The European Court of Human Rights issued a decision on July 24, 2017 rejecting a ruling of a Portuguese court based on “the assumption that sexuality is not as important for a 50-year old woman and mother of two children as for someone of a younger age” (majority ruling as quoted by Sewell Chan in The New York Times on July 25, 2017).

Marvin Roaw/Pixabay
Source: Marvin Roaw/Pixabay

Ample evidence from epidemiologic studies — for example, in America, in the Netherlands, in Sweden —  shows that sexual relationships remain important to men and to women across the lifespan and easily adapt to changes associated with aging. This recognition has gained acceptance in modern culture and is reflected in initiatives as varied as the creation of a protected space for older couples at the Hebrew Home for the Elderly in Riverdale who form sexual relationships and the convening of an illustrious panel of international scientists (an endocrinologist, a psychologist, a gynecologist and a urologist) who declared that “frequent sexual activity can be prescribed as a medicine in order to improve both general and sexual health of individuals and of the couples.” Note that “sex” is not necessarily limited to intercourse. In research into the lives of older adults, the definition of “sexual behavior” includes “physical tenderness” and can include masturbation.   

Here are some of the documented benefits of sexual behavior between two people who have a relationship, although not necessarily a married one, later in life, assuming that they are consenting and that health risks are not present:

At the level of chemistry, for both men and women:

At the level of behavior:

  • Sex is movement. and movement is related to happier moods, regardless of what time of day, at least in the (generally younger) 10,000+ people who participated in a random time-sampling study using a smartphone app to track movement and collect self-report data. People who moved — regardless whether the movement was “exercise” or not — recorded happier moods and had higher life satisfaction, according to University of Cambridge, England researchers
  • Sex can be exercise.  Just how much “exercise” may be controversial, but, generally, judicious exercise is considered good for our health in many ways and at any age.  
  • Sex is fun.   A 2004 national study showed sex as the #1 activity associated with self-reported happiness

At the level of emotion:

At the level of cognition:

  • Sex enhances self-esteem.  At any age, people feel better when they are sought after by other people. Having a partner who wants to be with you in such a close and connected way increases feelings of self-worth, the lynch-pin of psychological health, according to theories of psychological health derived from Adlerian principles.  
  • Sex allows people to believe they have something of value to give. Data document the benefits of generosity to happiness and quality of life. Being a responsive sexual partner is an act of great generosity

At the interpersonal level:

At the cultural level:

  • Attitudes towards sexual behavior vary dramatically among people of different cultural backgrounds.  Europeans may be more likely than Americans, with our emphasis on the attractiveness of youth, to appreciate the pleasures of physical intimacy as integral to living a good life. If there is a secret to aging well, Frenchwomen must know it.
  • Being consistent within one’s cultural view of aging can bring a sense of coherence to one’s identity. Sense of coherence is associated with health and longevity. At the same time, feeling rejection of a part of the self within one’s culture based on an external characteristic like gender or number of years lived in this world — i.e., sexism or ageism —  can create conflict and leave one feeling diminished. This has negative health consequences.  
  • Generational differences in sexual attitudes and practices demonstrate the extent to which people shift behaviors towards consistency with their peers.  

Finally, at a spiritual level:  

  • Being able to take care of someone else sexually invokes feelings of gratitude, a source of appreciation for our resources
  • Rewarding sex can require generosity, tuning in to the needs and wants of another person and reaching out to fill them.  
  • Through all of the above, sexual behavior between two people who want to enjoy each other through physical touching can be can be a powerful way to communicate love

As the European Court of Human Rights affirmed, sexual behavior in people 50 and older has an important role to play in quality of life, ”physical and psychological relevance for the self-fulfillment [of women]” as well as promoting the welfare of men. The court decision was a wise one, providing institutional support for one of our most basic drives and greatest interpersonal needs.

Copyright 2017 Roni Beth Tower

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