11/8/2018: I’m bringing this post from 5/29/18 to the top again because I hope you’ll comment. I’m especially interested to know how you would interpret the question, “Are you currently sexually active?” if a researcher asked you. (Please answer by posting a comment.)
I’m often complaining that little is known about our age group’s sexual behavior and beliefs because no one asks us. So I was delighted to learn that researchers at the University of Michigan surveyed 1,002 people between 65 and 80 about their sex lives as part of the National Poll on Healthy Aging 2018. The report, titled “Sex after 65. Health, gender differences, and lack of communication,” was released on May 3, 2018.
Here are some of the findings:
- 40 percent of people between the ages of 65 and 80 are sexually active.
- 54 percent of those with a partner are sexually active.
- Nearly 2/3 of older adults say they’re interested in sex.
- More than 50% say sex is important to their quality of life.
- 73 percent said they are satisfied with their current sex life.
- 18 percent of older men and 3 percent of older women say they’ve taken medications or supplements to improve sexual function in the past two years.
- Only 17 percent of older adults said they have talked with their doctor or other health care provider about sexual health in the past two years.
- Those between the ages of 65 and 70 were nearly twice as likely as those in their late 70s to be sexually active.
- 50% of men but just 12 percent of women aged 65 to 80 said they were extremely or very interested in sex.
As I read this, I kept asking myself how they defined sex or sexually active or sex lives. Did sex with a vibrator, a partner’s hand or mouth, or one’s own hand count as sexually active or having a sex life? (I say yes.) I asked Erica Solway, Ph.D., co-associate director of the poll, who told me,
We did not define sex because we wanted the response to be based on the individual’s definition of what constitutes sex (or their sex life or being sexually active) from their own perspective. We felt this was important, but it does mean that we do not have information on what activities people were referring to when they reported they were or were not sexually active. It’s possible that two people engaged in the same activities may have responded to the questions differently based on their personal definition.
I agree that our own definition of what constitutes sex is important in a study like this — I applaud this, in fact. But I would have liked that clearer in the poll questions. For example, “Are you currently sexually active?” could have been worded, “Do you engage in sexual activity?” That may sound almost the same, but I have a hunch that many people would interpret the first question as “Do you have sex with a partner?” and the second as “Do you have sex, either with a partner or with yourself?” Asking the question differently would have raised the percentage of people who answered yes to that question, seems to me.
What do you think, readers? Am I off base? How would you interpret the question, “Are you currently sexually active?” (Please answer in the comments section.)
The wording of the questions is a minor quibble, though, because I understand that the poll was multiple-choice, not essay questions, and answered online, not via an interview. In the end, I’m happy that someone’s asking.
This report was all over the news. Here are some of the headlines:
- CNN: “Seniors, new poll says, are still sexy after all these years“
- USA Today: “Seniors and sex: Many adults ages 65-80 are having sex (and most are pretty satisfied)”
- US News: “Study: Many Adults Ages 65 to 80 Continue to Be Sexually Active”
- The Guardian: “Sex a key part of life for people over 65, study says“
- Bustle: “The Sex Lives Of People Over 65 Are Thriving, Study Finds, So There’s Finally Something to Look Forward To“
As glad as I was to see this study in the news, I couldn’t help wondering why the [younger] public is so surprised that we seniors have sex on our minds and in our beds. Why would we give up something so pleasurable? Do they expect that on some predetermined birthday, we’ll just say, “Sex? Been there, done that, moving on. Now help me blow out all these candles.”
Thank you, University of Michigan Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation, for conducting the study, and AARP and Michigan Medicine, U-M’s academic medical center, for sponsoring it. Let’s keep talking.
In my newsletter a few months ago, I asked my subscribers several questions. The response was so huge that I devoted an entire blog post to the answer to the first question: “If you’re in a long-term relationship, what tips or wisdom can you share that help you keep a relationship sexy and spicy after decades together?” Read my readers’ answers here.
