This 100-Year-Old Sex Therapist Is Just as Wise, Awesome as You'd Hope

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Sex is totally different now, because we are different, except it's really not different at all, because it's still just sex and we are still (mostly) humans. This is precisely what you'd hope and expect any 100-year-old, still-practicing sex therapist to confirm for you in her own delightful way.


Her name is Dr. Shirley Zussman, and she is a sex therapist in New York City, and she just turned 100, and she is super interesting. From a piece over at Time from Charlotte Alter on Zussman's thoughts on sex, we learn:

She's one of the oldest sex therapists in the world, but that might be the least extraordinary thing about her life and career. Born at the beginning of World War I, she graduated from Smith college in 1934, in the same class as Julia Child. Zussman was mentored through her graduate dissertation by Margaret Mead, and in the 1960s learned about sex therapy from Masters and Johnson, the inspiration for the Showtime series Masters of Sex. Her husband, a gynecologist, performed one of the first legal abortions in New York.

Also, there is this cool photo of her back in the day, being cool:

Image for article titled This 100-Year-Old Sex Therapist Is Just as Wise, Awesome as You'd Hope

Think about it: Zussman has been helping people with their hot sex probs (or probably more likely, cold sex probs) for over 50 years (since just after the Pill was legalized!), and has that highly appealing no-nonsense intelligence and warmth that all good sex therapists should have. In the interview, she reveals her thoughts on doing it over the decades, and it's charming and informative. To wit:

Modern sex isn't as "frantic" as it was back in the day, i.e., "The Sixties."

"I don't think it's as frantic as casual sex was in the sixties," she says, noting that modern 'hooking up' isn't as exciting without the context of a sexual revolution.


While I would probably never associate the word frantic with sex — I get frantic when I have to dash back inside for sunscreen for my 4-year-old and am running late — who am I to say what doin' it was like when hippies were first-wave cool.

She elaborates on the whole "frantic" thing later in the interview, though:

"I think there's a big change in the way we view casual sex. In the 60s it wasn't just casual—it was frantic. It was something you expected to happen to you, you wanted it to happen, it was sort of a mad pursuit of sexual pleasure.


Again, the idea of everyone running around trying to get sex frantically reminds me of some madcap 60s sex comedy of errors, where someone accidentally ends up in bed with a horse. Perhaps she just means urgent, as in, gotta have it right now. The problem is, now we are too busy to be getting it on.

"Desire requires a certain amount of energy."

And effort! But it's not our fault. Zussman says:

The use of time is very different in our society today. People are busy all the time. That was not true when I was growing up. At this stage of our development, we want to cover everything, we want to know everything, we want to do everything, and there's also [our personal] economy which requires an immense amount of time and effort…There is a limit to how much energy and desire and time you can give to one person when there is all this pressure make more money, to be the CEO, to buy a summer house, people want more and more and more. Desire requires a certain amount of energy.


But people are more open about sex now.

Zussman remembers that there used to be a big stigma about admitting you needed help with your sex life, perhaps because people didn't feel like they should need to be told how to have sex. Zussman thinks that stigma is gone now, something she attributes to a lot of cultural changes over the years:

There was the development of the pill, women were freer to let not worry so much about getting pregnant, there was every magazine and TV program talking about sex, there was every advertisement using sex to sell their product. There was an overwhelming immersion in the whole idea of getting more pleasure out of sex. It was not just about having babies.


Masters and Johnson really put the limelight on communication as an integral part of good sex.

…it was not all just glamorous and wonderful to be sexual, but that one almost had to learn to be a good partner…Their way of communicating was one of their greatest contributions, and that was not to talk so much about it, but to start with touching and caressing and stroking and kissing, and not rush for that golden bell in the middle of the carousel.


Golden bell in the middle of the carousel! Delightful! Love it! Hearts!

Zussman has that old-lady moxie I hope is magically bestowed on all women at age 75.


See above, but also:

I went to the preview party [of the show Masters of Sex] and met some of the actors in it. I was introduced to Michael Sheen, and he knew that I had known Masters and Johnson, so he said 'tell me, how do you think I'm representing him?' I said, 'I think you're doing a pretty good job, but there's a major difference.' He said, 'what's that?' I said, 'you're handsome.'



Casual sex, sixties-style, was not sustainable in the long run.

I think what was expected of casual sex – frantic sex– was something that didn't deliver. Because in the long run, sexual pleasure is just one part of what men and women want from each other. They want intimacy, they want closeness, they want understanding, they want fun, and they want someone who really cares about them beyond just going to bed with them.


Going to bed with them! Delightful!

But again — it's not as "frantic" anymore.

I think hooking up includes some aspect of the kind of sex we were just talking about, but in a very much modified, and limited way. It's not as frantic.


Come on people, let's not let the Boomers out-sex us.

Nobody talked about oral sex in her generation.

Or her mother's. Or your mother's. And that is sad.

There's nothing new about pornography.

Eh, has she heard about rosebudding, cuz, uh… I mean, yeah, I know what she means. And it is different in the sense that it's a more commonly isolating thing for people now than it likely was when it was less ubiquitous, which she notes:

I think that's a healthy thing that people have the ability and the freedom to allow themselves to fantasize. But I have a number of patients who sit in front of the computer and watch pornography online, and somehow lose interest in seeking a partner.


Getting old doesn't mean you don't still have the sex!

Just like now, you have to still make an effort to get laid. At least a tiny little effort, ok? And when you're older, maybe a tiny bit more effort?

We've been brainwashed to think that we all become couch potatoes when we're old. You have to have expectations of yourself! You can make friends in many different ways, but you have to make the effort. You can't say 'oh , all my friends died,' or 'they're sick,' or 'they don't want to do what I want to do.'


People still need to be touched.

Cellphones are great and all, but Zussman says she's "shocked at the lack of connection between people" because of them.

People get pleasure from looking at each other. From a smile, and touching. We need touching to make us feel wanted and loved. That's lacking so much in this generation.


Seriously: You got one life. Now get out there and touch someone. Frantically.

Illustration by Jim Cooke.



Does anyone out there remember Sue Johanson? When I was in university, we would all congregate on Sunday nights to watch her sex advice show. Absolutely brilliant. This article reminded me of her.