The sex lives of older Australians

November 9, 2014

What does the second Australian sex survey tell us about the sex lives and attitudes of older people? For a start it reveals people in their sixties in relationships have sex once a week on average. “And why not?” says Professor Juliet Richters, a researcher from the University of NSW. “Most people in their sixties are fairly healthy.” 

In the first national sex survey conducted in 2002, people aged over 59 were excluded. Was it thought older people didn’t have sex or would be too embarrassed to tell the telephone interviewers the intimate details requested? In the latest survey, 60-69 year-olds have made the cut. And I’ve scanned the tables on your behalf to find out what they’re up to. It turns out the 60-69 year-olds were the least embarrassed of all age groups to answer questions that in another era might have made a sailor blush. People were asked at the end of a survey covering oral and anal sex, pubic hair shaving, and infidelity, for starters,  how embarrassed they’d felt responding: extremely, very, quite, slightly, not at all. And the oldest group were most likely to say they were “not at all” embarrassed.

What everyone wants to know is how often people do it.  And heterosexuals in regular relationships are doing it less often than they were 11 years ago. Blame it on taking laptops and mobile phones to bed, and bringing work home. On average, people in relationships have sex 1.4 times a week, down from 1.8 times. Younger people have sex more often: in the 20-29 group, it’s around twice a week on average. In the 50-59 group, it’s just over once a week. And the sixty-somethings aren’t far behind.

“Average” frequency of sex is a tricky figure that gives only a rough idea of what’s “typical.” It encompasses couples who have lots of sex in a week and those who never have sex. But it’s the best indicator we have. Even the young aren’t at it day and night, it seems. Virtually no respondent over 40 admitted to being a virgin – 99 per cent said they’d experienced sexual intercourse at some time in their life. “Lots of people were celibate in the 19th century,” Professor Richters said. “But now they’re invisible; there’s no space for celibates. Or else they’re not taking part in the survey.”

Twenty thousand Australians aged 16-69 did take part. It’s no rinky-dink exercise. It was funded by the National Health and Medical Research Council and involved sexual health experts from La Trobe University, the University of NSW and the University of Sydney. Its official title is the Second Australian Study of Health and Relationships but no-one calls it that except the funders. It’s our very own national sex survey.

The sexual repertoire of 60-69 year-olds turns out on average to be more limited than the younger age groups’. They were there at the birth of the sexual revolution. But not everyone in their sixties was a university student in the early 1970s, lived in a group house and had sex with different partners. The sexual revolution was long and slow, and many baby boomers missed their moment, marrying young and staying true. More sexual adventurers can be found in the generations that followed the baby boomers. Doubtless access to internet pornography, the liberal attitudes of their parents, and delayed marriage have helped.

Of heterosexual women in their sixties, for example, 35 per cent have never experienced oral sex – never “done it or had it done to them”, as Professor Richters put it; and the same applies to 20 per cent of the men. This would surprise the young. Of the groups aged 20-49, only 10 to 15 per cent have not experienced oral sex. The fifty-somethings are in-between.  As well, younger people’s first experience of sex in their teen years is often oral sex. They come to intercourse a bit later. The reverse is true of people in their sixties. They have come to oral sex later (and for a minority not at all).

A similar picture of narrower experience among heterosexuals in their sixties emerges with anal sex: only 14.7 per cent of the women have ever experienced it compared to 27 per cent of women in their thirties. For the older men 17.2 per cent have had anal sex compared to one-third of men in their thirties. Again the fifty-somethings are in-between. But for everyone it’s a minority practice. On issues such as homosexuality and pornography, older age groups (along with the teenagers) are somewhat less liberal in their attitudes than 20-49 year-olds. Age, though, is a less crucial factor in determining attitudes than religion or a non-English-speaking background.

Australians in regular heterosexual relationships are generally very happy with their sex and emotional lives. High proportions said they were “extremely satisfied.” But joy declines with age. Only 21 per cent of women in their sixties report “extreme” physical and emotional satisfaction compared to 40 per cent of women in their twenties. And the story is true for men, too. Similarly, people in relationships of more than 20 years were much less likely to report “extreme” emotional and physical satisfaction than couples together for three to 10 years. It might have something to do with familiarity. Or perhaps love accumulates over the decades in a quieter fashion.

The survey shows typical couples in their sixties have regular sex and aren’t embarrassed to talk about it. This might shock some younger people. But the study sheds no light on couples who’ve given up on sex or on the growing numbers of single and divorced women in their fifties and sixties. Do they hunger to be touched, happily lack desire, or lead adventurous sex lives? And what of the 70-plus age group? Will they make the cut next time? It would take a different survey, Professor Richters said, with many more questions on health, to illuminate the sex lives of the over-70s. Oh dear.

Is a good sex life important to a good relationship? Please comment.

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