Regular sexual activity is not only important for an individual adult’s mental and physical health, but it’s also an essential aspect of bonding for couples in committed relationships. As we grow older, we tend to experience health problems that can dampen our sexual desire or ability to perform. So it’s no wonder that frequency of sex decreases as we age.
Within a committed relationship, it’s not just our own level of desire that determines how often we have intercourse. Rather, we need to negotiate intimate occasions with our spouse, whose libido likely differs from our own. In other words, sexual frequency in marriage represents a compromise somewhere between the levels each partner prefers.
Much of the research so far on the sexuality of older adults has only surveyed individuals in committed relationships. However, to get at the dynamics involved as senior couples negotiate their frequency of sex, researchers need to gather data about the health, sexual attitudes, and level of desire that each partner brings into the relationship. In this way, we can get a clearer picture of why some seniors remain sexually active while others don’t. This was the goal of University of Alabama sociologist David Warner and his colleague Heidi Lyons, who recently published their findings in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.
For this study, Warner and Lyons utilized data from a previously published survey that had collected data on a variety of aspects regarding the lifestyles of aging adults in the United States. From this survey, the researchers were able to use the data on 953 couples in their sixties through eighties, almost all of whom were married.
The researchers included responses to questions about sexual expression, demographics, relationship quality, health behaviors and status, as well as sexual difficulties in their analysis. The results yielded four distinct patterns of sexual activity in older adults.
Traditionalist. Comprising about a quarter of the sample, couples in the traditionalist class tended to be older and to have been married longer. These couples reported having sex about once a month or less, and their repertoire was mainly limited to vaginal penetration, with few other sexual activities reported. It’s likely that traditional attitudes about sex account for the reduced frequency and limited range of sexual activity in these couples.
Couples in this category also exhibited stereotypical gender roles. In particular, the wives reported much less sexual desire than their husbands did. On the one hand, traditionalist wives said they were satisfied with their sex lives, as they were getting as much sex as they wanted. On the other hand, their husbands were generally dissatisfied with the quality of their sexual relationship, as they wanted sex more frequently and saw sexuality as more important than their wives did.
Traditionalist couples were also more likely to report problems during intercourse. Among these, wives having difficulty lubricating and the husbands ejaculating too quickly were common issues. These problems may account for the relatively low level of sexual frequency among these couples, since their limited repertoire of “acceptable” sexual behavior precluded them from engaging in activities such as oral or manual sex that other couples use to maintain intimacy in the face of declining sexual health.
Versatile. This group made up about a third of the sample. Couples in this category tended to be younger and married for shorter durations than other couples in this survey. They also reported the highest levels of relationship satisfaction.
Both husbands and wives placed high value on sexuality within the relationship. They reported the highest levels of physical pleasure during sex, and they thought about sex often. No wonder then that versatile couples reported having sex more frequently than couples in other categories. They also included a wide variety of sexual techniques in their lovemaking.
Versatile couples reported fewer sexual problems than traditionalist couples. It could be that they were healthier on average, but it could also be that these couples, with their greater sexual openness, were more skilled with handling issues as they arose. The husbands in this category typically reported good health and an absence of erectile issues.
Compensatory. In general, husbands and wives agreed on the frequency and types of sexual activities they engaged in. However, couples in the compensatory group gave reports that widely differed from each other, yet in a predictable manner.
Specifically, the wives reported low sexual frequency, while the husbands reported greater frequency and a wider range of activities. Apparently, the wives interpreted “sex” strictly as “vaginal intercourse,” and counted only these instances. However, they also provided oral or manual stimulation for their husbands, who counted these as sexual acts, even though the wives did not.
The researchers labeled this group as “compensatory” because the wives had little interest in sex for themselves but still provided sexual outlets for their husbands. This group was by far the smallest in this sample, at only 9%.
Resigned inactive. About a third of couples no longer engaged in any meaningful level of sexual activity. Both husbands and wives reported low interest in sex, whether partnered or solo. Ironically, both said they were having sex less often than they’d like.
Socioeconomic factors predicted membership in this category. Specifically, couples were more likely to be resigned inactive if they were less educated or lower-income. Thus, resigned inactivity could result from a lack of knowledge about how to deal with sexual issues, or it could reflect adherence to traditional social norms about sex in old age.
Health and age were also factors. Couples in which the husband was at least four years older than the wife were more likely to be resigned inactive. Likewise, husbands who didn’t exercise regularly and who reported erectile issues tended to fall into this group.
Traditional views of marriage in older adulthood see this as a time when couples have bonded as companions but are no longer sexually active. However, research on sexuality in the senior years paints a different picture. In the current sample, two-thirds of older adults are still sexually active, a finding that concurs with other research on the topic.
In the end, it’s not old age per se that leads couples to give up sex. Rather, it has more to do with health, income, education, and attitudes toward sexuality in general. For older couples who remain young at heart, sex continues to be an important aspect of a happy marriage.
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Warner, D. F. & Lyons, H. A. (2020). Older married couples’ sexual expression: A dyadic latent class analysis. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. Advance online publication. DOI: 10.1177/0265407520953623