Tag Archives: sex

Older people have more sex than you think

September 13, 2015
oldeage sex blog

Even though I won a Walkley award back in 1980 for writing a series of articles about sex in Australia it took another 20 years before I really believed old people had sex. The experts back then had told me the facts. But it wasn’t until my dear, late father-in-law in the year 2000 fell in love that I really took it on board.

He was nearly 84. From the age of 16 he’d loved just one woman and had been a devoted husband to her. Through her 15 years of Alzheimer’s he’d cared for her with breathtaking kindness. But a year after her funeral he fell in love with a woman who handed out the bibles at his church. One Sunday, she slipped a note into the bible she handed him.

It wasn’t the quiet companionate love I expected of octogenarians. The way my father-in-law told it, and he told it wonderfully, it was like teenage love. “The touch of her hand sends me crazy,” he once told me. My husband didn’t know where to look. They discussed Viagra but she demurred. So whether the sex they had was of the penetrative kind I doubt. But I would describe the relationship as intimate, as sexual.

Nothing prepares the younger generation for their parent’s mad love affair. If the parent happens to be in their eighties and is giddy with passion, you might feel, if not exactly disgusted, then maybe jealous. I’m fully convinced now that I’m 64, and research supports me, that older people are having more sex than you might think.

But what of people who’ve long past the giddy stage and are entering their 50th year of marriage? Can sex with the same person possibly stay interesting for a lifetime?  I turned to the voices of real people again. And in a book called 30 Lessons for Loving: advice from the wisest Americans on love, relationships and marriage, hundreds of long-time married people spoke about their love-life.

I particularly liked the observation of Alfredo Doyle 77. “Whatever it is you’re doing, just keep doing it,” he said. “You make do with what you’ve got basically….” But I also learnt the idea of sex expands to include a much wider range of loving and supportive behaviours than sexual intercourse. People used the word ‘intimacy’ a lot. Rebecca Gibson 81 said: “Even if you can’t complete the sexual act, cuddling and touching are very important.” Barring a troubled relationship history, or serious physical problems, the sexual side of a long-term marriage is going to be good enough, I learnt, and possibly much better than that.

Last week the Let’s Talk About Sex conference was held in Melbourne, sponsored by Alzheimer’s Australia (Victoria) and COTA Victoria. The aim was to dispel the stigma around sex and ageing and also to improve practices in nursing homes so residents can be safe from abuse but also able to give expression to their sexual selves. It’s imperative staff in aged care facilities, who are often from different cultures, some with strong religious beliefs, are trained in the lessons I’ve learnt. Just because people wear the wrinkles of experience, doesn’t’ mean they lack rich internal lives, and strong feelings about sex and intimacy. Sex is not the prerogative of the young.

Having said this let me throw in a caution. In trying to reverse the unflattering stereotypes of the asexual aged, there’s a danger we make sex in old age feel obligatory. It would be unfortunate if people are made to feel there’s something wrong with them if sexual desire has fallen away or if they lack a sexual partner.

As baby boomers grow older, we’ll grow more diverse. We know that on average people in their 60s have sex once a week if they have a partner. Beyond 69, we don’t know much in Australia because that’s the age our national sex survey cut out. From overseas, the surveys can paint a nuanced picture. The 2010 National Survey of Sexual Health and Behaviour in the US found only 29 per cent of women aged 60-69 had had sex in the previous month. For some of its participants the sexual revolution turned into a damp squib.

Singlehood is a big factor: about 20 per cent of Australian women in their 60s live alone, rising to 30 per cent in their 70s. It doesn’t mean they don’t have sex but the chances without a partner are reduced. This is a significant minority. Some sex lives are radically changed through prostate cancer, diabetes, and the high rate of anti-depressant use. People make adjustments, and help is available. People crave intimacy. Many women discover their sex life improves when sex is not focused on the erect penis, or when couples broaden their definition of sex.

It’s important to let the world know sex is for life. It’s important for nursing homes to re-write their rules, and for doctors to talk. It’s important to change the stereotypes about sexless elders. But can we do this necessary work in a way that doesn’t make a lot of people feel bad, people who can’t get sex as they’ve grown older, or don’t want it, or find it all too difficult?  Many might revel in being “sexy seniors” but some might be happy or resigned to putting that part of their life to bed.

What are your thoughts on this? I’d love to know. Please comment.

Coming of Age is updated every Monday. Click ‘subscribe for free’ to have it emailed to you.

The sex lives of older Australians

November 9, 2014
WENDY SHARPE: "LOVERS WITH GLOBE"
WENDY SHARPE: "LOVERS WITH GLOBE"

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.

Coming of Age is updated every Monday. Click on ‘Subscribe for free’ to have it emailed to you.   

Sex gets better with age, says who?

September 16, 2013
two single beds

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.

How has your sex life changed as you’ve aged? Please click on Comment.

Coming of Age is updated every Monday. Click ‘Subscribe for free’ to get it emailed to you.