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The Culture Interview – Laura Benson, lead actress in the award-winning and challenging new film Touch Me Not.


1 Minute Read

Laura Benson is a British actress based in Paris – she was in Dangerous Liaisons – who plays a lead role in the controversial and challenging new film Touch Me Not (which also features Seani Love, a sex worker who appeared in the AoA Tantra Hot Tub Salon which was FB Live). Touch Me Not follows three characters, one of which is called Laura, a 50 something woman, who is in out of touch with her sexuality and takes some radical steps to address this situation. The film coasts a fluid line between reality and fiction. It won the Golden Bear earlier in the year in Berlin and is the London Film Festival on Oct 16 and 17th plus a special screening at the ICA on Oct 23rd.

How were you cast in Touch Me Not?

Through a casting agent, who works with the French co-producer. They were casting in several countries. I was asked to send something that I had shot recently. The film I had just done wasn’t out yet and I didn’t have anything recent in stock. So they sent me five pages about the subject of the film and I was asked to do an exercise: a video diary for my lover. I thought about it for a week and then did it and sent it, like a bottle in the ocean. The next week I was asked if I could go to Bucharest to meet the director. I obviously agreed. We had a four-hour meeting. I had understood what she wanted from this meeting.  It wasn’t going to be a chit-chat… she wanted to feel who was in front of her and what I was made of.  So my challenge was to go and not contain myself and be as free as possible.

What were your initial thoughts about playing this character, Laura who has difficulty with sex and intimacy?

What I had read gave little insight into her feelings and her struggle.  She seemed cold and terribly cut of from herself…  dead in a way.  I didn’t know how I was going to bring her to life.

Were you excited by the original script in that you were playing a woman in her 50s who is the main character in this revealing/naked about vulnerability way? It’s unusual to get this opportunity, isn’t it?

I would say that what is unusual is to have a lovely part to explore (which has nothing to do with the age) and to work with an inspiring director that you get on with and understand in a way as well as on a project you like. All those ingredients are not always present all at once!  I never actually considered that I had the main character and her vulnerability appeared during the process.  I didn’t know before we started working that this would emerge.  And yes yes, it was a lovely opportunity, which came out of the blue! I feel very lucky. I think that Laura could be 40, 45, 50, 55…

Obviously, it was a wonderful opportunity to have an interesting important part to play, considering that most important characters in the film are under-45! A casting agent friend of mine told me that in France when they suggest actors over 50, the producers and TV say ‘no, menopaused’! But I do more theatre than film, and a female actor’s age doesn’t have the same significance on stage, because there aren’t close-ups — the body and how you move and your energy are more important than the reality of your age. I’ve seen some Comedia dell Arte where the character is 20 and the actor behind the mask 80. So to answer your question, I didn’t realize really how lucky I was.

What were you challenged by in the process as an actress where it sounds like you had to get in touch with your own vulnerabilities?

For me, the challenge wasn’t as much about being in touch with my vulnerabilities than it was about dealing with my fear of the unknown, my lack of confidence and my doubts.

And how did the improvisation go? Do you enjoy this way of working?

The script was just a starting point, like a trampoline that we could bounce off.  A kind of skeleton, if you like. It acted as a kind of safety net. There was very little dialogue.  A great deal of the material, the nature of the interaction, came from what was happening on set and how it was happening. Doing a scene when you have no idea where it is going to go, and more to the point – if it is going to go anywhere at all can be very uncomfortable. I would say that ‘exploring a situation’ rather than ‘acting a prewritten scène’ is a lovely way of working when you have a director that you can understand (and can understand you) and with whom you share the same vocabulary. There is a certain amount of preparation needed in that kind of approach. Adina has her way of working that takes you into a profound process, so you’re not lost and you are pretty charged. What was nice about the relationship on set, was that she was as worried and excited as us.  So we all worked together (technicians included because for the camera and sound people, it wasn’t easy either) to do the best we could. The work was about being in the present moment, being spontaneous and authentic.

What did you discover personally?

I discovered how little I knew! How much there is to experiment with!  I think the most surprising thing I discovered was when I was filming myself on a day off.  It was a way of staying involved in the process and not losing touch with the film.  It was something that spontaneously came to me when I woke up that morning. I put my body in the window frame (the window was very big) and I pushed and pushed against the structure. The architecture became my prison.  And since I had voluntarily put myself in that space – that I wasn’t a victim – my frustration and anger transformed into pleasure. Close to a sexual pleasure. It was very empowering.  When Seani Love talks about ‘conscious kink changing the world’, I understand how some sexual activities can release and transform very powerful negative energies. And that changed my outlook on BDSM.

What kind of dialogue about sex and intimacy was going on between you and the director, Adina Pintilie? This is also included in the film?

We spoke about many many things; I don’t remember it being focused on sex.  But the conversations, when we weren’t talking about work, were generally intimate I think they contributed to creating a particular dynamic based on trust.

Did it make a difference having a female director?

I have often worked with women.  Doing this film with a man would no doubt have been very different…  but how, I cannot exactly say.

Do you think it is valid not to explore why the character Laura has ended up with such difficulty in her sex and intimacy life? Anger with her father is intimated but not explored.

I think that Adina is more interested in looking at someone’s attempt and struggle to change than explaining where the problem comes from.  As far as I am concerned, we don’t need to know where Laura’s problem comes from – what is important is that she can move towards going beyond it.  A young couple at a film festival said that it was the only ‘positive’ and ‘uplifting’ film they had seen in the film festival.

What was your interaction with Seani Love like? He was in our AoA FB Live Hot Tub event on Tantra, we loved him. He’s playing himself in the film? A sex worker, who deals with intimacy issues.

Seani’s work is really interesting and I would say that the interaction we had is what you see in the film. We didn’t meet and talk before, my only interaction with him is when we were on set filming. I didn’t even see his face before he came into my sitting room!

