One thing doesn’t change, older men’s—and women’s—ability to enjoy erotic pleasure. But with age, sex changes. It becomes less like the Fourth of July, and more like Thanksgiving. However, even without exploding fireworks, the erotic flames can still burn hot and bright—if older men adjust to the changes aging brings, and if women involved with older men understand what’s happening to their lovers.
When does a man become sexually “older?” It varies, but usually between 45 and 50. A medically problematic lifestyle, for example, smoking, typically accelerates the changes, and a healthy lifestyle may postpone them, but even men in robust health with exemplary lifestyles experience age-related sexual changes. Depending on the man, the changes may develop gradually or surprisingly suddenly, like within six months.
1. Erections become iffy.
After 45 and certainly by 50, erections rise more slowly and become less firm and reliable. Sexual fantasies are no longer enough to raise one. Men need fondling, and as they grow older, often increasing amounts of more vigorous stroking. It’s disconcerting to lose firmness and suffer wilting from minor distractions—a phone ringing—but these changes are normal. Unfortunately, many men mistake them for erectile dysfunction (ED) and become anxious that they're nearing the end of the erotic ropes. This makes things worse. Anxiety constricts the arteries that carry blood into the penis, making erections even less likely.
In addition, many medical conditions impair erections, accelerate age-related sexual changes, and contribute to ED: obesity, diabetes, heart disease, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and lack of regular exercise.
True ED involves the inability to raise an erection despite extended, vigorous masturbation. If older men can still get an erection solo, they don't have ED. They have normal (annoying, perhaps infuriating) erection changes. “Here’s my advice to older men with balky erections,” says Palo Alto, California, sex therapist Marty Klein, Ph.D, “Relax, breathe deeply, ask for the kind of touch that excites you, and instead of mourning what you’ve lost, focus on the pleasure you can still enjoy.”
Even true ED need not limit sexual pleasure, says retired Maryland anesthesiologist Ken Haslam, M.D., who teaches workshops on sex and aging, “Men don’t need erections to have orgasms. I’m 76, and I’ve had wonderful orgasms without erections.”
2. Premature ejaculation (PE) may return.
PE is usually considered a young man’s problem, the result of over-excitement in young bucks starting to rut. But the landmark University of Chicago “Sex in America” study shows that many men—about one-third—report it throughout the lifespan, meaning that PE is men’s most common, most persistent sex problem. A recent scientifically rigorous survey shows that PE affects 31 percent of men in their fifties, 30 percent in their early sixties, 28 percent from 65 to 70, and 22 percent from 75 to 85.
PE has two major causes, anxiety and penis-centered sex. Anxiety makes the nervous system—including the nerves that trigger ejaculation—more excitable. Young men are often anxious about sex: Will she let me? How do I do this? The reason PE sometimes returns after 50 is that age-related erection changes make men anxious: Will I get hard? Will I stay hard? What the @#$% is happening to me?
Penis-centered sex puts more pressure on the little guy than he can handle. Our sexual culture is preoccupied with intercourse, which leads men of all ages to believe that erotic pleasure is located largely—or only—in the penis. It isn’t. Older men, in fact, all men, should embrace leisurely, playful, whole-body touching and sensual massage, which reduces anxiety and allows arousal to spread all over the body. This takes the pressure off the penis and reduces the risk of PE. It also pleases women, whose most common complaint about men’s lovemaking is that it’s too rushed and too genital focused.
3. Intercourse fades from the sexual menu.
Intercourse is fundamental to reproduction, but after the reproductive years, it becomes problematic. For older men, iffy erections and ED become increasingly prevalent. Meanwhile, older women, develop vaginal dryness and atrophy (thinning and inflammation of the vaginal lining), which can make intercourse uncomfortable or impossible, even with lubricant.
Older couples who remain sexual typically abandon intercourse in favor of what Haslam calls “outercourse,” whole-body massage, oral sex, and playing with sex toys. With creative outercourse, older couples can enjoy very erotic, orgasmic sex without intercourse.
If women involved with older men want to feel "filled up," well-lubricated fingers and dildos are good alternatives.
4. Surprisingly few older men use erection drugs.
The myth is that older men pop erection pills routinely. The truth is that few have even tried them, let alone become regular users. German researchers surveyed 3,124 older men, 40 percent of whom reported erection difficulties. Ninety-six percent could name an erection drug, but only 9 percent had ever tried one. Cornell researchers surveyed 6,291 older men, half of whom complained of erection problems. How many had tried a drug? Just 7 percent. As older lovers take intercourse off the sexual menu, men no longer need erections, so they don’t need erection drugs.
5. Men’s sexual pace becomes more like women’s.
Young men become aroused more quickly than young women, and many young women complain, “He’s all finished before I even feel aroused.” But older men take longer to feel turned on. The transition to slower arousal is disconcerting for many men, but it means that the sexual discord of youth can evolve into new sexual harmony. “Compared with young lovers,” explains Richard Sprott, Ph.D., a developmental psychologist at California State University, East Bay, in Hayward, “older couples are more sexually in synch. Couples who appreciate this can enjoy more fulfilling sex at 65 than they had at 25—even without erections and intercourse.”