A newly remarried man told a team of researchers that he is thankful for his wife’s “freedom from inhibitions.” Together, they discuss intimate aspects of their relationship. “Our new sexual activities and freedom to explore have been most satisfying,” he says. What’s startling about that? The man is 64; she’s 54.
“When I look back on the sexual aspects of my marriage,” says one wife, “I see a picture of gradual growth in sexual pleasures. There may still be new wonders to discover with my spouse.” She’s 60; he’s 65. And they have been married for 36 years.
The general opinion in many societies has long been that older people have little or no interest in sex, and little or no capacity for it. Now the findings of a survey of 4,246 American men and women aged 50 to 93 – the largest such study ever made – explodes this myth. The survey shows that most people will, or could, remain sexually active into their 70s and beyond, and that the warmth, excitement and comfort of sexual love will still be important in these years. The survey was conducted in the US by a non-profit product-testing and consumer-information organization, Consumer Union, and is reported in Love, Sex, and Ageing.
The Cu report is full of surprises. The major one: “What is often called, ‘the sexual revolution’ is going on among older people right now.” Today’s older people are far more interested in sex, engage in more sexual activity, value it more highly and are freer in their choice of sexual practices than almost anyone but experts in sexuality and ageing had imagined. A few examples:
- Even beyond 70, over half of the women and three-quarters of the men are still interested in sex.
- More than three-quarters of married women in their 60s have intercourse with their husbands: they average about once a week.
- The great majority of widowed, divorced and never-married people in their 50s and 60s are sexually active. So are half of the single women and three-quarters of the single man in their 70s.
Is it possible that so many middle-aged and older people feel and behave in ways, it was thought only younger people did? Or that so many will feel and behave like that when those years are reached?
Probably fewer than the CU survey indicates. The people in it were volunteers, many possibly more sexually active than the average. The validity of the findings, then, may depend on how balanced the responses are about less-sensitive topics. In fact, these older respondents – who make up a broad segment of society – indicate they are reasonably well-educated, middle-class Americans. Therefore it’s likely that they are also close to average in their sexuality. And in one key area – the number of older people still having intercourse – the CU figures are backed up by two authoritative studies of nearly 800 people conducted by Duke University in North Carolina.
Thus the CU survey conveys an encouraging, even inspiring, message. As one 83-year-old woman puts it: “Younger readers will thank you for giving them hope for their old age. Older readers will thank you for bringing their feelings and actions into the open.” Here are some of the most significant findings:
Feelings about love and sex. Nearly nine-tenths of husbands and wives say their marriages are happy, and nearly half say very happy. Reports a woman married for 38 years: “I will get a thrill when I see my husband on the street or hear his voice on the telephone. And when he touches me, oh my!” a 76-year-old man says he and his wife fell in love in high school: “Love and dependence on each other have increased year by year and the ‘love curve’ is still upwards!”
And how do they feel about sex? A large majority of women and nearly all men, from their 50s through their 80s, are still interested in sex – some only moderately but many others intensely. Indeed, in their 50s almost half of the women and two-thirds of the men say their interest is still as strong as when they were 40. Even at 70 and up, only a minority say they have little or no interest.
More to the point, nearly all men and most women in their 50s and 60s continue to view sex as important to their marital or love relationships. Even beyond 70, only one woman in three and one man in four feel that it no longer matters.
How age affects sex drive and sexual powers. Research shows that as we grow older, our senses of taste, smell and sight lessen, and that our capacity for strenuous work or play diminishes. Naturally therefore, sexual sensations and the ability to perform sexually diminish. Moreover, we’ve all heard that arthritis, diabetes, heart disease and other ailments common in later years can interfere with sex, making it difficult or impossible; some medications can also cause decreased sexual desire.
The CU report has good news about all these points. It finds relatively little difference between the sexual activity of healthy and ailing people of the same age.
Though most people in the survey admit their sexual powers are waning, that dwindling causes far less decline in sexual activity than was the case a generation or so ago. When US sex researcher Alfred Kinsey (1894-1956) conducted his surveys in the 1940s, he found in a small sampling that considerably more than half of the men and women in their early 70s had given up all sexual activity. In the CU survey, only one man in four and one woman in three in their 70s have ceased all sexual activity. Fully six out of ten married people in their 70s still have regular intercourse – (about once every 10 or 11 days), as often as people 20 years younger in Kinsey’s time.
Adapting to the sexual changes of age. Many couples choose mornings for sex, for they have more energy. But even in perfectly healthy people, ageing of the tissues and nervous system results in slower arousal, weaker erectile response, dryness or sensitivity of the vaginal lining and other hindrances to sexuality.
For some years, gerontologists and sex therapists have advised older people to deal with these changes by devoting more time to foreplay or even, if necessary, to let it serve as an alternative to actual intercourse. Some older people find that the preliminaries themselves not only yield physical contentment but enable each partner to give and receive tenderness and appreciation.
How continued sexual activity can affect lives and marriages. Among the CU sampling, nine-tenths of older husbands and wives who still have intercourse call their marriages happy. But two-thirds of the older couples who no longer have intercourse are happily married. None the less, sexual intercourse is less important to marital happiness than it is in youth. Marital sex isn’t a requirement for marital happiness in these years; it just adds to the chances of being happily married.
A high percentage of older people remain faithful to their spouses (92 per cent of women; 77 per cent of men), some ven when they feel sexually deprived. “Trust and fidelity outweigh the satisfaction of conquest and change of partners that seems so attractive,” a man of 59 writes. A 67-year-old woman considered outside sex after her husband became impotent, then gave up the idea – explaining, “I have too much respect for him. It isn’t important; being together is important.”
How about the relationship between sex and general satisfaction with life? The CU report reveals a strong connection. Older people may find that sex is not only a way of being close and expressing love but a source of good feeling about one’s self. It gives many of them a sense of vitality, of aliveness.
The CU report ought not be taken by readers as a blueprint of what they should do but only as a picture of what they could do if they wish, assuming they have the capacity. Some people in the survey seem relieved to be done with sex; others, who still want sex but whose spouses can’t or won’t have it, are happily married and reasonably satisfied. But for most older people today, sex is nature’s great gift that keeps on giving.