If you’re in a relationship that’s less than satisfying, what do you wish you could tell or ask your partner to bring the sexiness back?
* I wish she’d realize how difficult it is for me when I’ve tried romantic stuff and she doesn’t respond. I wish she allow herself to get turned on like she used to in her 30s.
* I’m 67, in a heterosexual relationship with a peer, 68, who has chronic back pain with acute flare ups which he fears and dreads. His solution for sex – on back, still as possible – leaves me frustrated. His anxiety has affected me, and I’m wondering how to speak up. Friends have suggested sex toys. I’d like to lose my own inhibitions and ask for more foreplay.
* I’m in a relatively new relationship that was interrupted by breast cancer that required a mastectomy. Months after her final chemo treatment, there is no further evidence of cancer. The drugs that suppress estrogen also suppress libido. We are on uncertain ground. It’s difficult to talk about, because it is such a change from pre-cancer romance. I’m not sure what it is we are talking about some of the time: is it the shock of having had cancer, exhaustion from trying to get back up to speed at work, drug effects, or is it actually the relationship? All the things that used to work, don’t. It’s like we’re starting from scratch with a lot of baggage added. She once expressed her sense of how this relationship has gone for her as, “We were dating. Then I got cancer and everything focused on that. While you were looking after me the relationship grew deeper for you; for me it disappeared. Now I’m back and we are in very different places.” Patience is the key for both of us. Psychological recovery takes longer than physical healing, we both know that. Yes, I’m in love with her and I know she loves me; she says it often.
In what ways have you changed your ideas about the kind of relationship you’d like to have now? For example, would you be happy in a non-monogamous relationship? Friends with benefits? Marriage only? Living together without marriage? Sexually exclusive but not living together? Intimacy without sex?
* My sexual appetite and lack of inhibition are stronger than my husband’s. Part of me — the randier side of me — thinks it would be cool to have another partner. But my husband is emphatic that that would be grounds for divorce. It’s not worth it to me at this time to pursue it. Sometimes I believe that it’s attractive because, after 33 years, it’s just different.
* I am involved now with a man who identifies as polyamorous. I’ve been strictly a one man gal, and it’s been an eye opening experience to process this new paradigm. I love him, but only time will tell whether I can live a lifestyle that is so foreign to me. As I age, I am more sexually comfortable, adventurous and voracious! As a young woman I was painfully shy, inhibited, and sure I wasn’t attractive. Now I feel strong, capable, sexy, attractive and free to express myself sexually and sensually. As challenging as my current relationship is, I have never had richer, more vibrant, freeing conversations with any man I have been involved with. It is a gift, and no matter what happens, I will always appreciate what this man has brought to my life.
What’s the worst thing a date or mate ever said to you? I ask this after a friend told me that a recent sex date said to him, “You’re the kind of person I want to go to bed with — but not the kind of person I want to wake up with.”
* My marriage before it ended: “Not only do I have to have sex with you, but I’m supposed to enjoy it?”
* “You’re too fat to fuck.” Still smarts after all these years.
What else would you like me to know?
* I want to learn how to love without fear, without clinging to the safety of old thinking. How to love extravagantly, with respect at all times for myself and my partner(s).
* I enjoy sex more now at age 66 because after many years, I’m more into the total experience that each encounter brings. When I was young, it was me and my partner getting to the big “O”. Now, it’s so much more. The passion, while still there, is not the rip off your clothes type passion. It’s the patience, if you will, of taking our time and enjoying each other’s bodies. It’s the expression of love and the communication that wasn’t there years ago. It’s the candles flickering in the darkness of the room. It’s the kissing and caressing. It’s the change that comes with each love making session. It’s our willingness to explore different “toys” and lubricants. Can we move and get into positions like 20 years ago – of course not. But what we can and do now that we didn’t do before is we can totally love, accept and appreciate each other for what we are. Seniors who take every bit of love making to the fullest every time.
Do you want to join in the discussion? I welcome your comments!
