Aging and Sexuality

Research into human sexuality began in 1948 with a report on male sexuality, followed by one on women in 1950. Kinsey and colleagues' study focused on the United States. In the 1950s, Masters and Johnson presented information about the sexual response itself, which was a significant study in the field. Two books that had a great impact regarding sexual expression and its study, were The Joy of Sex by David Reuben, as well as Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex. Thomas H. Walz and Nancee S. Blum's specific research into sexual health later in life appeared in 1987. Significant studies related to the elderly have been published in the Duke Longitudinal Studies on Aging, as well as the Baltimore Longitudinal Studies on Aging.

Edward Brecher and the editors of Consumer Reports Books (1984), including Love, Sex, and Aging: A Consumers Union Report, issue the findings of a 1978–79 survey in which 1,844 women and 2,402 men between 50 and 93 completed surveys related to love and sexual practice. This comprised reports on their experience, opinions, concerns, attitudes and hopes. Results indicated that the majority of faithful wives (87 percent) and faithful husbands (91 percent) were happy in their marriages while those who were unfaithful also claimed they were in happy marriages. A minority of women (58 percent) and men (46 percent) were reported as having "Victorian views." Regarding sexual activity, poor health was considered a significant impediment. It appeared the large majority of people studied were sexually active and reported a high level of enjoyment.

The study also reviewed advantages and disadvantages of estrogen supplements following menopause but did not provide definitive answers. The decline of sexual activity connected to aging evidently related to frequency rather than enjoyment although the latter was included together with desire and ease of arousal. People commented that they compensated for changes associated with aging via a broad range of methods. Happy spouses were most likely to keep up good communication.

The Duke Longitudinal Studies of Normal Aging (1955–80) found that the majority of older persons tended to experience a decrease in sexual activity. This was predominantly due to widowhood, as well as declining health. A minority reported not only maintaining but increasing sexual activity.

Comprehensive reports related to sexuality and aging also appear in publications of Eric Pfeiffer, Adriaan Verwoerdt and Hsioh-Shan Wang. Alex Comfort's 1972 book The Joy of Sex: A Cordon Bleu Guide to Love Making was a significant work. Linda George and Stephen Weiler's Sexuality in Middle and Later Life: The effects of age, cohort and gender (1981) investigated sexual practice during these years, stating that data indicates activity remains more stable than was previously believed.

Reports seem to indicate that for some or most, sexual pleasure increased with age, including post-menopausal women. The Janus Report on sexual behavior (1993) includes documentation that 14 percent of men above 65 reported daily sexual activity. Among people above 65, 53 percent of men and 41 percent of women considered themselves sexually active. There were indications of increased activity, as well as reports of more cautious behavior.

The psychology of aging and the adjustments required to advancing years appear in contradistinction to the media role focusing on youthfulness. In what is determined as a youth-oriented society, the belief that elderly people are not interested in sexual activity is reinforced. Not much has been done to contradict this attitude. Advertisements featuring vitamins for the elderly or laxatives and incontinence undergarments give a certain message. Being old or grey or wrinkled is promoted as unattractive, with beauty associated with being young. There has been a perception that to be sexually active in advanced years is "abnormal." Since there is a reluctance to talk about sexuality, this attitude is not necessarily corrected.

Many myths and stereotypes have existed about aging and sexuality. Research tended to indicate that there was evidence to support the belief that the elderly were not interested in sexual activity. Other reports presented that there was a decline, if not a cessation. Some mentioned a feeling of freedom post-menopause, beyond the concerns of pregnancy.

A further issue is the belief that sexual dysfunction in old age is irreversible. However, the availability of treatment and the number of those seeking treatment suggest that the desire for sexual expression in the aged is important. Masters and Johnson (1960) indicated treating clients of 93; this is substantiated by further reports of sexually active people in their 90s. A more accurate reality appears to be that older people are interested in and maintain sexual activity.

While there are certain changes in the reproductive organs, reports regarding the realization that aging and sexuality are being seen from a different perspective suggest that aging need no longer be viewed with concern in relation to active sexual practice.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

Sexuality and the Elderly: A Research Guide
Bonnie L. Walker.
Greenwood Press, 1997
Sexuality: New Perspectives
Zira DeFries; Richard C. Friedman; Ruth Corn.
Greenwood Press, 1985
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 14 "Aging and Sexuality"
Psychosexual and Psychosocial Aspects of Male Aging and Sexual Health
Metz, Michael E.; Miner, Michael H.
The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality, Vol. 7, No. 3, Fall 1998
PEER-REVIEWED PERIODICAL
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
Revisioning Aging: Empowerment of Older Women
Jenny Onyx; Rosemary Leonard; Rosslyn Reed.
Peter Lang, 1999
Librarian’s tip: Discussion of aging and sexuality begins on p. 147
Communication and Aging
Jon F. Nussbaum; Loretta L. Pecchioni; James D. Robinson; Teresa L. Thompson.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2000 (2nd edition)
Librarian’s tip: "Sexuality in Intimate Relationships" begins on p. 44
Aging, Sexuality, and HIV Issues among Older Gay Men
Murray, James; Adam, Barry D.
The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality, Fall-Winter 2001
PEER-REVIEWED PERIODICAL
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
Toward Healthy Aging: Human Needs and Nursing Response
Priscilla Ebersole; Patricia Hess.
Mosby, 1998 (5th edition)
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 16 "Intimacy, Sexuality, and Aging"
The Other within Us: Feminist Explorations of Women and Aging
Marilyn Pearsall.
Westview Press, 1997
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