If movies are to be believed, sex is something to be enjoyed only between two extremely attractive people, both of whom are under the age of about 35. Sorry, grandma, the message seems to be – gettin’ lucky is a young gal’s game.
In reality, nearly seven out of every eight men and three in five women in their 60s are knocking boots on the regular. That’s an average of more than seven in 10 sexagenarians (heh) – not all that much lower, in fact, than the number of 18-29-year-olds who report being sexually active.
Fewer continue having sex into their 70s, but not by a whole bunch; heck, even one in three octogenarian dudes are getting frisky out there, with the same statistic for women being about half that. And, may we remind you, this is all despite the plethora of nookie-blocking conditions, procedures, and medications that come along with advanced age.
So clearly, sex is still at least as appealing past middle age as before it. But could the truth be even spicier?
Could sex, in fact, get better with age?
Does sex get better with age?
In this post “40 is the new 30” era, it’s hardly new to hear people talk about sex only getting better with age. But is there any truth to these claims?
Actually, yeah, there could be.
“20-year-olds are having plenty of sex, but the 40-year-olds are actually enjoying it,” reported a spokesperson from Illicit Encounters, a UK-based website for those seeking extramarital affairs which, in 2015, commissioned a survey of more than 800 people to find out when sex is most pleasurable.
Other studies have turned up similar results. Another 2015 survey, this time of more than 1,000 women over the age of 18, found that most believed their sex lives had improved with age – and not only was it better, but, particularly among women between the ages of 45 and 55, it was also hella kinky.
What’s behind this increasing sexification? Quite a few theories have been put forward – many of which basically come down to increased confidence and understanding around our bodies. “[Women we spoke to] felt more comfortable in their own skins,” reported Holly Thomas, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Pittsburgh, back in 2016.
“They were more comfortable with their bodies. They felt like they knew themselves better, what worked for them,” she explained. “They had more self-confidence than when they were younger and that allowed them to be more free in terms of sexual expression.”
With age and experience also comes a greater awareness of what, exactly, gets you off. One 2017 study, for example, found that while sexual quality of life generally decreases with age, controlling for aspects such as levels of control, thought, effort, and previous partners actually reversed that trend.
“[Our] findings suggest that aging may be associated with the acquisition of skills and strategies that can buffer age-related declines in [sexual quality of life], particularly in the context of a positive relationship,” the authors wrote. “We summarize these findings as sexual wisdom.”
Is that all there is to it?
While these results seem undeniable, some researchers would say that we’re missing some nuance in the explanations for sex improving with age.
“If we ask a group of people how satisfied they are with their sex life, and the younger people are more satisfied than the older people, does that mean that aging is responsible for this difference?” wrote Miri Forbes, Nicholas Eaton, and Robert Krueger, the researchers behind the 2017 study, in an earlier article for The Conversation.
“What if instead the apparent age difference is because people born in the 1930s have different attitudes toward sex than people who grew up after the sexual revolution of the ’60’s and ’70’s?”
In fact, they found, the sex enjoyed later in life likely wasn’t better in some objective sense – it was more the result of changing priorities in different generations.
“When we matched older and younger adults on key characteristics of their sex lives – along with sociodemographic characteristics, and mental and physical health – older adults actually had better sexual quality of life,” the trio reported.
“For example, if we compared a 40-year-old man and a 50-year-old man with the same levels of perceived control over their sex life, who invest the same amount of thought and effort in their sex life, have sex with the same frequency and had the same number of sexual partners in the past year, we would expect the 50-year-old to report better sexual quality of life.”
That may help explain why older individuals are able to report greater sexual satisfaction while simultaneously experiencing lower sexual desire and activity. “Sexual activity [is] not always necessary for sexual satisfaction. Those who were not sexually active may have achieved sexual satisfaction through touching, caressing, or other intimacies developed over the course of a long relationship,” pointed out Susan Trompeter, Associate Clinical Professor of Medicine at the University of California, San Diego, back in 2012.
"Emotional and physical closeness to the partner may be more important than experiencing orgasm,” she said.
How to keep your sex life healthy in older age
So, great sex may be possible in older age – but it’s definitely not a guarantee. Sometimes that’s because of unavoidable biological changes: for example, as Stephanie Faubion, director of the Mayo Clinic Center for Women’s Health, told the New York Times, “menopause seems to have a bad effect on libido, vaginal dryness and sexual pain.”
At the same time, “the partner has such a prominent role,” she noted. “It’s not just the availability of the partner – it’s the physical health of the partner as well.”
But according to one recent study, your frame of mind may be just as important as your body. As part of the MIDUS (Midlife in the US) study, researchers asked hundreds of partnered adults, all over the age of 45, to rate how satisfying they expected their sex lives to be a decade in the future.
Ten years down the line – i.e. now – they were able to see how accurate those predictions were. And the biggest finding? If you want a good sex life down the road, you only have to think positive.
“Sexually optimistic participants reported more sexual satisfaction and higher sexual frequency a decade later,” the researchers confirmed. In fact, even when aging brought with it physical limitations – which normally would put a dampener on a person’s sex life – “the probability of having weekly sex was significantly higher among such women if they had high rather than low sexual expectations.”
And while enjoying sex may come with certain challenges as we age, there’s no reason to give up on the occasional roll in the hay just because you’re a little older, advised Natalie Wilton, a therapist who specializes in senior sexuality.
“There's tons [of mobility aids for sex] that exist on the market,” she told NPR earlier this month. “[There are] benches and wedges and different kinds of things, but you can also just use the things [like pillows] that you have in your own home.”
Similarly, post-menopausal women may benefit from using lube, she pointed out – and while she encourages experimentation with toys, she also cautions against “get[ting] in your head” about what sex “ought” to look like.
“Say your partner can't get an erection or your partner doesn't seem to be in the mood. It’s not getting like, ‘oh my goodness, they, they don't wanna be with me. This is awful. We need to stop,’” she said.
“Just snuggle instead, give each other a back massage or touch each other differently,” she advised. “Just kind of give that time and space for things to move and flow a little bit more organically.”
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