Horny young people will likely grow up to be horny old people, yet sex in senior years remains taboo
The latest data suggests that regardless of our relationship status, we are all having less sex than we used to, so i‘s new series Sex, investigated is taking a peek at what is going on between the sheets in Britain’s homes.
Pictures of loving older couples cuddling together, smiling at one another, and holding hands, are all over social media. They’re sweet. They’re cute. They’re adorable. They say, ‘we made it’ and we say ‘awwwww’.
While we feel very sentimental about old age and love, cultural attitudes to old age and sex are decidedly less positive. At best, sex in old age tends to be viewed as a punchline, at worst as something grotesque. But, at what age do you imagine you will become sexless? How old do you think you will be when you stop enjoying flirting, touch, and orgasms? If you enjoy sex in your youth, why would you suddenly stop as you grow older?
Horny young people will likely grow up to be horny old people, yet sex in senior years remains taboo. Ageing inevitably brings changes; you will slow down, your health will decline, and fluctuating hormone levels mean your libido will not be the same as it was when you were a teenager. But this does not mean that sex suddenly stops being an enormous amount of fun. Erica Jong once said: “Sex doesn’t disappear, it just changes forms.” Sex when you’re older does change, but that does not mean it is any less important or satisfying than it was in your twenties.
To help lift the lid on silver sex, Tom*, an 82-year-old retired civil servant, has agreed to keep a sex diary for one week and to reflect on what he learned about himself after journaling every impulse, encounter, and fantasy, for seven days. Tom and his wife of 56 years Ann* live together in a retirement village in Yorkshire. Initially, Tom laughed at the suggestion he keep a sex diary. “I don’t think I’ll have much to tell you,” he said. “I’ve got diabetes, high blood pressure – the wife had cancer a few years ago and neither of us are very mobile. We used to have sex every day when we first got married, but you can’t do that when you’re older. I still like to be physically close to my wife though.”
Like so many of us, Tom equates sex with heterosexual, penetrative sex and that can seriously limit things – especially as we age. But, regardless of how old you are, only bad lovers think sex is just stuffing genitals into one another. Many older people have difficulties with erectile dysfunction and vaginal dryness, which can seriously impact the ability to have or enjoy penetrative sex – but that doesn’t mean they are not having sex. Shifting the focus away from penis in vagina sex and recognising that sexual pleasure takes many forms has been crucial to the study of sex and older adults.
In 2016, one of the first and largest longitudinal studies into the sex lives of 50 to 90-year-olds found “sexual activities in later life encompass more than penile–vaginal intercourse”. This might sound pretty obvious, but recognising older people are having a lot more sex than simply penetrative sex has far-reaching implications for researchers. For example, if an elderly person is enjoying plenty of mutual masturbation and oral sex, any survey that only focuses on ‘penile-vaginal intercourse’ won’t capture the nuance at work here. It is also very important for older people to recognise that an enjoyable sex life doesn’t require penetration.
‘I wouldn’t give up the orgasms for anything’
Irene* is 79 and has struggled to have penetrative sex with her husband since the menopause. “I have vaginal dryness and it makes sex with my husband almost impossible,” she said. “We’ve tried using lubricants, but it’s just too painful. He uses his hands on me and we give each other oral sex. For me, it’s about being close to him and about being sensual.” When I asked her if she was happy with her sex life she replied: “Oh yes! The orgasms are lovely. I wouldn’t give them up for anything.”
Dr Sharron Hinchliff led the UK’s first research programme on sex and older people. It was her research that initially challenged heteronormative attitudes around sex and older people. She also designed the UK’s first public health website that supports healthy sexual ageing, AgeSexandYou.com. She told me: “Physical touch is important at all ages. And for some people, sex becomes more pleasurable as they get older because of this. Sex and intimacy communicate so much, such as feeling desired, which can boost self-esteem. Intimate actions such as holding hands and playing footsy can be more important than sexual activity as we get older, especially for the older old, and those who experience poor health.”
Angela* is 72 and is one of many older people who have benefited enormously from the information available on Joan Price really helpful as well. She was the one who taught us that sex doesn’t have to involve penetration.”. “I still very much enjoy sex, and I think it’s very important in a loving relationship.” Angela enjoys regular sex with her husband and feels sex has just got better as they have got older. “My orgasms have changed though. They used to be really intense, and now they are longer but softer. For a long time, my husband thought it was him, but we did a bit of research and it turns out that orgasms do change as you age. We found the work of
Sex is good for adults of any age but staying sexually active in your twilight years has been shown to have enormous health benefits. Regular sex decreases stress, boosts the immune system, improves mental health to name but a few. In 2018, researchers concluded sexual activity is directly linked to how much older adults enjoy life. In 2010, two American surveys found a satisfactory sex life is linked with good health in old age. Yet despite the obvious and abundant perks to senior sex, it remains highly stigmatised.
I asked Dr Hinchliff why sex when you’re older is still so taboo. “I think it’s mainly down to ageism. As a society we don’t associate sexual activity with older adults, so we tend not to view older adults as sexual beings. We live in a highly visual culture so when sexual expression and sexual agency are shown to us, through advertisements, TV, and film, they are firmly connected with young people. The sexual health promotion campaigns are aimed at young people too, which obscures the sexuality of older adults.”
‘I can’t go to a gay club in my 70s’
Joseph* is 77 and single. As an older, gay man, he feels his sexuality is particularly stigmatised. “I hate being old,” he told me. “I don’t feel any older now than I did when I was younger, but no one fancies me any more. I can’t go to a gay club in my seventies. I’d be seen as a dirty old man. I get very lonely.” When Joseph began taking anti-depressants, he found it very difficult to orgasm. When he went back to his GP to explain this, he was met with surprise that this should even be a concern for him. “I can’t orgasm when I am taking the drugs, but the doctor laughed when I explained this. I know he wouldn’t have done that with a younger man. But orgasms are important to me too.”
Sadly, such discrimination is commonplace and something Dr Hinchliff sees regularly during her research. “Older adults face prejudice and discrimination when it comes to their sexual healthcare. I have heard lots of stories around, for example, older patients not being told about the sexual side-effects of a drug that has been prescribed to manage a health condition – one which they have to take for the rest of their life. Or not being referred for STI tests even when the patient thought it appropriate.”
‘It’s made me realise I am still sexual
I asked Tom if he had ever experienced similar ageism. “No-one talks to you about it. No-one expects oldies to be having sex. Until I did this diary, I didn’t think of myself as very sexual, but I’m doing alright really. I’ve really enjoyed writing everything down because it’s made me realise that I am still sexual. It’s important, isn’t it?’
It’s taken a long time, but healthcare providers, support services, and researchers are also starting to realise just how important sex is to older adults. Age UK has launched an online information page on sex in later life, as have the NHS, and the Terrance Higgins Trust. Early this year, the NHS distributed condoms to the over sixties for free in Derbyshire to combat the rise in STIs. And in 2017, the sexual health company FPA published their Older Person’s Policy to recognise the sexual rights of older people.
Dr Hinchliff also believes things are changing for the better. “There is more awareness of the sexuality of older adults, thanks to the combined efforts of activists, academics, film and TV producers, authors, including older adults themselves. In my view, the stigma associated with sex in older age is less obvious than it was 20 years ago. But there is still a stigma, and that’s what we’re working to change.”
If we’re lucky, we will get to be an older person. Thanks to the ground-breaking work being done right now, if we’re very lucky, we will get to be an older person whose right to sexual pleasure is respected. Older adults are having sex, and lots of it.
*Names have been changed