Were there moments when you had to say ‘No’ to the director?

No.  Adina was very respectful of limits even though wanting everything!  She never – or rarely – asked for anything precise. So the limits were where you yourself put them. I asked her at the beginning of the film, when we were preparing the escort scenes : ‘Are you expecting me to sleep with them?’ She said: ‘you do what you want’.  Things were generally not decided before.  It was more organic than that.

The film’s reviews have been very mixed, I read the Guardian one by Peter Bradshaw and laughed. I wondered if this is because these reviewers have difficulty themselves with intimacy issues?

I think the reactions correspond to the anger someone can feel when they are going out to have fun and escape reality, then find out that someone is forcing them to have a therapy session and that they weren’t asked if they wanted, let alone warned that they were going to have one (whether they like it or not).

What kind of conversations has come out of it for you?

People have shared some lovely things.  One young man said that he spent his first night with his girlfriend just after they had both seen the film and that it totally changed his way of relating with her and changed both of their approaches to their intimacy. I am surprised because a lot of people have thanked me and given me hugs. I recently spoke to a woman who said she was happy to meet me because she had been worried about me during the film. I think it is a film that is a relief for a lot of people who have suffered feelings of inadequacy. In Kiev, a young woman had been thrown out of a café three weeks earlier because she suffered from cerebral palsy.  She was so pleased to see the film. It gave her courage and hope.

What did you enjoy about making this kind of film? And the responses?

I enjoyed the complicity with Adina, the challenge and adventure and am relieved that I managed to overcome any fears and doubts, or at least deal with them. I am pleased to have managed to be spontaneous. So I guess that I have grown up a bit!

AofA People: Stephanie Theobald – Writer


4 Minute Read

Stephanie Theobald, 52, is a writer and sex rebel. The Times once described her as ‘One of London’s most celebrated literary lesbians’ but that was before she started having a bi-sexual relationship with novelist, Jake Arnott. Interestingly, she says in her AoA Q & A that she seems to be at her most attractive right now to both men and women. Her latest non-fiction book Sex Drive – On The Road To A Pleasure Revolution is her fascinating road trip across the USA using self-pleasure to find her lost libido. BBC Arts described it as ‘Part Jack Kerouac, part Joan Didion’. It’s out on Oct 18th.

Age (in years)

52

Where do you live?

Between London and LA

What do you do?

I’m a writer: journalism, corporate – whatever pays the rent and allows me to do what I really want such as write a book about female masturbation.

Tell us what it’s like to be your age?

People joke about it but turning 50 does actually feel like walking through a ring of fire. But now I’m 52 I can honestly say that I’m confident about the second half of my life. Having seen a big love of my life die of breast cancer, I’m seeing this stretch of life as icing on the cake and what brilliant icing it is. I don’t care so much about what people think of me. I’m like, I’ll write a book about female masturbation because I don’t want to spend the next 50 years writing about the latest trendy restaurant in a swivel chair in a newspaper. It’s like that line from The Wild One: What are you rebelling against and Brando goes, “What have you got?”

Stephanie Theobald

What do you have now that you didn’t have at 25?

More confidence, better orgasms

What about sex?

See above. Weirdly, I seem to be more attractive to men and women at the age of 52. I’ve never had such a great lingerie collection. Cheap, “dirty whore” lingerie because that turns me on the most.

And relationships?

Just evolving from a 10 year relationship with a bisexual man. Still lots of deep love there but sexually, we both realised we needed to open it up. Mainly having booty calls with women right now.

How free do you feel?

Ludicrously free, but freedom’s not always an easy one. Joseph Campbell encouraged people to “follow your bliss” but then he later added that he should have said, “follow your blisters” because bliss can be a roller coaster ride too.

What are you proud of?

Having slept on sofas for the past 3 years and sacrificed the safe and prestigious road of having a proper swivel chair job in order to write a book about honest female sexuality that none of the mainstream publishing houses would touch but which has since been endorsed by the likes of Emma Thompson, Baroness Helena Kennedy and punk poet John Cooper Clarke

Advantages of Age | The Advantages of Age

What keeps you inspired?

Masturbation, hanging out with the under-30s, nature

When are you happiest?

When I’m hugging a tree or scudding along on my bicycle

And where does your creativity go?

Sometimes I dream of being a bricklayer. I look out of my flat window in London and I see the guy on the building site making a regular £200 a day creating a wall and I think, That’s the kind of creativity I’d like because creating a world on a piece of paper can be exhausting. But all ways of making money are a nightmare in the end. The best creativity is when you are not aware you are being ‘creative’ so it’s not a strain. Coming up with a masturbation fantasy is a good example of this. Sexual fantasies make Marquis de Sades and JK Rowlings of us all.

What’s your philosophy of living? Stay in the moment. 

And dying? A Mexican once told me that people in his culture “flirt with death” and I can see that. I think death pervades everything. In a good orgasm, there is always a taste of the infinite and ergo a taste of death. I think death and sex are definitely on the same spectrum. My experience of watching a beloved former love die before my eyes was the most terrible, most beautiful thing I have ever seen. The experience will live with me forever and ultimately it inspired me to write Sex Drive which is about loss as well as sex.

Are you still dreaming?

Always dreaming. My regular dreams revolve around Sex Drive being made into a movie. My masturbation dreams revolve around a spaceship and a woman with big breasts and a voice like Brigitte Bardot.

What was a recent outrageous action of yours?

Masturbating in front of 40 people during a “Fifty Shades of Kink” sex symposium in San Francisco.

Sex Drive is out on 18th October. You can purchase a copy here.

AofA People: Lucy O’Brien – Writer/Academic


7 Minute Read

What is your name?

