Fulfillment at Any Age

How to remain productive and healthy into your later years

What Your Grandmother Didn’t Tell You About Her Sex Life

How does, or will, your sexuality change as you get older?

For many people, aging implies a complete loss of sexuality. Yet, logically, there is no reason why anyone 40, 50, 60 , or older should give up their sex lives. Why do we “de-sex” our elders? One obvious reason is that if people older than you are having sex, this could mean that your parents- or worse- your grandparents are “doing it.” That’s a tough image for many people to swallow. This was humorously portrayed in the HBO series “Girls,” when the lead character rescues her father after he fell in the shower after having sex with her mother. Everyone treated the situation surprisingly well. However, this is by far the exception. Can you imagine yourself helping your naked parent recover from a sexual accident? It’s a pretty powerful image, is it not?

In a TV comedy intended to provide plenty of shock value, such a far-fetched scene is intended to push all of our buttons, and if you haven’t seen it, just hearing about it probably pushes a few of yours. The fact is, however, that people continue to have sexual relationships for their entire adult lives. The National Social Life, Health, and Aging Project (NSHAP) was conducted on a large national sample of adults 57 to 85 years of age. As described in an extensive article by Principal Investigator Linda Waite of the University of Chicago (2009), the study was intended to test the hypothesis that older adults with strong sexual and intimate relationships would have more favorable health in general. They defined sexuality as reflecting a combination of physical ability, motivation, attitudes, opportunity, and actual sexual behavior.

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You might wonder just how to go about constructing a survey to test these potentially sensitive personal questions, particularly to people who (if the stereotypes are true) would feel uncomfortable answering them. However, Waite and her team believed that the best way to get the information was just to ask for it. They certainly respected their respondents, but didn't hesitate to ask them the tough questions needed to gain as complete a picture as possible of their sexual history, practices, and attitudes. They clearly had to get over the mindset that they were asking their parents, or their grandparents, to provide such private information. The best way to approach this problem was to make the questions as straightforward as possible, to act professionally, and not to become embarrassed themselves by the answers they were getting.

Because the study was carried out at one point in time, the researchers couldn’t establish causality between sexuality and health. The authors believed that active sexuality is important for good physical and mental health, but they had no way of teasing apart how much healthy sexuality contributes to these other features of a healthy life or vice versa. However, in this phase of the study, the researchers were looking simply to describe their sample. A follow-up would be needed to find out if sexual behavior at time 1 would predict mental and physical health at a later time.

The authors recognized that because they were comparing different age groups within the 57 to 85 range, they could not conclude that the patterns they observed in the results were due to the effects of aging. In analyzing the responses, Waite and colleagues did try to find out which differences were due to generational effects. That is, the older adults in this age range would have reached early adulthood in a sexually more conservative time than the younger adults, who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s, which had far more progressive attitudes. As you’ll see, there were some areas of sexual functioning in which those different cultural and historical influences played an important role.

The researchers obtained much of the information about sexuality through interviews, including the standard information about sex and marital status of the respondents. These were reasonably straightforward questions, the stuff of much survey research. The questions because more delicate, however, if respondents weren't married. People who answered something other than being married or cohabiting were asked if they had a romantic, intimate, or sexual partner. The interviewers then went on to ask the remaining questions about this sexual partner, who they labeled the "current partner." Remember, again, that some of these respondents could have been as old as 85 years. You might think of questions about a sexual partner as more appropriate for a person 50 or more years younger than these participants. If so, you're already confronting one of the stereotypes that we have about aging. This reaction can give you insight into why scientific objectivity is so important in any kind of research, but particularly in research that touches on sensitive topics such as sexuality and aging. 

Because it was theoretically possible for researchers to spend hours interviewing respondents about the sexual history of their entire lives, Waite and her team focused on the 3 most recent partners within the past 5 years. They also asked if the respondent expected to have sex with the partner again.

The questions about sexual partners were asked in person, but perhaps recognizing that either the interview would take too long or tread on really sensitive information, the researchers asked questions about attitudes toward extramarital sex and sexual values and beliefs in a printed questionnaire that respondents were asked to return by mail.

To find out about attitudes toward extramartical affairs, respondents stated whether a particular behavior was "always wrong, almost always wrong, wrong only sometimes, or not wrong at all." The behaviors included a married person having sexual relations with someone other than their marriage partner. Given the age of the respondents, they also answered questions about hypothetical situations in which the spouse or partner was ill with dementia or another mental or physical ailment, or was unable to have sex at all. Perhaps the researchers felt it would be better to ask these particularly sensitive questions, which would seem subject to response bias, in a way that allowed respondents to feel more private.