I’m collecting examples for an upcoming talk. Comment here or email me with the subject header “Invisible.” I won’t use your name if I quote you. Please include your age.
Here are some examples from readers of my Naked at Our Age Facebook page (which I hope you’ll “like” if you haven’t already) to get you thinking:
? I’m 64. A few years ago, I saw a male physician who began almost every sentence to me with “A woman of your age….” as if I was geriatric in every sense of the word and he needed to explain how I no longer had the physical abilities of a “young and healthy” woman. He was lecturing me on how I needed to change my expectations for my body and make allowances for those changes. The irony was his age, at least 50 himself.
? I was using the free wi-fi at the Senior Center. Anything that has “sex” in it is blocked.
? I’m 53, and I often feel invisible in social groups. I was in a mixed-age group once online where younger men were telling sex jokes. An older woman joined in, not flirting with them, just telling her own stories. When she mentioned being in her early sixties they flipped out, complained about feeling sick, and so forth. Honestly a lot of men my own age aren’t much better. Sometimes I look in the mirror to see if I’ve grown a second head with the way that they act. I just don’t feel comfortable flirting and being sexual the way I used to because of the negativity I keep seeing towards women over 50.
? Try being a gentleman and over 70. If I compliment (all PC and non sexist) a woman under 50, I get the “dirty old man” look! Can’t a compliment just be that? My wife often will compliment another gal on her fashion, and it’s accepted with a smile. I wouldn’t dare try that!
? I want to be invisible, in fact miles away, when someone at a family gathering starts talking about:
* his Viagra use
* how he pees in the middle of the night
* how, when he was a kid, he used a piece of liver to jack off
* asking pretty young women to sit close to him
All of these fall under too much information (TMI). I don’t need word pictures of things I don’t want to see.
In a recent newsletter, I asked my subscribers these seven questions:
1. If you’re in a long-term relationship, what tips or wisdom can you share that help you keep a relationship sexy and spicy after decades together?
2. If you’re in a relationship that’s less than satisfying, what do you wish you could tell or ask your partner to bring the sexiness back?
3. If you’re single or non-monogamous and dating, what is your safer sex policy? How do you discuss this with a new partner?
4. In what ways have you changed your ideas about the kind of relationship you’d like to have now? For example, would you be happy in a non-monogamous relationship? Friends with benefits? Marriage only? Living together without marriage? Sexually exclusive but not living together? Intimacy without sex?
5. What’s the worst thing a date or mate ever said to you? I ask this after a friend told me that a recent sex date said to him, “You’re the kind of person I want to go to bed with — but not the kind of person I want to wake up with.”
6. What would you like to learn about sex and aging this year?
7. What else should I have asked?
I got such a huge response to Question #1 that I’m devoting the rest of this post to excerpts from your answers. A later post will address the other 6 questions. (You’re welcome to add your answers to questions 2-7 in the comments or by emailing me here.)
* My wife and I married in 1968. I believe that sexual satisfaction comes from sexual growth through constant trial and error experimentation. This leads to a constantly evolving sex life. We must be willing to try new things as long as no one is being hurt. Some will be good experiences and some bad. Keep the good and discard the bad. If we’re afraid of making a mistake and have a high aversion to risk, we automatically limit our chances of succeeding or improving.
* At 55, we’ve been married almost 33 years. Both partners need to actively choose to keep their relationship spicy and active. Both have to be honest and frank about their desires. Don’t be freaked out if you disagree on what you’d like to do. Just treat it like every other issue you’ve disagreed on through the years: listen, suggest, compromise, and give it time.
* I am 70 and my wife is 66, married for over 50 years. Somewhere we lost the spark. I had been taking meds that affected my erection or lack of. Intercourse was impossible. Then I got a penis pump that Medicare paid for. The thing looked unromantic and embarrassing to use, but with the help of “Sucker Sam,” I got an erection that I could maintain and have intercourse. Now my wife really wants sex with me! She wears sexy outfits, we turn on mood lighting and music, smoke some medical herb, and break out the massage cream. We are having the best sex of our lives. I think the real key to all this is the extreme intimacy we both experience. As we put it, “Our souls touch.”
