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A Franklin Valentine: Why Older Women Make Better Mistresses Than Younger Ones

By Nancy Rubin Stuart

Benjamin Franklin. Portrait by Joseph-Siffred Dupessis, oil on canvas, circa 1785.
Portrait by Joseph-Siffred Dupessis, oil on canvas, circa 1785

Everyone knows Benjamin Franklin was a scientist, an inventor, and a diplomat, but did you know he also had the makings of a great romance advice columnist? The founding father was well suited to that job because of his wide experience with women. That may explain why he penned a letter in 1745 to a single man about the best way to sate his sexual impulses outside marriage.

Ben’s advice? Sleep with an older woman instead of a young one.

At first blush, the idea sounds ridiculous. After all, it is widely assumed that young women are better in bed than older ones. But not according to Ben, who seemed to understand a lot about the sexuality of older women.

Despite his famous warnings about the importance of personal discretion, Ben confessed in his autobiography that he had often succumbed to that “hard-to-be-governed passion of youth” with women. One of those dalliances resulted in the birth of his illegitimate son, William. In June 1745, during his common-law marriage to Deborah Read, his essay, “Old Mistresses’ Apologue,” later known as “A Letter to a Friend on Choosing a Mistress,” explained why older women were preferable to younger ones as mistresses.   

Franklin scholars, embarrassed by the letter’s prurient tone, kept that essay hidden for nearly two centuries to avoid reflecting badly upon the founding father. But by the 1920s, as social mores became more liberal, Phillips Russell printed the letter in his widely-read biography Benjamin Franklin: The First Civilized American.

Franklin began his lecture by admitting that marriage was the “proper remedy” for lust. However, if the reader had no immediate plans to wed, he should seek out an “old” woman to satisfy his needs rather than a young one. By “old” Franklin meant something quite different than those we consider elderly today. In eighteenth-century America, the average life span for both sexes ranged from the late thirties to the early forties. Today’s average life expectancy for women is eighty-one and seventy-seven for men. Since we’re living longer and healthier, our definitions of old age have changed. As a result, Franklin’s reference to old women referred to those we consider middle-aged today.

His letter revealed eight reasons why older women were preferable to younger ones when engaging in casual sex.

  1. First, older woman had more wordly knowledge than younger women. Hence, they were better conversationalists and companions.
  1. Older women may not be as attractive as younger ones but were much nicer to their partners. That happened, according to Franklin, because when a woman lost her looks, “she studies to be good,” is willing to do “a thousand and one favors,” and is “the most tender and useful of all friends when you are sick.”
  1. Since she was older, her partner didn’t have to worry about her becoming pregnant.
  1. Being more experienced, older women were also more discreet about their affairs than younger ones.
  1. Even though Franklin complained that the faces and necks of older women were more wrinkled than younger ones, that wasn't important. After all, he reminded his friend that the “lower parts continuing to the last as plump as ever . . . As in the dark all cats are grey, the pleasure of corporeal enjoyment with an old woman is at least equal and frequently superior” to that of younger women.
  1. Since she was no longer a virgin, her lover never had to worry about ruining her purity or reputation.
  1. Unlike younger, more demanding women, older ones were simply happy to have a lover.
  1. Best of all, Franklin gleefully wrote, “They are so grateful!”

Today, pundits have summarized Franklin’s praise for older women thus: “They don’t yell, they don’t swell, and they’re grateful as hell!” 

For decades, historians have debated what prompted Franklin to write this essay. Was it inspired by an affair either before or during his common-law marriage to Deborah Read? Or was it one of Franklin’s experiments to write bawdy prose then secretly in vogue among literate men of his era? Perhaps, too, it was still another example like his youthful praise for prostitutes while an apprentice in his older brother’s New-England Courant

The motives for Franklin’s titillating letter may never be known, but his observations about the pleasures of a sexual liaison with a mature woman were uncannily accurate. Several recent studies reveal that older women not only enjoy sexual intimacy as much as younger women but, surprisingly, even more. A 2011 survey in the American Journal of Medicine of 806 women with a median age of sixty found that their sexual satisfaction increased with age.

Another paper by the American Sociological Association in 2014 on a hundred heterosexual married women ages thirty-five to forty-five revealed that sixty-seven percent were seeking affairs because they wanted more romantic passion including sex.  

The following year, a survey in the Annals of Family Medicine based upon a nationally representative sample of women aged twenty-eight to eighty-four found that sexual satisfaction had nothing to do with age and more to do with good communication with partners. That seems to confirm Franklin’s observation that an older woman’s conversation skills often made her more desirable than a younger woman.  

Those studies, coupled with Franklin’s observations, suggest there’s good news for men involved with older women today. Happy Valentine’s Day to the 51.5 million women ages forty to sixty-four from America’s most outspoken founding father!   


About the Author 

Nancy Rubin Stuart is an award-winning author and journalist whose eight nonfiction books focus upon women and social history. Her most recently published works include Defiant BridesThe Untold Story of Two Revolutionary-Era Women and the Radical Men They Married and The Muse of the RevolutionThe Secret Pen of Mercy Otis Warren and the Founding of a Nation. A former journalist, Stuart has written for the New York TimesHuffington Post, the New England Quarterly, and national magazines. She serves as executive director of the Cape Cod Writers Center. Her next book, Poor Richard’s Women: Deborah Read Franklin and the Other Women Behind the Founding Father, is forthcoming in March 2022. Connect with her at www.nancyrubinstuart.com.