Why Good Sex Matters for Older Adults
Five insights into sex and intimacy as we age
Posted Jan 13, 2020
As I launch my book Why Good Sex Matters: Understanding the Neuroscience of Pleasure for a Smarter, Happier, and More Purpose-Filled Life, I’ve decided to begin a blog as well, about sex, love, and life.
Background: Ashton is an old friend up to new tricks. When I met her 20 years ago, we were both in our 40s, engaging in careers that would take twists and turns we could not have anticipated. I expanded from psychotherapy and sex therapy to studying neuroscience and publishing several studies on the neural correlates of orgasm and the power of imagery to activate the brain's pleasure centers. (The brain, after all, is the most important sexual organ.)
Ashton, previously a writer about topics such as Cutting Loose: Why Women Who End Their Marriages Do So Well, became an expert in ageism. Ashton's expertise is undeniable: She has been recognized by The New York Times, NPR, and the American Society on Aging as such.
It has been some years since Ashton and I had time for a conversation, so this piece presented an opportunity to catch up, share our respective passions, and reconnect. Here are the highlights, incorporating Ashton's insights with my clinical observations:
Insight #1: One of the most toxic narratives we have as a culture is equating youth with beauty. The corollary is “old equals ugly.” There is misogyny embedded in this as it is applied more damagingly to women. We are simultaneously enculturated to believe that our primary value is based on being sex objects, and that comes with an expiration date. As a result, we buy into the notion that good sex is the province of young people.
The truth is that more mature women often report being more comfortable with their sexuality, having learned more about their bodies, how to take risks to ask for what they want, how to claim their desire, and ultimately feel more comfortable in their bodies, despite the lumps and bumps. The body acceptance movement and related work on ageless sexuality championed by advocates like Joan Price have done much to encourage us to love our bodies across our life spans and celebrate the power of female sexuality.
One of my research participants was a 74-year-old great grandmother who donated two orgasms to science in the fMRI scanner, the least sexy place in the world—no easy feat at any age. As described in my book, the message I got from each of the ladies of the orgasm lab was clear: what empowered them to fully embrace their sexuality was rooted in learning to love their bodies as they were. Radical self-acceptance!
Insight #2: Confidence is the most powerful aphrodisiac on the planet. If you talk to sexually active women, the ones who are having the best time aren't necessarily the thinnest, the prettiest, or the fittest. They are the ones who believe that their lovers are lucky to have them." Although it does take increasing courage as we age to take off our clothes and go to bed with a lover, when we shed our "sexpectations" (implicit beliefs about how we are supposed to look and how sex is supposed to be) we can immerse ourselves more fully in the experience. And being in the moment is where all of the fun is. Good sex is all about being present.
Insight #3: The dogma of successful aging is a load of crap. To successfully age in our culture involves spending obscene amounts of money to pretend we aren't getting old. To pretend not to age is anti-aging. We can throw tons of money at crow's feet and have all the cosmetic surgery we want, but the truth is that we age. Period. We need to redefine successful aging to embrace the process of aging rather than deny it. We need to radically accept that getting old is okay.
Insight #4: Some fears of getting old are rooted in facts. We worry about running out of money and the inevitable decline of our bodies. Things begin to hurt. Some things may not work. And that sucks. But the good news is that as we age, we can almost always do the things that are truly important to us.
Sex is a great example of that. When we are young, our metrics for our sex lives tend to involve data about the number of orgasms, the number of times we have sex, the potency of the erections, etc. Yes, things might slow down as we age and orgasms might not be as accessible. But the truth is that research has recently highlighted the enormous benefits of being active in mind and body as way more important in the bigger picture in terms of our overall well-being than our chronological age.
As we age, we have the opportunity to re-examine our relationship to the stats of sex, be more focused on giving and receiving pleasure, and connecting intimately, authentically, and fully with our partners. There is simply no expiration date on having fun in the erotic playground with our partners.
Insight #5: Giving up sex is okay at any age—but giving up pleasure is not. As I establish empirically in my book, pleasure is not a luxury but a necessity for a well-functioning emotional brain. By expanding our concept of sexuality to include the erotic, which enlivens and gives us joy, we can expand the limited notion of being sexual as involving the genitals and friction to a broader menu of turn-ons. We can approach living and loving with a passion that allows us to experience vitality and sexuality (if we choose) as long as we are alive.
Wise, N. J., Frangos, E., & Komisaruk, B. R. (2017). Brain activity unique to orgasm in women: An fMRI analysis. The journal of sexual medicine, 14(11), 1380-1391