Lucy O’Brien

Age

57

Where do you live?

Harlesden, NW London

What do you do?

I’m a writer and academic. I’ve just published an updated edition of my book Madonna: Like An Icon, an in-depth portrait of Madonna, including over 70 interviews with friends, musicians, dancers, film-directors, choreographers. I wanted to get to the heart of what motivates her as a woman and an artist – the private as well as public Madonna. She has just had her 60th birthday, and now is a great time to think about her cultural impact. She deals with ageing in her own inimitable, defiant way!

I also wrote She Bop, the Definitive History of Women in Popular Music (now in three editions), and biographies of Dusty Springfield and Annie Lennox. And I teach popular music studies at the University of West London. I have some lovely, very engaged BA and MA students.

Tell us what it’s like to be your age?

Brilliant. Absolutely brilliant. I’m not just saying that. I am happier now than I have ever been. For six years I was in a very stressful job, commuting three hours a day and waking up at 4am thinking about emails I hadn’t sent. Then a year ago I decided to leave, even though I didn’t have another job to go to. It felt like taking a skydive – really terrifying. I went back to full-time writing, I finished my PhD (I am now a Doctor!!!), and I updated my Madonna book.

Just when I started to feel the financial pressure as a freelancer, I started applying for teaching work. I was offered a full-time Course Leader job, but turned it down because the thought of it just made me feel stressed! Then part-time teaching came up at UWL. I love it there, and feel that finally, finally (after 30 years?) I have got that work/life balance.

What do you have now that you didn’t have at 25?

Peace of mind. Seriously. Peace of mind is not easy…I feel that I have worked for it. At 25 I was ambitious but troubled. There were so many things I wanted to achieve in life, and so many things I needed to work out. But now I have two beautiful, funny teenage children, my husband Malcolm who is also my best friend, and fulfilment as a writer. And passing my PhD viva on my birthday two weeks ago (great birthday present!) felt like the culmination of a long period of hard work and thought. 

And what about sex?

Sex gets better after menopause. I know people say that but it is absolutely true. I feel I understand what it means to be a woman. I didn’t really understand that until I was 50.

And relationships?

Relationships are more complicated and deeper, with friends and family. I have good friends that I have known for years. I’ve been married 20 years and enjoy sharing my life with Malcolm, and growing with him. In the last ten years though many friends and family members have died. A lot of friends my age, which is mad – shouldn’t we be the healthy generation? But the losses make you appreciate life SO MUCH. It’s a cliche, but life is really too short to waste time doing things that make you feel unhappy. My rule of thumb is, I will do the work I want, with people I like, as much as possible. And why not? After years of senseless government austerity I feel that too ENJOY LIFE is a political act!

How free do you feel?

Very free – because I’ve worked for it. I have spent a year meditating, thinking, writing, talking to people, going on courses, working out my finances and gradually, gradually getting to a point where I can truly be who I am. It’s about following your instinct. The American psychologist and writer Ralph Metzner calls it ‘alchemical divination’. Following your instinct at every point – even if it doesn’t make sense rationally or professionally – is the way to go.

What are you proud of?

My family – Malcom and my two kids. And my doctorate. Scholarly recognition was a huge thing for me.

What keeps you inspired?

Music, literature (I love reading memoirs), looking at the trees against the sky. My kids’ jokes. Watching them grow and get enthused and passionate about things.

When are you happiest?

Laughing with my kids. If everything is all right with them, then I’m happy. And doing my work – being caught up in writing, when the words and thoughts flow. That’s when I feel like I am truly me.

And where does your creativity go?

My creativity now goes into my writing and thinking. I appreciate that so much, because for ten years I was working mainly for money to pay the mortgage. I was working for The Man!! That kind of work is overrated. I was in management and slowly dying inside, bit by bit by bit. I knew I had to get out for my spirit (and body, frankly) to survive.

What’s your philosophy of living?

Trust, trust in yourself. And when you don’t know what you think or feel, or you’re not sure what you think or feel, don’t stress it. Don’t try too hard. Go to bed and ask for help. Just ask for help to them out there. Whoever they are. They might be God, or a guardian angel, or loved ones who have passed away, or a spiritual energy. Whoever it is, just ask. And as you fall asleep, listen. And as you wake up, listen. That’s my philosophy of living. 

And dying?

God, the big one. I don’t have a philosophy of dying, because I’m terrified of it. I have so much that I want to do and I can’t pack it all into this life! So I guess I’ll just have to do what I can, and love the people I’m with, and hope for the best.

Are you still dreaming?

Yes, all the time. I love dreaming. I love sitting and thinking and realising. No one tells you that as you get older you get amazing wisdom. Every day you understand something about the past, or a friend, or a conversation. Every day there are moments of, Oh God, yes, why didn’t I realise that before? And it keeps happening. It’s the trade-off for being less physically agile, I guess.

What was a recent outrageous action of yours?

Six months ago I went to see spoken word group The Last Poets at the British Library. They pretty much invented rap music – they have such presence and charisma. While I was standing there watching I had a vision in my head of me wearing a black Last Poets T-shirt, my hair short and blonde, talking to a crowd. At the time of the gig, my hair was in a long red bob. So I went to the merchandising stall and bought a T-shirt, and the following week I got my hair cut short and dyed bright blonde. I reminded me of my young punk self!

Then in July, I was presenting a paper in Porto University, Portugal for KISMIF, a big international music conference. On the day of my talk, I wasn’t sure what to wear. I remembered the vision, and put on my Last Poets T-shirt. I then went and addressed a theatre of over 200 people and killed it – talking about punk and DIY and feminism, and why these ideas still mattered. Afterwards, people kept coming up to me the whole day saying how inspired they were by my talk. That to me was my outrageous action because it made me feel so empowered.

