Monday, 8 October 2012

Sex: The Grey Taboo

While conducting research for my book, “Great Retirement, Great Sex (How to Retire and Still Have a Great Sex Life),” I, of course, spoke to many older people about their sexual experiences after retirement. I found myself hearing the same thing time and time again: no matter how old we get, physical intimacy more often than not continues to be crucial in our relationships. 

The problem isn’t that boomers aren’t enjoying great sex lives, or really that they themselves feel ashamed to talk about it. Rather, it’s that their voices and the consideration of their needs are being drowned out and ignored by the misinformed general public. Younger generations tend to push the myth that sex stops dead at some arbitrary age (which subtly increases as they themselves age, of course). Sorry relative younglings, but death doesn’t have to stop dead until death itself stops it. Not if we don’t want it to. 

Sadly, the more I’ve researched, the more I’ve learned just how widely taboo the idea of sex in later life is. This scornful attitude towards “over-age” sex perseveres despite the studies showing that older people are enjoying more fulfilling sex lives now than ever before. 

For instance, a 2007 study led by Dr Stacy Tessler Lindau looked at the sex lives of 3005 US adults aged between 57 -85. It found that between half to three-quarter of the participants remained sexually active, with many of them enjoying frequent and varied sex. 

Sexual psychotherapist, Dr Ivor Felstein maintains that there is no fixed point at which sexual desire dissipates. The oldest couple he consulted who were openly positive about their sex life were aged 91 and 89 respectively. I myself have also met couples of similar ages who weren’t exactly prudes either!

Yet society chooses to block out this detail about one of the fastest growing demographics in the world today, denying them their right to speak freely about sex. This is a great shame, as I think opening up about our sex lives is one of the most liberating experiences that we can share. I’m not talking about forcing the gory details upon anyone who doesn’t want to hear them – aka our children, religious congregations, the chap who’s come to fix the boiler...

Rather I mean that you should make sure your partner understands your needs and that you shouldn’t feel you have to pretend celibacy in order to preserve the delicate sensibilities of the ignorant majority. After all, the words of Alfred Kinsey, “The only unnatural sex act is that which you cannot perform.”

Even nailing down the definition of “sex” can be difficult. I believe that the focus should be on emotional and physical closeness combined, including things such as paying your partner complements, kissing, holding hands, and just generally maintaining regular physical contact between you. Surprisingly traditional for me, I know, but there you go!

A 2011 study by the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University gathered information about the sex lives of more than 1000 couples worldwide who had been together for at least 25 years. Couples were generally found to be happier the longer they had been together. Happiness was also higher in those who scored more highly on a sexual functioning questionnaire. Importantly, contrary to what you might think, this contact was predominantly described as “kissing and cuddling,” demonstrating the importance of intimacy in forming the foundation of our relationships. 

To enjoy a continuously deepening level of intimacy with your partner you have to draw on your bank of accumulated experience to enhance your play, rather than fall back on boring old habits. Above all, though, it’s really for both of you to decide what your definition of a satisfying sex life is. It should be about whatever you feel truly happy with. Sex is, after all, about enjoyment, especially when pregnancy is no longer a consideration. 

Next week I’ll be talking about going back to education in retirement. Rest assured, you most certainly can teach an old dog new tricks!