Finally, after decades and decades of ignoring older women’s sexual functioning and satisfaction, science has stopped assuming what women’s sexuality is like after fifty and is asking women themselves to tell us about their issues and their pleasure. What we are finding out erases some negative stereotypes but also pinpoints areas of concern.
One of the stereotypes that needs to be addressed is the vision of the sexless, uninterested middle aged woman. Do we like sex less as we get older?
Two large random samples, one done by the National Opinion Research Center with a group of social scientists at the University of Chicago and the other done by Knowledge Network for AARP have given us good data on women’s attitudes and sexual behavior between the ages of 45 and 70. In addition, some other interesting data has been gathered from interviewing women in smaller studies, including some very interesting responses from a sample of Vibrant Nation members.
There is no doubt that a number of women report decreased libido as they age. This is a serious issue that I address in my Vibrant Nation Health Guide However, the AARP study shows some positive information:
There is a high degree of sexual satisfaction among people over 45 who are sexually active. Of course that phrase, “who are sexually active” is an important clause. On the good side, it means that people who do not stop having sex are generally enjoying it. It does not include women, however, who have stopped having sex or have no regular partner. Having a partner – whether married, cohabiting or just dating – steadily increases the chances that libido hasn’t retreated. And this is true for all ages up to age 70 (where sexual frequency and sexual interest shrinks to about a quarter of the sample). Perhaps not surprisingly though, the most satisfaction is among dating couples – not married couples!
To me this indicates that it’s not biology dictating many women’s loss of sexual interest, but boredom or other relationship issues that sap the strength of erotic interest. 48% of those who were single and dating said they had intercourse at least once a week compared to 36% of those who were married; 60% of dating singles were satisfied with their sex lives, compared to 52% of the married couples.
I think that single and uncommitted people try harder to keep sex alive. If they don’t, there is a good chance that their lover will leave, whereas a lot of married people, linked together in lifestyle and also as parents, are more likely to let sex attenuate without fearing the loss of the relationship.
For example, women in cohabiting relationships have more sex than married women. In the American Couples study (American Couples, Wm. Morrow Publishers, 1985), a National Science Foundation funded study I did with Philip Blumstein on married, living together, gay and lesbian couples showed that cohabiting couples had significantly more sex than married couples did (and lesbian couples had the least amount of sex of any couple, although they were not necessarily less satisfied). In that study, couples often accommodated to less sex as frequency decreased over the decades (not dropping very low until after age 70).
So forget that myth that sex has to be less interesting after 50, less satisfying, or less passionate. While there are definitely some biological challenges, I don’t think that age is the great destroyer of excitement or desire, but rather the other issues that often come with age: boredom, unresolved tensions, health and relationship issues.
Dr. Pepper Schwartz is the author of the Vibrant Nation Health Guide, A Woman’s Guide to Great Sex After 50: Getting Your Mind, Body and Relationship Ready for Pleasure.