  • Come and join me on October 15th for LIKE AN ICON, a night of conversation and music. I’ll be talking with writer Daryl Easlea and signing copies of my Madonna book.
  • Lo fi duo Radio Rubbish will be playing a live set ‘tackling the most ambitious Madonna pop epics with as few instruments as possible’!

7.30pm; Poetry Café, Betterton Street, London WC2H 9BX.

Tickets £6 advance from Eventbrite.co.uk (LIKE AN ICON) https://www.facebook.com/events/2252985441397250/

AofA People: Hilary Lewin – Arvigo Teacher & Therapist


2 Minute Read

What is your name?  

Hilary Lewin

Briefly sum up who you are and what motivates you. 

A big footed, down to earth beauty who is motivated by almost anything in the short term but my passion is my work in the long term.

If you have a job, what do you do for a living? 

An International Arvigo® Teacher and Therapist. A bodyworker with my main focus on the abdomen and all it contains emotionally and physically. Wombs are my world.

How long have you been doing this? 

Bodyworker 28 years, Arvigo® Therapist coming on 15.

What do you find most satisfying about your job?

Meeting amazing people and getting to travel as an older woman which I did not have time to do as a youngster.

Is your work primarily a means to an end ie money, or the motivating force of your life? 

Very much about making money to pay my bills, modest as my lifestyle is but it is also a massive motivating force which I am immensely proud of.

When you were 8, what did you want to be when you grew up? 

I have no idea…some kind of performer.

Did you get there – and if not, are you happy/sad that you didn’t? 

I think I am pretty content with the way things are working out. Can’t say I have ever been that good at looking ahead but there is very much a performance aspect to teaching.

What is your dream job? 

Very much the one I have.

If UK-based, are you glad, indifferent or disappointed that the official pension age is rising? 

As a woman with no pension, it makes no difference to me but I actually think men and women should share the same pensionable age if only they could share the same salaries for the same jobs. Seeing as that is still not the case then it’s yet another raw deal for women in the workforce.

Culture Interview with author of The Ethical Slut, Janet W Hardy.


1 Minute Read

Janet W. Hardy is a provocative American sex educator and one of the leading authors and publishers on alternative sexualities including BDSM, polyamory and alternative gender/orientation expression. Author of ten books, including her notorious and groundbreaking guide to polyamory and open relationships The Ethical Slut: A Guide to Infinite Sexual Possibilities (co-authored with Dossie Easton), Hardy has been one of the most infectious and compelling voices of consensual non-monogamy and the pursuit of (ethical) pleasure for more than twenty years.

She is doing a talk in London on Oct 3rd. You can purchase a ticket here.

We’re called Advantages of Age and we’re hopefully challenging media stereotypes around ageing, do you see this pursuit as relevant to you and your work? Could you tell us how old you are?

I’m 63, due to turn 64 in February. Not quite old-old, but not really middle-aged anymore either.

Your new book is called Impervious – Confessions of a Semi-Retired Deviant – so we were wondering what you are still up to as a deviant?

I think of myself as a “deviant emeritus” – with all the knowledge and experience I acquired over three decades of exploring alternative erotic behaviors, gender expressions and relationship structures, but not very actively involved in any of them anymore – hence “semi-retired.”

Could you let us into a few juicy interludes that you have included? Why did you want to write this memoir?

I wanted to write it for a few reasons. First, because I think any one individual’s personal experience of kink gives a very different perspective on kink as a whole than can be gleaned by a media-filtered overview. Second, because I don’t think enough has been written about kink as an ecstatic experience, and for me, that’s by far the most important aspect of BDSM. Third, because it’s fun to write a smutty graphic recounting of some of the amazing experiences I’ve had through the years.

 Some of my favorite chapters of the book include one about an encounter in which a group of women spent an evening preparing a very small woman to be fisted for the first time by her very large husband; one about an encounter where my partner and I broke the common BDSM rule about “never play while angry,” and one about agreeing to become a substitute disciplinarian for a dominant who was out of the country and could not properly chastise his slave.

You and Dossie Easton wrote Ethical Slut over 10 years ago, why did you use the word slut and has it served the cause?

Actually, the first edition was published in 1997, so that’s upwards of 20 years now. In the beginning, we were calling it “The Ethical Slut” as a working title, kind of a joke between us – it was a phrase Dossie had invented, but we never thought we’d actually publish under that title. But as we tried to come up with something more socially acceptable, all we could find were horrible clunky textbook-sounding things like “Multiple Loving for the Coming Millennium,” blargh. Finally, we had to get our cover designer started, and we really couldn’t think of another title than “The Ethical Slut,” and some friends encouraged us to go for it, so we did. And it turned out to be a brilliant move. I think we helped jumpstart a whole new part of the sex-positive movement, one in which people of any age, gender or orientation can claim the title “slut” with pride.

Is society catching up with you now? How do you view polyamory and pansexuality now? Has your attitude towards polyamory changed?

My attitude hasn’t changed at all – I think polyamory is one of many excellent ways to manage a relationship, and that any relationship style that works for the people in the relationship is great. But there’s no question that polyamory is far more broadly understood and more socially acceptable than it was in 1997. There was a Newsweek cover, there was a reality series, there have been uncountable newspaper and magazine articles, podcasts, etc. 

I do want to note, however, that pansexuality and polyamory are not the same thing. Pansexuality is a retooling of “bisexuality” for people who believe that bisexuality implies only two genders (it doesn’t). Polyamorous people can be hetero, bi, pan, ace, gay, or any other sexual identity.

I guess the Metoo campaign has made ethical all the more important?

I think what #metoo has done is brought to the forefront a very long-overdue conversation about the nature of sexual consent – and that’s a conversation that’s changing shape almost daily. Poly people do not have a monopoly on ethical sexuality. Everyone, whether they identify as monogamous, poly or something else, has to consider the ramifications of their sexual and romantic behaviors, which must be respectful, consent-aware, honest and growth-oriented in order to be considered ethical.

