Adam Weymouth shadows performance artist Tammy Whynot as she tours the UK with her latest show, What Tammy Needs To Know About Getting Old and Having Sex.
As the lights come up, Tammy WhyNot (Lois Weaver) is sat at the front of the stage, dressed in a boiler-suit, melancholic. Now in her sixties, she confides, she’s been finding her urges just aren’t what they used to be. “I used to think I’d always be like one of those Duracell bunnies, hopping from bed to bed,” she sighs. “I thought I’d be doing it on my deathbed. But these days, I just don’t feel like it.”
Then the country kicks in, a pulsing bass line, and Tammy slips out of her boiler suit and into sequins. She is planning her comeback album, she tells us. It’s going to be about sex and getting old, and she needs to do some research. Why the taboo around sex and age? Why can’t we speak about old people having sex? Do we really think they’re not?
Tammy, so the story goes, was a famous Country and Western singer until, in a moment of clarity, she packed it all in to become a famous lesbian performance artist. For the past few months Tammy has been on a tour of the UK with her latest show, What Tammy Needs To Know About Getting Old and Having Sex.
Weaver herself has been a leading light in the performance art world for more than 30 years, and more recently a Guggenheim wining artist and a Professor of Contemporary Performance at Queen Mary’s University. Speaking to me after the show, Weaver describes Tammy as her superhero, the side of her personality that is “not afraid to fail.” She has an infectious curiosity, an upfront, unashamed naivety, and people delight in opening up to her.
“There’s this protection not just from a subject like sex, but from any kind of real emotion, or real life experience, once we get to a certain age.”
Each city she performs in, she spends the days leading up to the show in care homes and drop-in centres, talking to the residents about their sex lives. We hear from a 67-year-old with three boyfriends she found on the internet, a man recently widowed and an 84-year-old with a partner 18 years her junior who is still having regular sex. For us young folk, it’s enlightening. Weaver believes that we don’t talk about sex nearly enough, however old we are. To hear these conversations is to understand that each of us is a complete and complex individual, that all of us share the same desires and fears, whether we’re twenty years old or eighty.
In Croatia she lived, as Tammy, in a retirement home for a week. “I found out they were all doing it,” she laughs. “Definitely doing it. In the hallways, in the elevators.” In Britain she has found getting access much harder, getting fobbed off by managers that the residents are not interested, but when she does get inside she discovers just the opposite. “A lot of the women had all read 50 Shades of Grey,” she says. “They all really wanted to talk about that. Maybe they weren’t having sex, but they weren’t dead.”
One care home she visited had a policy of not informing the residents when one of their members died. “There’s this protection not just from a subject like sex, but from any kind of real emotion, or real life experience, once we get to a certain age,” she says. “We don’t really treat people like elders. We treat people like people being finished with life.”
And that, for Weaver, is where the silence surrounding sex and age becomes so damaging, because when we talk about sex, it is not just about sex that we are talking. “The fact that I’m there to talk about sex, and that I’m a queer woman, that gives a sort of permissiveness,” she says. “Everyone likes to get a bit naughty.” But in creating that relaxed, accepting space, it allows for other conversations about the fundamentals of our lives. “It’s about opening up that possibility for people to talk about loss, or desire, or longing, or intimacy.”
In the end, it’s about learning to accept ourselves, whatever stage of life we’re at. I ask her how the conversations and performances have helped changed her own attitudes. “It’s made me feel more relaxed about sex,” she says. “I held onto a tension about it as I began to lose my libido. I thought is there something wrong with me? How can I fix this? And now I feel more open. I’ve let go of that, and consequently I do have more sexual impulses. I can feel a shift in my own ageism, of who and what I find attractive. Including myself.”
Tammy, it seems, is back in town.