Anatomizing The Sexual Folkways Of Those Old Enough To Know Better

The poet Philip Larkin famously wrote that sex began in 1963. But he was referring to sex by young people. Sex by older folks is a more recent invention. Until a few years ago, everyone under 40 assumed that sex couldn’t be a matter of interest to anyone over 50. Now, thanks to advertising for Viagra and the like, you can’t switch on the TV without seeing randy gray-haired men and women primed to do it. While researchers endlessly study the sex lives of teenagers, there’s been far less attention to the practices and attitudes of older Americans. A report issued last week by AARP fills in some of the blanks in that area.

Updating a similar survey from 1999, the new report is based on polling last year among men and women age 45 and up. Most respondents report having engaged in some sort of sexual activity at least once a week during the six months before being queried. “Kissing or hugging” drew the most mentions (69 percent), followed by “sexual touching or caressing” (53 percent) and “sexual intercourse” (36 percent). Predictably, the youngest respondents were the most likely to be sexually engaged. But even among those 70 and older, 22 percent of men and 14 percent of women reported having intercourse at least once a week. Forty-two percent of all respondents agreed that “sex becomes less important to people as they age.” But “less important” doesn’t mean “unimportant.” When asked about factors that affect one’s quality of life, 66 percent of men and 48 percent of women said a “satisfying sexual relationship” is important to them. That view was shared by a majority of men and more than one-third of women in the 70-plus cohort.

The most conspicuous change in the five years between the two studies is in the use of medical therapies to correct sexual dysfunctions. In the earlier study, 10 percent of men said they’d used some type of drug or treatment to remedy sexual-performance problems; in the new study, 22 percent said so. Another part of the report makes it clear why these drugs are such a big deal: “Nearly one-third of male respondents 45 and older list themselves as moderately or completely impotent.” Even among men in the 45-49 cohort, 13 percent put themselves in those categories.

The survey asked people who have a spouse or other sexual partner to describe how they feel about this person. Among the top responses were “loves me deeply” (76 percent) and “is my best friend” (75 percent). Fewer said the spouse/ partner “is physically attractive” (55 percent) or “finds me physically attractive” (49 percent), and fewer still said he or she “is exciting” (37 percent) or “is a skillful lover” (36 percent).