Polyamory is difficult to do – jealousy has to be dealt with – but do you think it’s easier for older people?

I don’t really have an opinion on that. On one hand, older people are often more comfortable with who we are as individuals, with less need to seek out romantic partnerships in order to feel whole. But older people got indoctrinated into normative monogamy at a very early age, and may have to work harder to overcome that conditioning. Younger people these days are likelier to enter the sexual/romantic arena with more sense of what possibilities are out there, but they may not have as much self-awareness as older folks, and self-awareness is essential to ethical poly.

Are you in a non-traditional marriage?

Sure am! My spouse and I are both genderqueer, bisexual and kinky, none of which makes us all that non-traditional in the groups we run in. However, we have never had sexual intercourse, and we no longer have any form of genital sex, which is still pretty non-traditional, even among our perverted friends.

How has ageing affected your desires on the BDSM and leather front?

My libido is certainly not what it once was, but it’s still very present. However, I rarely-to-never feel the desire to indulge it with anybody but myself. I still do the very occasional BDSM scene, either as part of a lecture/demonstration or with an old and beloved friend, but the hunger that sent me to play parties every weekend and play dates once or twice a week is not part of my life anymore, and I find I rarely miss it much.

What do you see as the possibilities re ageing and sexuality?

I think the work being done in alternative sexuality toward creating forms of sex that are not predicated on penetrative intercourse (we sex educators call this “outercourse”) has the potential to be extremely helpful for older folks who still want the excitement and connection of sex. Penetrative stuff can very often be problematic with older bodies – penises refuse to get or stay stiff, vaginas get stubborn about lubricating. But outercourse can be fun for anyone.

I see you have also been into tantra and full body orgasms?

Yes. When my coauthor Dossie and I were researching our book “Radical Ecstasy: S/M Journeys in Transcendence,” we took many tantra classes together and had some astonishing experiences. While I don’t think full-body orgasms scratch exactly the same itch as genital orgasms, I also believe in having lots of arrows in my quiver, so I like doing some of each!

Are you still working with Dossie Easton? I was intrigued by the scenes that you two set up together when you’re writing about sexuality.

We don’t have any new books in process – we don’t have anything that urgently needs saying right now, but if that changes, we’ll definitely be back at our keyboards. 

Our scenes together have always been part of our process as writers. If there’s an issue on which we need clarity, we create a scene to explore it together. I don’t think I can recommend our technique to all coauthors, but it’s worked pretty well for us for thirty years now.

Are we making progress re openness and sexuality as a society, do you think?

Right now, depressingly enough, we’re in the midst of a sex panic – finding ways to talk about important sexual information is more challenging right now than I think it’s been since the Internet started enabling people to share information about sex. But I don’t think the genie of good sex information is going to go back into the bottle. There is a lot more information about sexuality than there was when I was young – I was pushing 30 by the time I figured out that I wasn’t the only person in the world who got turned on thinking about spanking, and it’s hard to imagine that happening now. But the more forthright and informative sex information becomes, the greater the pushback against it from conservative forces who want to restrict sex to a very narrow form of expression (married/heterosexual/fertile/etc.).

What’s important to you now re sexuality and desire?

Self-awareness, access to information and tools (any older person who does not have a bottle of lube on their nightstand is missing out on a lot), fighting back against shame and oppression.

What mistakes have you made on the relationship front and where have they led you?

I am by nature a caretaker, and that’s led me down some unfortunate paths. I don’t think I get to stop being a caretaker in this lifetime, but I have gotten better about distinguishing between caretaking and codependency, and at looking for relationships where my caretaking is met with appreciation and echoed by someone who wants to take care of me too.

Can we be old and bold on the sexuality and relationship front? And what does that look like for you?

The best thing about being old, as far as I can see, is getting over caring what strangers think of you (aka “having no fucks left to give”). I fear that many older people avoid being overtly sexual because they think they’ll look ridiculous. And what I think about that is, who cares? If you feel hot, and you look hot to the person you’re in bed with, what some twentysomething thinks of you is the least relevant issue imaginable.

For me, this plays out as a lot of experimentation with gender signifiers, and a lot of thinking and discussing the possibilities within our grasp when we let go of conventional thinking about questions like “What is sex?” “What does it mean to be female?” “What do we actually need from relationships?”

A Breath Before Sixty


1 Minute Read

My hair is grey.

I return from my hairdresser having had the last bits of colour chopped out.  I’m now sporting a choppy, silver and pepper pot, topknot, not entirely dissimilar from my beloved dog.

I don’t fully understand the impulse to grow out the colour, which had me ditch the hair dye in April. I knew it was related to my sixtieth birthday, which is now a mere two weeks away. I wanted to see my hair. I had been using colour for fifteen years, ever since my hairline started to grey.

It wasn’t anything clichéd about aging and grey hair, that drove this. It hasn’t been comfortable at some points during the process, seeing the half in, half out thing going on, on a daily basis. Now I’m here. My hair is grey and I’m surprised by the strength of my feeling. Oh. I say to myself in the bathroom mirror. Hello.

I limp and lurch towards my ‘big birthday’ not only as a metaphor, but literally, as I’m long overdue for back surgery. Limping and lurching is what I do – though, my bulging discs notwithstanding – it is a blessed relief to understand that stumbling, staggering and lurching, is the human condition of our little lives. My own little life has become much sweeter, since giving up on getting life right.

Sixty.

Caroline Bobby by Elainea Emmott
Caroline Bobby by Elainea Emmott

The shoreline. The beginning of being old: to my way of seeing it, anyway. No, I am not the new forty. I am not still middle aged. I am averse to ageing euphemisms.

