Why the Best Sex May Be Yet to Come

New research on older men's and women's evolving definitions of sexual activity.

Posted Sep 13, 2020

As teenagers and young adults, most of us tend to resist thinking of our parents — let alone our grandparents — as sexual beings.

Yet, as we ourselves age, we may start to confront these outdated stereotypes of older people not being sexually active and, instead, hope that we are lucky enough to have healthy and satisfying sex well into the last decades of our lives.

But what does sexual activity in older adults look like?

The Study

In a new study, just published in The Journal of Sex Research, Dr. Gore-Gorszewska recruited 30 men and women between ages 65 and 82 (the average age was 71.4 years old) living in Poland. Half the participants reported that they did not have a partner at the time of the study, 11 were in new relationships, and 4 were in long-term relationships. About two-thirds of the sample were retired. All participants identified as heterosexual.

The author conducted semi-structured interviews and used Thematic Analysis to explore the question: "What meanings do older women and men attach to sex?"

Sex as Intercourse

Most participants in this study described that when they were younger, sex was only considered to be penetrative sex or intercourse. Experiencing pleasure was either considered to be irrelevant or simply not the focus of sexual activity.

Men in this study reflected that "sex" meant penile-vaginal penetration and indicated this was the primary activity during their earlier sexual experiences. If penetration did not occur, several men in this study indicated that this meant they did not "have sex."

Women in this study noted that when they had sex when they were younger — again using the "sex as intercourse" definition — it was for their husband's sake and/or in order to procreate. Their descriptions of sex were functional and void of any discourse around pleasure.

Physical Intimacy

Notably, when men and women in this study talked about what sex meant to them now, versus earlier on in their lives, many described the increased importance of physical intimacy (e.g., kissing, fondling, and sexual touching) with sexual penetration playing a more minor role.

As one participant said, "We take it slowly. We talk, we hug, stroke and kiss, all that." (M, 66)

The author noted that discovering "sex" could be more than penetration allowed women to experience pleasure and enjoyment, and in some cases experience sexual desire, for the first time in their lives. As one participant described: "If you asked me before if I missed sex or wanted it, I'd say not at all. But now I understand what I've been missing my whole life and what sex truly is. Now I just love to make love." (F, 70)

The increased focus on female sexual pleasure and satisfaction was also described as being very rewarding and satisfying for men, who described experiencing joy from watching and being able to contribute to their female partner's pleasure.

The Fading Importance of Intercourse

The participants who described having evolved definitions of sexual activity indicated that penetrative intercourse was no longer essential to their experiences. These participants indicated that penetration would happen more incidentally, rather than being a necessity.

The author noted that the decreased focus on intercourse was rarely linked to health problems for participants in this study, but was rather the result of both partners being satisfied with other forms of physical intimacy and not "needing" penetrative intercourse. As one male participant described:

"We constantly want to be closer and closer. This physical closeness is so natural for us and so rewarding. It doesn't really matter if we have intercourse or not. We lie in bed and stroke each other for hours. It's the best sex I've ever had." (M, 67)

Take Away

Penetrative intercourse tends to dominate many people's understandings of sexual activity. However, the older men and women in this study described that their evolving definitions of sex, which now included more physical intimacy, were more pleasurable and satisfying than their previous, narrow definitions and experiences.

While the participants in this study were, on average, in their seventies, the findings could be helpful for any of us in sexually active relationships, regardless of age. That is, even if we're not yet in our post-retirement years, now is as good a time as any to consider whether we hold too-narrow definitions of sex, and whether our sexual activity could look and feel more pleasurable and satisfying if we expanded our definitions to include more physical intimacy.

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Gore-Gorszewska, G. (2020). "What do you mean by sex?" A qualitative analysis of traditional versus evolved meanings of sexual activity among older men and women. The Journal of Sex Research,