Similarly, respondents were asked to indicate their agreement with statements about their general values and beliefs regarding sexuality, such as "I would not have sex with someone unless I was in love with them, my religious beliefs have shaped and guided my sexual behavior, satisfactory sexual relations are essential to the maintenance of a relationship, and the ability to have sex decreases as a person grows older.

Finally, also using the paper-and-pencil questionnaire, the researchers asked respondents about how important they believe sex to be, how often they think about sex, the importance of satisfactory sexual relations for the maintenance of a relationship, and how often they had sex because they felt obligated or that it was their duty.

Now that you've seen the questions, ask yourself both how you would answer them and how you think the older adults in the sample would. Of the 1550 women and 1445 men in the sample, reflecting demographics and the relative rarity of "cougar" women who have much younger partners, women were far less likely to have a current partner (41% 75 to 84 compared to 78% of men. Far fewer had ever cohabited, but the percent wasn't negligable, amounting to 21% of women 65-74, and 30% of men. The percents were lower in the older group, and higher in those 57-64, reflecting the fact that cohabiting is on the increase in successive generations of adults. Rather than being an effect of aging, the researchers concluded that this trend in cohabitation was one of many reflecting generational (or "cohort") effects. 

More men (3%) than women (1%) also reported multiple sex partners during the previous year. Fewer and fewer reported more than 2 heterosexual partnerships throughout their lives, also reflecting what the researchers believe to reflect cohort differences.

There were many other interesting statistics to emerge from this study, including the fact that in the oldest group, 38% of men and 17% of women are still sexually active. Most regarded vaginal intercourse as integral to their definition of sexual relations, but in the oldest group, this seemed to become more "optional." In the oldest groups, sexual activity seemed to consist almost entirely of kissing, hugging, and sexual touching, according to the authors. 

A substantial percentage reported having at least one same sex partner, with 7% and 3.4% of men and women, respectively. Many of these elders also engaged in oral sex (28% of men and and 36% of women), but the percentages were higher in each younger cohort. Again, this pattern seems to reflect socialization and the differing acceptability of oral sex in successive generations. 

Time for a reality check. How are you doing as you imagine these older Americans engaging in "sexual touching?" Now it's time for an even stronger dose as we look at the results regarding masturbation. By definition, masturbation does not require a partner, so a person's frequency of masturbation should reflect almost purely, sexual interest. However, even those with partners were engaging in masturbation, including 63% of the men 57-64. In the older groups, people not having partnered sex were less likely to engage in masturbation, but the percent was not zero. 28% of men and 16% of women 75-85 reported that they masturbated at least once in the previous year. Even so, these percents were lower than among the 57-64 year-olds, who were products of a sexually more liberal culture during their formative years. 

Similarly, cultural influences seemed to account for the data showing that men at all ages were more positive about sex and sexual expression regardless of circumstances. Even the oldest-old men still said they had sexual thoughts. In general, however, attitudes toward sex were more conservative in the older cohorts. The oldest groups were most likely to regard extramarital sex as wrong and, for women, to believe that sex was necessary in order to maintain a relationship. The authors believe that women don't inherently come to value sex any less than men do, but that they adjust their sexual thoughts according to the availability of a partner. Grandma needs a grandpa in order for her to feel like having sex, but grandpa thinks about sex regardless. 

One of the more important discoveries of this study had nothing to do with sex, but with affection more generally. Almost all of the participants hug or hold their partner fairly often (90%) if they have one. If they don't they don't have an outlet for this form of physical and emotional expression. The situation is particularly rough on older women, because if they lack a chance to express their intimacy in non-sexual ways, their mental, if not their physical, health can suffer.

The moral of the story is that older men for sure, and older women, if they have a partner, experience a full range of sexual feelings which they seem to enjoy right up to the end. The study also shows how important cultural influences are on the way we think about, and express, our sexuality. Those cohort effects were substantial in almost all ares of sexual functioning and attitudes. However, they are not limited to sexuality as many studies on aging are subject to the same influences. It was just easier to spot them in this area of psychological functioning.

With luck, you'll have what Masters and Johnson called "an interesting and interested partner" with whom to enjoy your later years. At the very least, you can hope to find someone to hug, and to hug you back.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2013

Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Her latest book is The Search for Fulfillment.

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