My mother died, just days after her sixtieth birthday. She was bitterness and sorrow as an art form, and I never really understood how that came to pass. I was on the other side of the world, caught up in my own version of sorrow and bewilderment. We were estranged for years. Her death coincided – although I wasn’t to know it for quite some time – with the death rattle of my addiction. No coincidence. I was so nearly dead myself, on my knees in the shadows of Sydney’s yellowest sun. My mother died and I stayed alive.

Thirty years ago: half my little life ago.  And, here I am with my grey hair, having somehow descended into tenderness. I wish my mother and I had had more time together, an opportunity to see if there was any other way to dance our dance. It was a brutal dance and I needed kindness like a desert landscape needs water. I nearly died of thirst. I believe that is exactly what she died of – she was latched on to the breast of death, and didn’t ever get to know there was another place to drink from.

Twenty years ago, when I was in therapy and starting to interpret past events, I went to the graveyard on the edge of Dartmoor where she’s buried and lay down on her grave. It was a pilgrimage of sorts, though I was making it up as I went along. I didn’t know what I was doing or why, but I managed to trust the imperative. If it were physically easier (those discs again), I’d go back there now to lie on the ground that holds her body. A mother and daughter, with a hundred and twenty years between them: thirty of them in this world at the same time.

This turning a new decade, it has some juice. As an exquisitely understated friend of mine would say – ‘it’s not nothing’.

Credit: Elainea Emmott
Credit: Elainea Emmott

I don’t have any recollection of reaching ten except for a tiny, waft of unease. Neither do I remember a twentieth birthday, which was undoubtedly due to drugs and alcohol. Turning thirty was the milestone of my life. I don’t remember anything at all with my conscious mind, but almost dead from self-hatred and drugs, I finally turned my face towards this human world.

Ten years later, I celebrated becoming forty around a table with friends. I had a profession: psychotherapy, and a partner. I was trying to force myself into an idea of myself and it was only a partial success.

By fifty, I had escaped the partial partnership and some internalized constraint. I had found and then lost again, the love of my life and the daughter we called in. I had a proper party with catering and dancing and wore a sea green dress. It seems so long ago.

Sixty.

With a light, yet serious touch, I’ve dedicated a few ritual acts of love and kindness towards this birthday. In May, I went on a pilgrimage to Hydra, the Greek island where Leonard Cohen lived, wrote and loved. More recently, I commissioned a photo shoot. At home with Leonard The Dog and Bebe The Cat. Family life. Love.

Credit: Elainea Emmott

And, it was not nothing – to see the sweetness and comedy I live inside, from the outside.

These last ten years I have been winding myself home. Many things I’d thought I needed, turned out not to matter much. I found the Fields of Kindness and Simplicity. I discovered they had been here all the time. I had been here all the time.

I wonder what the next decade of me, and of this wailing world will be. I’m viewing my personal next decade through the lens of no real appetite for more than that. My sense of having the capacity for another ten years, but not much more, is clear as a mountain stream. No drama. Nothing complicated or ambivalent. Just its ring of truth. And, of course I know ideas, beliefs and passions change, so I’m not gripping on too tightly.

I am trusting my own precious heart. If this is my last decade, I’ll do the very best I can with it.

If you are wondering about why a person might ‘only have another decade to give or to live’, I can only say I’m very tired. I’ve been tired all my life. Living with depression is tiring. I’ve been dragging myself through the days of my life, and while I finally fell from the self-violence that came down through my mother’s line, into something like Grace, it will always be heavy. Dragging the heavy is wearing and I am worn.

The thing is, all of this is gentle. I did, eventually get home to that precious heart I mentioned. The fact that it took a long time, and that in many ways I’m ready to go now, just makes me smile. Maybe I’ll make it to seventy. Maybe I won’t. If I do, and still feel like this, I’ll be writing about ending my life. If I get to seventy and don’t feel like this, I’ll be writing about that instead.

Depression and weary aside, I know I don’t want to be old, old. Seventy feels doable. More than that feels dangerous. We don’t hold old age with compassion and respect in these broken systems of our government. I am crystal clear I don’t want to spend my last years in that system. Unequivocally not.

So, here I am, stumbling sweetly towards my sixtieth birthday, which incidentally I’m celebrating by going on a Death Retreat. I tell people, and they mostly grin at the perfect pitch of it. So very me, and so very lovely to be seen and understood in my deepest longings.

As Leonard (Cohen)would say:

And here is your love
For all things.

And here is your love
For all of this

May everyone live,
And may everyone die.
Hello, my love,
And my love, Goodbye.

Menopause and Mining your Diamond


1 Minute Read

Today we do not expect young Western women to start their periods without education yet many women find themselves approaching Menopause with no idea of what is happening, unsure where to turn, hiding symptoms and feelings to their own detriment and to the detriment of those around them.

If we look at the baby boomers, we were the first generation of women to have clear access to our own bank accounts, birth control, divorce, university education and so much more. We are the mothers who have hopefully taught our daughters not to be ashamed of their bodies and menstruation. We are the women who have fought for rights that allow us to access sexual health services, equal pay and we still have work to do.

Now it is the time to shine the light on Menopause and equally important perimenopause. Menopause is the time when a woman has not bleed for an entire year. The peri-menopause can be anything from one or two years before this event or even as much as ten years prior to that last bleed.

Perimenopause for some women is a walk in the park but for others, it can be a roller coaster with maybe only one or two symptoms but sometimes many more.

There are at least 35 symptoms to ‘choose’ from and it is possible that you will experience at the minimum a couple. To understand what is happening to our bodies we need to be able to recognise that perimenopause is a rite of passage, it is normal and when given access to the right information we can make this a transition to celebrate.

