Last week, during a public scuffle between 85-year-old Hugh Hefner and his hot young runaway bride Crystal Harris -- who gave a scathing account of their sexual encounters to no-holds-barred DJ Howard Stern -- I was assigned a story for another website about the actual sex lives of octogenarians, based on statistics drawn from scientific research.
Among other things, I learned that men aged 70 and up are 20 times more likely to have daily sexual fantasies than are women of that age. Seven times as many 50-something men perform oral sex on other men as do 70-something men. Twice as many 40-somethings have cheated on their spouses as have people aged 70 and up. And 11 percent of men aged 90 to 95 have had sex at least once in the past year.
Society tends to mock the very idea that people over 50 even think about sex, much
less have it.
"Yet the fastest-growing rate of STDs in this country is among people over 50. They're not getting it from toilet bowls," says psychologist and life coach Dorree Lynn, author of Sex for Grownups. "Also, people over 50 are now buying the largest number of vibrators.
"Sure, sex changes as we age. We have to learn to deal with this, because we're living longer.
"For some people, it gets better, because they can slow down and experience the real joys of what sex is about." This slowing-down "gives us the opportunity for real intimacy and real communication. Foreplay actually starts once we're older."
Health educator Melina Winterton, author of Great Sex After Forty, agrees. Sex among people whom society deems no longer young "is a closeted topic, the way homosexuality was closeted fifty years ago. ... Thanks to the baby boomers, we're in the midst of a social evolution as more and more people come out and say, 'I'm not the only person over 50 who's having sex. So is my next-door neighbor.'"
The very idea of erections among the aged is enough to make some laugh and others gag.
"This is probably very deeply biologically driven," Winterton says. "There is something a little repulsive about extreme age, because it's closer to death, so our reptilian brain says, 'That's not attractive.' This is very difficult to overcome, but one of our responsibilities as human beings is to overcome that repulsion, because otherwise we are animals."
An obligingly demographic-conscious media is advancing this social evolution, says journalist Gail Belsky, author of Over the Hill and Between the Sheets.
"Every other TV show and movie has middle-aged characters thinking about, talking about, and having sex. We're used to the sexy 50-something male star: George Clooney, Sean Penn, Bono. Now we see sexy 50-plus women all over the place, too: Julianne Moore, Kim Cattral, Sharon Stone, Madonna are all in their 50s. Meryl Streep and Helen Mirren are in their 60s. And Demi Moore, Marcia Cross and Sheryl Crow are all turning 50. Does anyone really think they don't have sex lives?
"Sex may be less frequent at 55 than at 35, but for a lot of people, it's more satisfying. You know what you like, you're not so self-conscious, you don't have anything to prove," Belsky asserts.
Lynn adds that our aging population needs a refresher course in sex education.
"Over 50 percent of people over 50 are now divorced or widowed, and they need to learn how to use condoms. They need to learn about 'the joys of toys.' We use eyeglasses. We use hearing aids. We use false teeth. Why not use vibrators?
"There's a wild sexual 'epidemic' going on right now in nursing homes and retirement communities," Lynn says. "Even with dementia and Alzheimer's disease, people don't lose desire. They just lose their inhibitions. Young doctors don't want to think about these old people having sex, but it's happening.
"Sex is a birthright."