improvement projects and how you arrived at them at a particular moment in your life. In your first book, Group, you wrote about therapy. In your new book, B.F.F., you write about your determination to get better at female friendship. And now you’ve come to this new project around sex? Can you say a little about the timing of all this? Some might find it odd to tackle the sex issue last, at an age when some women start feeling like it’s not a priority anymore.
CT: Some of it, I think, is that I had delayed doing the work of being sexual for all those years that I was focused on being a mom. I also breastfed my kids until they were 4. The lines were blurry for a long time. I couldn’t enjoy my breasts as a sexual being when my kids were eating from them. My youngest is 12. There were years where I was breastfeeding. I felt like my breasts belonged to the kids. Now that my kids are older and are doing more and more things for themselves, I’m having this cognitive shift over the past few years where I feel like my body really belongs to me again. Once my daughter hit middle school and her body developed, I had this deep idea in my subconscious that it’s her turn and that I was the retired version. Like, I’m obsolete sexually. But that seems wrong. I wanted to push back against that.
Then there’s also just logistics. My kids stay up later than me now. They live here. So that already makes it more mechanistic. We have to plan. There are so many excuses to shut down sexually. But the fact is, there’s tons in between doing nothing and penetration. We’re probably not going to have chandelier sex very often. But we can talk about it, and that can lead to something else.
Kim Brooks is the author of Small Animals: Parenthood in the Age of Fear. She lives in Chicago.