For many of the Carson residents who gathered last week for the most recent in a series of senior citizen lectures, the presentation brought a discussion of something they had never discussed.
Not in public. Indeed, not in an open forum.
But what the Carson audience of 27 may have lacked in past discourse, speaker Cora Cocks compensated for in unabashed candor.
"I've been thinking about sex for a long time," announced the spry, 81-year-old Cocks, who discussed "Sex After 60" as part of a lecture series sponsored by the City of Carson Friendly Visitor Program.
"I don't think you ever have to stop thinking about sex," said Cocks, a senior citizen activist from Long Beach. "If sex isn't for you, that's OK. But if it is, I don't think you should let anyone laugh you out of it."
Instead, Cocks made fun of examples of what she believes are society's typical misperceptions about sex among the elderly ("They get a lot of fun out of it this way, and I love it; I'm a ham") .
"I saw a (greeting) card once about sex after 60," she said. "It said 'Sex After 60' on the front. Inside, it was blank."
Cocks told the audience of an elderly couple, Henry and Martha, who were married as senior citizens. After the wedding, the couple stole away to a hotel, where Henry swept Martha off her feet and carried her up a lengthy stairway.
"The woman asked, 'Am I too heavy for you, Henry?' And he replied, 'No, Martha, but I can't remember what I'm going upstairs for.' "
There also was the time nine years ago, Cocks recalled, when she had what she called a "rare opportunity" to speak with a group of junior high school students about sex.
One rather embarrassed student, age 12, raised her hand midway through Cocks' presentation. "She asked me, 'How old are you when you quit being horny?' "
Quipped Cocks, "I told her, 'I don't know. I'm only 72.' "
Despite long-cherished myths about senior sex, Cocks said, attitudes are slowly beginning to change. She said that throughout the six years that she has lectured on sex after 60--during which her nationally televised appearances have included spots on "The Phil Donahue Show," "Hour Magazine" and "Over Easy"--the topic has become increasingly acceptable.
"When I first started talking about it, people were shocked (but) old people are coming out of the closet now," Cocks said. For example, she pointed out, about 18,000 elderly people are unmarried but living together--"and they're not playing chess."
Asked a woman in the attentive but reserved audience, "Does that 18,000 figure refer only to the Long Beach area?"
'No, that's for all over (the United States)--but that leaves you room," Cocks shot back, later admitting that she sometimes "gets in trouble" for her outspoken views. (A minister once told her, she said, that she nearly caused a woman to faint when she mentioned the word orgasm during a church-sponsored appearance.)
Cocks works with numerous social service groups, including the Long Beach Food Bank, the Long Beach Council of Seniors, the Long Beach Advisory Commission on Aging, the Senior Care Action Network and the United Way Planning Committee. She has also served as a member of the state Commission on Aging, which she headed for two years.
Her work experiences, she said, have helped her to identify what she considers the major problems people face in continuing to enjoy sex as they age. Those problems, Cocks said, can be traced to such factors as the attitudes of their children and doctors, senior citizens' illnesses, fear of impotence and lack of elderly partners.
All to which she has an abundance of rebuttals.
Sexual intercourse, for example, prompts the release of cortisone in the blood stream, says Cocks, who was married for 51 years before her husband died in 1975. The flow of cortisone helps to relieve symptoms of arthritis, she said.
"So if you know someone who has arthritis," she said, "tell them that you know something that will help them. . . . There's some compensation for everything."
As to the concern that sex may lead to a heart attack, Cocks told the audience to fear no more. "Doctors say that if you can walk up a flight of stairs with no problems, or walk two blocks, you aren't in any threat of danger when you have intercourse."
Also, she said, "sex helps to relieve tension."
Cocks, who says she launched Long Beach's first family planning clinic and ran it for 11 years, concedes that illness or age may affect the frequency of sexual intercourse. She adds, however, "When you get older you don't eat as much candy as you used to, but it still tastes as good."
As for sexual performance, Cocks maintains, "Sex might take a little longer when you get older--but getting there is half the fun."
And on a more personal note, the mother of two and grandmother of six reminded that "sex is more than just intercourse. It's loving and caring. Emotions don't get gray hairs and wrinkles."
Indeed, many in Cocks' audience, most of whom were women, later said that they enjoyed the discussion. (No one, however, ventured to ask questions or discuss her views during the formal question-and-answer session.)
"I think the aged should feel free to express their feelings sexually," said Gladys Butler, 60.
Agreed Al Zehrung, 77, "I think sex is something that should be done more among the older people. The younger people are doing it; why not the older people?"
Others, though, were only half convinced.
"I enjoyed the part about aging; she has a very positive attitude," said 70-year-old Alberta Gain. "The sexual part I could leave. . . . It didn't arouse my curiosity or thinking."
To each his own, Cocks maintains.
She recalled an elderly couple who met while living in a nursing home. One day, Cocks said, a nurse found the couple in bed together and, upset by what she saw, requested advice from the director of the facility.
"He told her, 'Tiptoe out of the room and quietly shut the door,' " Cocks said.
She added, "I'm not urging people to have sex if they're not interested. I'm just urging people to be natural and to be human, and not be apologetic for still wanting to have sex. . . . My feeling is that you should always give yourself permission to be a whole person."