It is only now that we are growing in numbers that we are able to challenge attitudes such as this:

A menopausal woman is ‘an unstable oestrogen starved’ woman who is responsible for ‘untold misery of alcoholism, drug addiction, divorce and broken homes’
Brooklyn GYN Robert Wilson 1966

So if this was the general attitude in the 60’s and 70’s when our mothers or Grandmothers were hitting menopause how are things changing today?

Today the wonderful news is, just like menstruation, we are starting to talk about it in mixed circles, at work, with our girlfriends, in front of our children.

No need to fan ourselves discretely, we can name it, it’s called a ‘hot flush’ and yes we are sleeping with the bedroom window open in the middle of winter and no we are not ‘fading’ or going into the ‘good night’ gently. We are wearing what we want, embracing our silver hair, we are starting new careers, we are celebrating our wisdom and most of all we are talking about that once taboo subject and making it a passage worth celebration.

However, before that can happen for all women there is still a lot of work to be done and as ‘Elders’ we have a duty to own this time and reframe it so those younger women coming behind us can have a healthy attitude to ageing and embrace the wisdom that comes with the territory.

As we menopause, our womb shrinks to an almost prepubescent size. During our menstrual years amongst the many and varied services our uterus provides, is a service of elimination. Not just of womb lining but of toxins from our body which is only one of the reasons why the quality of our bleed will change from month to month.

Once menopaused we are no longer bleeding so it makes perfect sense for the uterus to shrink down and thus leave no space for toxins to accumulate. This is part of the process of perimenopause and comes with changing hormones, changing feelings, changing body shape and changing needs.

This is a time when we may not recognise our selves and it may be equally difficult for those around us to recognise us too.

This is a time for us to retreat and spend time doing things for ourselves, to ask our selves questions we have not had space to dream of until now. This is a time to change our priorities, to create space just for our selves, just because we can.

If we allow ourselves the sacred space of retreat we will unearth what it is we need, we will dig up our old dreams, the ones that got forgotten in the rush to adulthood and responsibilities of life.

Diamonds are created in the earth by intense heat and pressure and so it is with our wombs. Intense heat and pressure, the compression of our uterus, the opportunity for change give us a diamond of our own. A bright shining light right in our centre which can be a light to shine for all those women coming behind us, a light to shine for those who can recognise it and a brilliance to illuminate our own lives each and every day.

If you would like to know more about my work you may enjoy my workshop. For more information take a look at www.hilarylewin.com, find me on Facebook or sign up on Eventbrite here – Menopause Mining For Diamonds

AofA interview: Topaz Chanteuse – Performer, Singer


6 Minute Read

In 2017, Suzanne and I were in NYC and we thought we’d do a Flamboyant Tour of the Subway there. Not many ‘flamboyants’ turned up but Topaz Chanteuse capped us all with her purple and black feather headpiece to die for and matching vividly mauve hair. 84-year-old Topaz rapidly turned into our AoA poster woman. She is so funky and so out there, she decorates her walker with tinsel. She retired when she was 62 from the 9-5 world and she’s always been a singer and performer. And she’s still performing.

This July Suzanne was visiting once more and we were determined to get Topaz on tape. Here she is in all her magnificence.

Suzanne: So you’ve had a quite a life so far.

Topaz: Yeah, I think I’ve had three lives actually so far.

Suzanne: Do you think that everybody should have three lives?

Topaz: Oh it worked for me, I highly recommended it but I don’t know if everyone can do it. You have to be very adventuresome, you have to be willing to leave a marriage if it’s not working which is what I did at 45. So many women stay married and they’re both miserable and it makes no sense.

Suzanne: Men as well. It’s funny because we just posted an article about a woman who went out with lots of married men, most of whom were long-term married. I think that 90% of what stops people from having adventurous lives or doing what they want is just fear.

Topaz: Fear of the unknown, fear of trying a different ethnic group; I had a black period (only black men) for about 15 years and I thought I’d never go back and then I met a nice white Jewish guy in Jamaica. I used to go to Jamaica every summer on my vacation to meet black men and I met a nice white Jewish guy with dreadlocks instead. We had the greatest sex. That was my turning point that started another life. I think I may have had four lives.

Suzanne: So did you always live in New York?

Topaz: I was born in the Bronx, grew up in Brooklyn (my parents moved there when I was an infant) and couldn’t wait to get out of New York…out of Brooklyn and move to New York the city so I got married and we moved to New York right away. I’ve been here ever since.

Suzanne: So you were here in the 70s when there were the leather bars. I never went to Plato’s retreat but it was one of those places you had to go. My  younger self used to think that looks really fun but scary.

Topaz:  Now I did go to Plato’s because I was divorced by then. It was very nice until I was there with my then-boyfriend and I still remember and we swam in this pool where everybody was f****** and then we stayed so late the lights went up and we saw how filthy the place was. The pool, in particular, was so scummy and disgusting so I never went back, only once and for me, it was a nightmare. I loved the whole experience until the lights went up and then it was really bad.

Suzanne: I missed all of that, the last time I was here Rose and I went and a met a photographer that goes around the meatpacking district and shows you all those clubs and tells you intimate information about what went on. That was great and again I just felt like wow there was a period in New York where there was so much going on.

Topaz: Exactly, pre-AIDS and I was single again during that period so it couldn’t have been better. I was out looking for Mr. Goodbar almost every night – going to the bars, bringing guys home.  How I didn’t get killed, murdered, raped I don’t know. I am such a survivor I can’t believe it. I got ripped off a couple of times, you take a stranger home from a bar and you’re f****** him and then in the morning, several of my rings had gone which I left on the night table stupidly.

Suzanne: So you were married to a guy and it was like a very vanilla, very traditional kind of marriage and then there was a part of you that just got really bored of all of that and just decided that you were going to go out and explore.

