If I were a mischief-maker or home-breaker I would bring together two of my acquaintances who don’t know each other but have one thing in common: they’re both stuck in sexless marriages. The woman, in her 50s, once told me she hoped to have sex at least one more time before she died; a hope likely to be dashed if she stays monogamous. My male acquaintance, in his 60s, told me that only when world peace arrived would his wife judge the conditions right for sex. Unwilling to wait so long my friend had found that if he asked his wife nicely and repeatedly she’ll say: “‘Do it, don’t take too long, and let me know when you’ve finished.’”
It was sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll for baby boomers in their 20s and 30s – well for many of us. But as yesterday’s sexual adventurers move through their 50s and 60s some are finding their sex lives have fizzled out. The sexual revolution has turned into a damp squib. The usual story we hear about mature-age sex is quite upbeat. Typical is a headline I read recently: Sex gets better with age say scientists. The dominant message from sex therapists is that we’re sexual beings until we die. Nursing homes are re-writing their rule books so residents can enjoy some consensual nooky without Nurse Ratchet blowing the whistle.
But beneath the boosterism is a competing story of resentment, frustration, indifference and sadness. It bubbles to the surface in the occasional survey of sexual practice or in comments on online sites like the New York Times “Booming” or on the Australian site Women’s sexual well-being and ageing run by the University of New England and La Trobe University. Here you’ll find narratives of lost desire, painful sex, refusenik partners, and sex lives cut short by prostate and other cancers, by ill health, and chronic pain.
I know it’s silly to generalise about a generation’s sex life. For every sixty-something couple who’ve moved into separate bedrooms, there are empty-nesters who’ve re-discovered the joys of sex in retirement – morning sex! 4 pm sex! noisy sex! For every divorced or single person for whom sex is a wistful memory, others feel as crazy as teenagers with new partners and new positions to carry them through the third age.
But the latest evidence – from the US – paints a less-than-rosy picture. The 2010 National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior is based on 5,865 men and women. It shows a marked decrease in sexual activity as we age. Half of the women aged 50 to 59 have not had sex in the last year. That compares with 30 per cent of those 40 to 49, before menopause for most women. In the case of men, 42 per cent of those 50 to 59 have not had sex in the last year versus 15 per cent of those 30 to 39.
Asked about their activity in the previous month, 40 per cent of women 50 to 59 have had sex (but only 29 per cent aged 60 to 69) compared to 56 per cent of women aged 40 to 49. Among men, 44 per cent aged 50 to 59 have had sex compared to 61 per cent of those 40 to 49. About ten per cent of men and women 50-59 said they had sex two to three times a week, about one-third the rate of those 25 to 29.
Waning desire and painful intercourse are common issues for post-menopausal women, subject to oestrogen depletion; 62-year-old “Mary”, writing on the Women’s sexual well-being and ageing website, mourns the loss of her younger “juicy and ardent self.” Over time, she says, “My libido, and with it my body’s ability to respond sexually, have faded to zippo…..Indeed, I say laughingly, my vagina has turned to velcro.” In Mary’ case, her husband is “kind and generous”, and apparently happy with kisses and cuddles. But my male friend, faced with his own “Mary,” is far from happy; he feels, diminished, unwanted, and angry about the power imbalance: “If she doesn’t want to, we don’t do it.” And, contemplating the potential 25-year sexual drought ahead, he doesn’t much like the options: celibacy, prostitutes, affairs, masturbation.
But women, too, can find the door shut by men with low libido and erection problems. Sandy, on the Australian website, writes: “After several attempts and the unsuccessful occasional use of Viagra, he found it too frustrating….and so we mutually agreed to close that particular door.”
For wise words on later-life sex I turned to Elaine George, a sex therapist and director of Sexology Australia. Thinning vaginal walls after menopause meant “intercourse can hurt like hell,” and put women off for good, she said. She recommends water-based lubricants such as Sylk, available in the supermarket, or oestrogen pessaries. If you wait till you’re in the mood, you might indeed be waiting for world peace. Elaine says scheduling “couple-time”, putting the focus on “pleasuring” and taking it off intercourse and orgasm, are ways to get sex started. We have to allow ourselves to become aroused and then desire can follow, she says. And to that end lubricants, erotic literature, fantasy may be necessary, and a lover who takes no short cuts.
But it also takes good will, a willingness to get around the road blocks thrown up by our changing bodies. And for many couples, cumulative resentments and a lack of emotional connection eliminate the possibility of being generous towards each other. So can sex get better with age? “Because you’re more trusting, more loving, more liberated, you can take sex to new heights, explore things you haven’t done in earlier years,” Elaine said.
Yet a sexless marriage is not necessarily an unhappy one. My friends love their respective partners and don’t intend to leave. Still I’ll not venture that introduction.
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