By Amanda Smith
21 years ago, a group of maverick gerontologists published a provocative research review candidly criticizing the ageist, stereotypical view towards sex so pervasive in American culture. Sexuality and Older People: Revisiting the Assumptions openly addressed age-related physiological changes affecting sex habits, but it also illustrated the sweeping consequences of defining sexuality in youth centric terms. Armed with decades of research, authors established that physiological and cultural factors are key determinants of sexual behavior, but ultimately argued advancing age should not reduce the opportunity to enjoy sex.
The study questioned why sexual expression did not evolve with the inevitable bodily changes that accompany age; finding fault in our culture’s narrow conception of sexual expression. Authors also questioned why it was not a priority to reassure the aging population that physiological changes (sometimes drastic) were normal and no indication of their attractiveness or inherent value as a partner. They illustrated the significant effects of a failure to address such a universal issue had by interviewing subjects to establish their knowledge about aging’s changes on biology, the sexual indications of those changes and most importantly, how experiencing these changes affected the ease and confidence with which they approached sexuality. Study after study revealed how the lack of education about normal bodily changes stifled the sexual confidence of the uninformed, who felt “weird,” “unsexy” and “inferior” in light of age’s physiological effects.
What stood in the way of intimacy in old age, they concluded, was the cultural lens through which we view sexuality – as exclusive territory and an exaltation of the young and beautiful. Culturally age averse, we prefer not to confront the inevitability of growing old; so the issue of aging sex is viewed with discomfort or even hostility, and remains a subject largely unspoken of.
Underrepresented at best and pitifully mocked at worst, the sexually-liberated elderly remain illusory in the cultural landscape. This socially-sanctioned taboo subconsciously inhibits an embrace of sexuality with age, creating a widely-held myths of asexual seniors.
At the dawn of the new century, many believe the conditions neccessary to dispel these myths have finally arrived. Just as the world witnessed the most dramatic increase in human life expectancy ever recorded, a generation of change-makers are entering their later years. With their large population and a marked increase in life expectancy, baby boomers are now the fastest-growing segment of the US population. In 2000, one out of ten Americans were 65 and older, according to the U.S. Census Bureau; by the year 2030, it’s estimated that one in every five will be 65 or over.
Notorious for their sheer size and influence on social convention, boomers may redefine aging and sexuality as well. Recent experts say as boomers age, more and more studies dispel the myth that older people don’t have sex or enjoy it. “There is no age limit on sexuality,” reports Stephanie A. Sanders, PhD, and director at a top sexual research group. She reports that while frequency/ability to perform declines modestly as seniors experience normal changes with age, the majority of those currently ages 50-80 are far more enthusiastic about sex and intimacy than those in the past.
“If you stay interested, stay healthy and have a good mate, you can have good sex all your life,” says geriatrics expert Walter Bortz, geriatrics professor at Stanford Medical School. “Best of all, it’s good for you! There’s strong data all over: It’s a matter of survival,” he says. “People that have sex live longer. People need physical connection. The more intimate the connection, the more powerful the effects.”
Experiencing their mature years with greater wellness than ever before, boomers are are able to assign increased importance to personal relationships, as their health lasts long past the demanding decades devoted to children and careers. Modern seniors have more time and energy to explore their love lives and innovate their expression of intimacy.
And the research confirms it, boomers are making intimacy a priority. An AARP study revealed a clear majority of both genders age 45 and up say a satisfying sexual relationship is important to quality of life. Of those aged 45-59 with sexual partners, 56% said they had sex once a week or more; of those ages 60-70 with partners, 46% of men and 38% of women have sex at least once a week, as did 34% of those 70 and up.
Similar findings emerged in a survey conducted by the National Council on the Aging – nearly half of all Americans ages 60 and up have sex at least once a month. Not only were they having sex, they desired to have it more frequently. Another finding: people find mates more physically attractive over time.
As for the act of making love, it just gets better with age, says Cornelia Spindel, 75, who married her husband Gerald, 75, when she was 72. “We feel like young lovers or newlyweds. I felt like I was able to make love better when I was 30 than when I was 20, and now I have a whole lifetime of experience.”
Gerald agrees, and dislikes the patronizing attitude many people display toward older people who enjoy intimacy. “Whenever we’re asked how long we’ve been married, we say ‘two years,’ and they say, ‘Oh, that’s so cute.’ We’re ‘cute?!’ What does that mean?”
Cornelia agrees. “I don’t know anything about being cute. Our love life is very warm. And very satisfying.”
Evolving sexual attitudes have also prompted a more open dialogue surrounding sex and the aging body. No longer viewed as a barrier to a healthy sex life, age-related sexual changes are increasingly treated as a normal part of life by medical professionals. Often, it’s as simple as reassuring couples they are not defective, instead advising them to spend more time on arousal.
Boomers also enjoy medical advances facilitating longer traditional sex lives. As estrogen levels drop in postmenopausal women, decreasing the physical response to arousal, doctors can offer effective remedies like hormone-replacement therapy. Men may suffer from impotence as blood circulation slows and testosterone levels decrease, but revolutionary drugs like Viagra, Levitra and Cialis have breathed new life into older men – at least the ones willing to approach their doctors.
In spite of these hopeful pharmaceutical advances, studies show only a fraction of seniors suffering from sexual dysfunction actually seek medical help. That’s too bad, experts say, because it’s often as simple as removing excess alcohol and changing medications that interfere with sexual function.
Medical breakthroughs aside, the real sexual contribution of the boomer generation may be their ability to redefine the social concept of “lovemaking” by focusing more on intimacy and closeness instead of sex alone. By normalizing aging’s effect on sexuality, seniors may feel free to transcend the preoccupation with sexual performance in a traditional sense, transforming cuddling, kissing and other methods of sexual enjoyment into celebrated staples of mature sexuality. Liberated from culture’s rigid definition of sex, boomers may revolutionalize social views on intimacy and sexual expression, redefining yet another cultural convention of American life.