Published: November 3, 2022
When we consider society’s prevailing view of late-life sexuality, the convention has been that older people are not particularly sexually active or interested in intimate sexual relationships. These preconceptions can be extreme, ranging from humour to disgust, or simply a refusal to believe that people in their seventies and eighties have sexual interests or needs at all.
Thankfully, such assumptions appear largely inaccurate. There are the individual stories of those open to sharing their experiences, as Patricia, 81, did with author Iris Krasnow:
Steven asked me to go to Paris with him. I said, ‘Okay, I guess it’s time to try you out.’ My husband was the only man I’ve ever been with, so being intimate with another man was very scary, but he was very kind and respectful.
It’s not teenage sex, but it’s very satisfying. We love to experiment. We love to dance. There is a lot of cuddling and snuggling. This man, my God, is a gem in every way, whether it’s sexual or spiritual or cultural. It’s so romantic it’s almost electrifying.
And there are various studies that reveal that many older people maintain healthy, active sex lives.
Our research into the sexual lives of more than 7,000 men and women between the ages of 50 and 90 in England reveals much about older attitudes to sex, how sexually active they are and what problems and concerns they experience with their sexual health. We’ve been carrying out this study since 2013 and it’s the first time that people over the age 80 have been included.
In our survey, we found that half of men and almost a third of women aged 70 and over were still sexually active, with around a third of these sexually active older people having sexual intercourse twice a month or more. Around two-thirds of men and over half of women thought “good sexual relations were essential to the maintenance of a long-term relationship” or “being sexually active was physically and psychologically beneficial to older people”.
Sexual problems were relatively common, however, with a third of sexually active women reporting difficulties becoming sexually aroused or achieving orgasm. For men, difficulties getting and maintaining an erection was the most common problem, reported by 40% of those who were sexually active. Chronic health conditions and poor self-rated health seemed to have more obvious negative impacts on the sexual health of men compared to women.
Men were also more concerned about their sexual activities and function than women and with increasing age these concerns tended to become more common. Sexually active women were less dissatisfied with their overall sex lives than men and also reported decreasing levels of dissatisfaction with increasing age.
There are two sides to this – on the one hand we don’t want to impose unrealistic expectations on older people in terms of feeling they need to meet youthful norms of sexual prowess and feelings of failure if they don’t do so. Importantly, we found a lot of diversity in our data, for example, of those men and women who reported they hadn’t been sexually active over the past 12 months the majority of were not concerned or worried about it.
However, that’s not to say that the sexual health needs of older people should be ignored or overlooked – research has clearly shown that clinicians and other healthcare professionals need to be proactive when broaching the topic of sexuality and to engage openly with older people. Indeed, the same research has shown that older people who were asked about their sexual health and functioning were then more likely to seek further help with any sexual problems they may have.
As Caroline Abrahams, charity director at Age UK, said:
With an ageing population it is important that providers of sexual health services understand the needs of older people both in clinical settings and when developing information and advice. These recent findings now need to be used to improve sexual health advice and information for older people.
We hope our research will also encourage a more open discourse about late-life sexuality and health, and foster wider understanding between generations that sex doesn’t stop at 50.
Age UK Research Fellow, University of Manchester
David Lee does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.