A 2007 study of 3,000 older Americans concluded that although sexual functioning declines with age, even the very old may continue to engage in sexual activities—as did 26% of those 75-85 years of age in this study.1 Given the physiological changes associated with aging, people’s motivations for lovemaking and having sex may change as they grow older. In general, people have sex for a variety of reasons: Physical pleasure, love, intimacy, self-affirmation, rebellion, obligation, peer pressure, power and status, procreation, etc. But what motivates sexual activity in older age? New research investigating this question, the first of its kind, was published in the September issue of The Journal of Sex Research.2
The study’s sample comprised 47 older adults (24 men, 23 women) living in Israel—23% were from Israel, 9% were from Africa, 11% from Asia, 23% were from Europe, and 23% were from the U.S.
The majority (73%) were married; about 21% were divorced, 4% were widowed, and 1% were single.
Participants were age 60-91 and had an average of 13.5 years of education. Nearly 44% reported having sexual problems, but more than half had not discussed their problems with a doctor.
The investigation included in-depth interviews with the participants. Researchers asked questions such as:2
- How do you define sexuality?
- How do you define sexuality in old age?
- In your opinion, what are the sexual motivates (the reasons to engage in sex) in older age?
- In what ways do you think the reasons to engage in sex are different in older age than in younger ages?
- In your opinion, why would older people avoid sex?
Analysis of interview responses revealed five common themes, which researchers divided into the two categories of personal and interpersonal motives.
Personal motivations for sex in old age
To maintain a healthy level of functioning. Some participants reported engaging in sex for its potential health benefits and to avoid loss of functioning. Just as eating healthy or exercising regularly has benefits for one’s body and mind, they said sex too can be viewed as another way to maintain one’s overall health.
To feel young again. Another theme was related to feeling young again—to avoiding thoughts of death and disability. As a 61-year-old interviewee said, “As people grow older, they need to prove to themselves that they could actually do it,” and to “make sure that they are not losing it, that they haven’t reached the age where...they can’t perform anymore.”2
To feel desirable and attractive. Many people interviewed expressed concerns regarding their appearance (e.g., wrinkles, loose skin). They engaged in sexual activities, they reported, so they could experience themselves as attractive and sexy again—and for men, to feel masculine again. As a 60-year-old female participant said, older individuals have sex for “the attention, to feel confident...desired, attractive.”2
Interpersonal motivations for sex in old age
To obtain intimacy and closeness. Interviewees noted that when they were young, they engaged in sex because of sexual desire (and later to have children); but as they got older, relational motives became more important. Enjoyment and relief, as goals of sexual activity, were replaced by emotional closeness, warmth, and support. Now it was less about the activity itself and more about being together and emotionally connected.
To please one’s partner. Reflecting on their youth, interviewees—especially men—felt their motivations for sex had been “selfish.”Now that sexual desire was weaker, they found themselves consciously “reinventing” reasons for lovemaking, one of which was engaging in sex as a way to focus on and satisfy their partner’s needs and desires.
Changing sexual motives
People report a variety of motivations for engaging in sex. Young people, for instance, participate in sexual activities for reasons related to pleasure, procreation, valuing and being valued, showing care, to experience personal and partner’s power, and stress-relief.3 Because of physiological changes associated with aging, older people need to find new motives and new conceptions of sexual activity. A positive attitude toward sex is key. In the study reviewed today, older participants reported having sex for health benefits, to feel young and attractive, to obtain closeness, and to please one’s mate. As one participant (a 65-year-old woman) said, sexual relations make one "feel as if you are still whole."2
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1. Lindau, S. T., Schumm, L. P., Laumann, E. O., Levinson, W., O’Muircheartaigh, C. A., & Waite, L. J. (2007). A study of sexuality and health among older adults in the United States. New England Journal of Medicine, 357, 762–774.
2. Gewirtz-Meydan, A., & Ayalon, L. (2019). Why do older adults have sex? Approach and avoidance sexual motives among older women and men. The Journal of Sex Research, 56(7), 870-881.
3. Hill, C. A., & Preston, L. K. (1996). Individual differences in experience of sexual motivation: Theory and measurement of dispositional sexual motives. Journal of Sex Research, 33, 27–45.