* Schedule sexual intimacy, and persistently but gently keep to the schedule, because at our age our hormones are no longer adequate to propel us spontaneously towards sexual activity.
* We’re 74, and for the last 15-20 years we have not felt the need to spice things up to maintain our sexual interest. Sex for us is about celebrating our being together, being alive with each other, and our deep caring and love for each other. We have a ritual that involves perhaps 20 minutes of foreplay leading to a few minutes up to 10 or so of intercourse, with strong orgasms for both of us. At the end it’s less about physical pleasure and more the elation of saying we are still here, we can still express our love physically, and isn’t that incredible?
* We are in our early 70s, married for over 50 years. Despite our many physical limitations, we have found ways to have an active and fulfilling sex life by using advice we have read in our sex library: sex toys, positioning pillows, timing taking of meds, and planning early morning encounters before meals interfere and energy sags. Two years ago we decided to focus on improving our sex lives from mediocre to more active, frequent and satisfying. We found a saying, “A better sex life does take some work. Couples who put effort into their sex lives have stronger relationships.” We assembled a library of sex related books (we have all of yours!) and spent much time studying and discussing them. There is so much information available today that was not just a few years ago.
* We began using sex toys (I like that you call them “tools” which is really what they are) and Liberator positioning pillows. We decorated our bedroom to provide a better romantic atmosphere.
We found that the more you have sex, the more you want it and your body will adjust to enable it. We learned from our reading that when physical problems develop (sexual or otherwise), there are methods to help overcome and improve the deficiencies and this gives us confidence, which helps to keep the sexual union relaxed and enjoyable. Also exercise and diet and general good health habits are important. We are having the best time and only regret that we did not make sex more of a priority before.
* At 60, I have found that the best thing is to continue to put the other partner first. In every matter, not just the sensual. I know that if I put my woman’s needs, wants, and desires before my own, that I will be well rewarded by a partner who feels the same way.
* I am a T2 diabetic, and neuropathy is robbing me of my sensitivity “down there.” We talked about the Pulse you reviewed — this opened the lines of communication. Push the limits of your sex life outside the box. Keep pushing your comfort zone. Don’t let ‘age’ stop you from experimenting and exploring. You’ll be surprised at what you can do, and feel, even at our age.
* Ask your partner if they would like to try new things, like toys or role playing. For instance, I asked my wife if she would like to spank me. This thought had never occurred to her. She considered spanking as a punishment, not as playful foreplay. We discussed how hard to strike (sensual spanking should sting a little, not leave welts), what areas of the body to spank (only the buttocks and upper thighs), and how long before the safe word came out (I always quit right after the orgasm). After a couple of trial and error sessions, she found that she enjoys playfully spanking me, as I enjoy spanking her. There is no punishment meant on either side; this is meant for playful pleasure.
* As my husband and I worked to overcome a crisis in our marriage, one thing that truly helped me ease off all the pressure I was putting on him was your writings, Joan, on Facebook and your newsletter. To read an expert telling me that masturbation was REAL sex; oral sex was REAL sex; sex with sex toys to enable us to orgasm was REAL sex? Holy shit. I realized I was having quite a bit of REAL sex, and I didn’t recognize it. I thought that because I couldn’t orgasm with intercourse anymore (it was never easy), or because sometimes I had to finish myself off alone, after 20 minutes of my husband doing everything in his power to make me come, that our sex life was deficient and substandard. How sad is that?! Two people who love the hell out of each other, are utterly compatible and fit together like puzzle pieces, thinking that they’re defective because their sex life didn’t fit the old notion of what “sex” was. I thought we were all wrong. You said we were right. In doing so, you freed me from feeling inadequate, broken, defective and damaged. My mental state, my physical state, and above all, my husband and I thank you from the bottom of our hearts.
Do you want to join in the discussion? I welcome your comments!