Why is it that when we combine the words “sex” and “older people” there’s a reaction of surprise, unease and awkwardness?
Is it because we believe older people don’t have sex? Or don’t have sexual fantasies or watch porn?
Well, think again.
Research has confirmed what older people have long known but haven’t traditionally talked about – age typically doesn’t eliminate or diminish the need and desire for sex.
All that’s required is good health, a willing sexual partner and love or romance in the relationship.
So what proportion of older people are still sexually active?
One Swedish study that interviewed groups of 70-year-olds over a 30-year period (in the early 1970s, mid 1970s, early 1990s and early 2000s) found rates of sexual activity had risen among men and women, and married and unmarried respondents.
More than two-thirds (68%) of married men in the 2000-01 survey said they had sex, an increase of 16% from the previous decade. The percentage of married 70-year-old women having sex rose from 38% to 56%.
Another recent study showed that while sexual activity in the United States declined with advancing age, almost three quarters (73%) of respondents aged 57 to 64 were sexually active.
In the 65-to-74 age group, more than half (53%) reported being sexually active. And in the 75-to-85 age group, more than a quarter (26%) were still having sex.
These results are similar to an Australian study from the mid-1990s, which found that by the age of 80, 8% of women and 29% of men were still having sex.
Most recently, a 2010 study from the Kinsey Institute in the United States found more than 20% of people aged 80 to 94 were still sexually active.
There are other ways we can measure the sexual activity and interest of older people without asking them questions about how often they have sex.
Drug companies such as Pfizer know there is a huge market of older men who want to use their products to overcome erection problems – just look at their advertisements promoting Viagra.
In a clinical trial of 3,000 patients, 60% to 80% of those who took viagra reported improvements in their ability to achieve erections and sustain them during sex.
Dating is another measure of sexual activity in later life.
A recent Harris Survey for dating reveals users aged 55 and older account for 16% of all traffic through online personal sites. People in their 50s and 60s are one of the fastest growing age groups looking for romance, love and sex on online dating sites.
Attitudes in this age group are also changing. Of those who use dating sites, 85% agree that companionship is more important in their mature years and 89% believe they now have a better idea of the type of person who will make them happy.
While it’s difficult to get precise statistics about the clients of sex workers, men in their fifties and sixties pay for sex, and there is some evidence to suggest older women are using the services of male escorts.
There is even a new classification in popular culture for older women who actively seek out younger men: cougars. Some commentators see this as the epitome of liberation in the post-feminist era.
The number of older women with younger men in intimate relationships is rising, according to a recent study published in the Journal of Couple and Relationship Therapy.
These days pornography can cater to almost any taste and the over 55s are the third largest consumers of online porn. One in three visitors to pornographic websites are women but 70% of these women keep their enjoyment of online porn a secret.
So the picture emerging from contemporary research is that the desire for sexual intimacy and sex is ageless.
The benefits of a healthy sex life
Sex can burn fat, increase circulation and stimulate the release of growth hormones in men and women, which leads to stronger bones and muscles.
A healthy sex life can also reduce anxiety and cause the brain to release painkilling endorphins and substances that bolster the immune system.
Perhaps most importantly, sex helps you relax and feel satisfied.
A number of websites have emerged over the past few years to promote sexual activity as an important part of healthy ageing.
Health Canada has produced a webpage that discusses why “sexual activity is a natural and important part of a healthy lifestyle, no matter what your age” and offers useful information on “maximizing your sexual experience in later life”.
Another organisation providing a long list of tips that should make sex more gratifying in our later years is HelpGuide.org.
The challenge of STIs
With new romance and sexual activity comes a higher risk of contracting sexually transmissible infections, including HIV.
Everyone knows about HIV and AIDS. Yet many of us think this is a disease that affects the young. This isn’t true: anyone at any age can get HIV/AIDS.
Studies consistently show that older people are less likely to use condoms, possibly because they tend to view them primarily as a contraceptive measure. And women who no longer fear unwanted pregnancy may not insist on their use.
Rates of STIs are increasing among older populations. A UK study found rates of STIs had increased overall and doubled older patients in the seven years to 2003.
A decade-long American study that examined the rate of STIs in a sample of more than 1.4 million middle-aged and older men found the STI rate had increased. But rates of STIs were twice as high among men who used erectile dysfunction medication than those who didn’t.
One of the biggest future challenges is the rapid rise of HIV. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that by 2025, about half of all people living with HIV in the United States will be over 50.
So the new public health message is that grandchildren need to tell their grandparents to use condoms.
Tips for for better sex
In case you were wondering how to improve your sex life in older age, here are some tips from Help.Org:
Expand what sex means: try oral sex or masturbation as fulfilling substitutes to intercourse.
Experiment: try sexual positions you both find comfortable and pleasurable, taking physical changes, such as reduced mobility and vaginal dryness, into account.
Change your routine: simple, creative changes can improve your sex life.
Foreplay: because it might take longer for you or your partner to become aroused, take more time to set the stage for romance, such as a romantic dinner or an evening of dancing.
Playfulness: tease or tickle your partner – whatever it takes to have fun.
And, most importantly, enjoy!
If you’re an older woman and want to participate in an ARC-funded study that aims to understand the experiences of swinging 60s women turning 60, please contact Associate Professor Gail Hawkes. The study will focus on the personal experiences of the ageing body and its impact on sexual well-being.