Can you remember your first foray into that unknown, did you ever do for instance the Village Voice Personals?

Topaz: The very first thing I did when I left my marriage was to hang out with my best friend who was gay. This gay guy whom my husband hated and was jealous of. I said I just left my husband and he said: “Oh fantastic, come on over I’ve got a bottle of bubbly on ice; come on over.” and I went over and celebrated and from then on I became a total fag hag.

It was the summer and I went out to Fire Island and spent all my weekends there whenever I could go. I was working then so it would be on the weekends I’d go to Fire Island and dance at all the gay clubs plus sniffing that stuff, amyl nitrate (poppers). We would do poppers on the dance floor and then I would always manage to find a straight guy even on Fire Island in the Pines which was like 99% gay.

I would find a straight guy and we make out and he’d be living with another guy; once the other guy joined us so they were doing each other while he was doing me and crazy stuff. That was my first step; my transition was hanging out with gay guys, going to the gay beach and going topless. I had to learn to go topless because, before that, I would get undressed in the closet even when I was married. I don’t think he ever saw me naked, I was so ashamed of my body. So I went topless and that was such a liberating thing because from there I started going to straight parts on Fire Island and I would find a nude beach and go there and go topless and I’d meet guys. I picked up guys everywhere I went. I picked up a guy on the bus once I remember.

Suzanne: How do you feel now at 84? You’re amazing.

Topaz: Much of my focus on having fun, staying active, relevant and positive as I grow older, and inspiring others to do the same. I recently appeared in a multi-generational show – What Tammy Needs to Know about Getting Old and Having Sex. The only word I would change in that title is old. I prefer to get older rather than old. Some steps I’ve taken to make that happen include – dying my hair purple, modelling Lola’s Cargo Pants and also in the nude covered in temporary tattoos in an ad for Tattly Tattoos. My motto is – Age is the New Black.

Go, Topaz, go…

Why I Wrote a One Woman Show about Ageism!


1 Minute Read

When I entered my sixth decade, I started feeling like I had entered a new universe. People began talking to me differently. “Are you retired? Are you still working?” People at a previous job were mostly in their 20s, and I was older than their parents. Weird. One day you wake up and it’s a new reality. Maybe I have more wrinkles, brown spots? I must look different! In my thinking, I don’t feel any different. I had a job that was awful, and I came home one day very exhausted, more tired than ever, and I began writing this show about ageism in America, and my experience being a ‘senior’ in our youth-driven USA culture.

It’s also harder to be an ‘older’ woman in our society. It may be better or worse in the UK. I am not saying it’s easy for men either, but there is more bias against us women. Men are ‘distinguished’ while women are judged on how young they look again and again. Hence the cosmetic surgery industry and so much more. Times are changing though. Through writing my show about ageism in America, I started meeting women who shared the aim to shift perceptions about aging and who realize we are no longer want to be in the youth club.

Advantages of Age | The Advantages of Age

I had never written a one-woman show. I had been performing a one-woman improv, interactive show for decades promoting designer hats that I created, and would sell them at the end. After a while, women’s clubs, senior homes, and charity events would book me to perform. I wore outrageous outfits and featured my hats as the art. I was previously a wardrobe stylist for print ads and billboards. I did costumes for a film, and the whole time, one of the actors said I should be in front of the camera, not behind it, and I could just get up and talk and everyone would laugh. After that summer, I took a comedy class in Manhattan. I went on to do stand-up comedy which led to studying to be a milliner.

Hat making was wonderful, but I needed to still perform, so I created a hat performance which is part of my one-woman show, Ageless Wonders.

Years later, on my dad’s deathbed, he gave me a big grin. That smile changed my life for the better. He rarely smiled, as he had experienced a tragic childhood. I was inspired to start a movement about the healing power of a genuine smile. The Smile Revolution was born. I started a blog, had a radio show with celebrity guests, like Pete Seeger, Richie Havens, Arlo Guthrie, Buffy St. Marie and more. My waistband (ex-husband), Roland Mousaa, introduced me to them and worked with them. He and I wrote a series of smile songs that we sing in my new show.

After my radio show ended, I was developing a tv show to promote The Smile Revolution. Nothing was working out. I went to Los Angeles, and saw my actor friends who said, “Why don’t you do a one-woman show, and here’s a coach?” I immediately contacted Jessica Lynn Johnson, an award-winning Best National Solo Artist, and Director of Solo Shows. I could never have written and performed this play without her direction and guidance. I started writing a show about my childhood, but after a few months, I paused as it felt really hard.

After nine months ( like giving birth!), I was working at a job that I hated, and one night when I was tired out, I started writing my new show. It’s been a tremendous amount of work and financial investment, but it’s been the most rewarding experience of my life. I feel fulfilled and happy, yet stressed at times too!

My show has a metaphysical twist to it, which gives others hope, and a new perception of ageing.

In my show, I speak directly to the audience sharing personal stories as well as inspiring stories about aging that help shift perceptions, mainly for women, since its harder for us in the U.S.A. I do an interactive ‘Hat Parade” with my designer hats, sing original smile songs with my was-band, ex-husband, Roland Mousaa, promoting the healing power of a simple smile. I interviewed in a 2-minute video, Anthony Mancinelli, who at 107 has been cutting hair for 95 years, works full time, and drives. He is a true “Ageless Wonders” and knew he would inspire my audience to realize they are not old!

Professional Reviews:

“Mindy is a wonderful, living, work of art.” Nohoartsdistrict.com

“Mindy is zippy, zesty, and full of life!” Bonnie Priever, Curtain Up

“She leaves the smiles and laughter for keeps.” Paul Smart, Woodstock Times

www.mindyfradkin.com

@agelesswonderstheshow on Instagram

twitter @ageless_wonders

facebook.com/princesswow

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