In 2006, Herb Foster, a retired professor of education at SUNY Buffalo and prolific anti-racist activist, lost Anita, his loving wife of 54 years. As he worked through his grief, he also felt a renewed sense of possibility. “After Anita passed away, it was tough,” he said in a recent interview at the Vineyard Haven Library, on the island of Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts. “I, in my head, decided I was going to sow all the wild oats I never had the opportunity to sow as a kid. I was going to take care of all the sexual needs of the married and single women on Martha’s Vineyard, which would be my responsibility. Why? I was a Boy Scout; it was my responsibility.”
In his quest to spread the love, Foster, now 89, dated around. But he said it was ultimately unfulfilling. “I had to have feeling,” he said. “I couldn’t just spend the night with someone. Despite all my fantasies, my DNA is programmed to be monogamous.”
Lucky for him, he fell in love with a woman he met on a bike excursion. So instead of personally servicing all the desiring women on the island, he made it his mission to help people over the age of 50, and specifically octogenarians, understand and access their sexuality in a changing world.
Foster is not a Dr. Ruth by training. He is, among other things, an Army veteran and president emeritus of the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center. He was a trustee of the Martha’s Vineyard NAACP, and has a strong history as a champion of desegregation. In his very first career, he was an educator and a linguist, the author of a 1974 book, Ribbin,’ Jivin,’ and Playin’ the Dozens: The Persistent Dilemma in Our Schools, which addressed how black male students were often punished and labeled in schools because teachers misunderstood their language and behavior.
Foster, when not talking about sex, is known to islanders as the host of Inside Education, which began as his public-radio show when he was an education professor in Buffalo, New York, but which he restarted on local television when he moved to the Vineyard.
After a second bar mitzvah at the age of 83, Foster wrote a story comparing the dating mores in the 21st century to those on Feb. 15, 1941, the date of his first bar mitzvah. This became the crux of his public talks, which he gave at senior centers and libraries on Martha’s Vineyard and beyond, about sex for the elderly. His goal was to help other aging daters understand the shifting social culture around sexuality since their youth.
Foster’s first talk was at The Anchors, a senior center in Edgartown, on the Vineyard. He encouraged his audience to get out, to stop “kvetching,” to meet people, and to take dating, and sexuality, into their own hands. “Although I am a heterosexual,” he said, “I am arguing for sexual enjoyment for anyone regardless of your sexual orientation.” At the the local Oak Bluffs library, he gave a talk titled “Octogenarians Are Still Horny.” Soon, he said, people were calling him a sex “guru.”
“The success here, today, I think is breaking through the taboo around sexual activity for octogenarians,” he said, reflecting on his career shift. “You read stories that America is sex for young people. So let octogenarians do their thing; they are entitled to sexual satisfaction. Age has nothing to do with it.”
The temple president also believes that his message is deeply spiritual, and Jewish.
“As I speak, most people in the audience have no idea that the Friday Shabbat service is very sexual,” Foster said. “Indeed, one prayer”—here he’s referring to his interpretation of L’Cha Dodi—“is about the male satisfying his wife sexually.” He also cites King Solomon’s hundreds of wives, and the intense sexuality he finds in Yiddish, which he speaks proficiently.
“I get a big charge out of Herb talking about sex in general,” said Ljuba Davis, a nurse, a mother of seven, and a hazan at the Hebrew Center. “He is such a vital human being … a life force.” Some people are “turned off” by Foster’s talks, she said, but it is “because of their own limitations and concerns. They find it very weird. I mean, I am 71, I hope I still have the same life force in five years and 10 years.”
Foster’s talks are frank and to the point. They include slides about sexually transmitted diseases, and they shy away from nothing. He addresses everything from erectile dysfunction to emotional loss, and the importance of moving through it in order to find satisfying sexual partnership again. He tells his audience about groups like National Widowers, which offers support to people going through partner loss, as well as sexual surrogacy, a type of hands-on sex therapy, done in conjunction with a therapist, which is often covered by medical plans.
“From my point of view, everything in the world revolves around sex,” Foster said. “Sexual satisfaction is one of the most important points of relationships that people repress or open. The subject is so taboo. I just think it’s very important, it’s life.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there is a high rate of seniors with sexually transmitted diseases. “Seniors figure, they are seniors and don’t need to use contraceptives,” Foster said. He encourages them to get tested for STDs. “What I do is I have the condoms in the back of the room,” he continued. “I explain they are there and we have the condoms—they come in different colors. And we have condoms for oral sex that are chocolate, vanilla, strawberry, and they are available. The last time I spoke at a local hotel, a lot of people took them.”
He also suggests dialogue, especially when someone is dating a younger person, who might move faster in the bedroom: “You have to be honest enough with one another and figure out ways of having enjoyment. I discuss it.”
Foster’s Valentine’s Day plans are to keep loving his partner, to keep talking publicly about sex in your 80s and beyond, and to work on Ghetto to Ghetto: Yiddish and Jive in Everyday Life, a book that explores the ways both Yiddish and jive permeate American linguistics, and culture. When I asked what he’ll do when no longer an octogenarian, he shrugged, smiled and began to lower himself into his canary yellow Jeep Wrangler—the car of a teenage boy. “When I am 90, I will keep going,” he said, “just keep going and doing what I want.” And that’s not all. “I have another book I want to write, called Schlepping Around Martha’s Vineyard.”
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Merissa Nathan Gerson is a writer, sex educator, and rape prevention advocate. She teaches Alternative Journalism at Tulane University in New Orleans.