What Actually Happens to our Sex Lives as We Age?4 Min Read
If movies, TV shows, and social media were your only reference, you might believe that you have a finite number of years for the “best sex of your life,” and that things… well, stop working the way they once did as you age.
It’s true that sex changes as people get older, in ways that might seem a bit cumbersome. People with male reproductive organs experience shorter erections and produce less seminal fluid, while people with female reproductive organs tend to have decreased vaginal lubrication before or during intercourse. Both parties — no matter gender identity or sexual orientation — might feel less desire to have sex, due to declining levels of key reproductive hormones. In other words, it’s not you, it’s your body.
Some other key changes you may or may not have heard of:
- Increase in involuntary sexual continence, otherwise known as sex without “finishing”
- A post-menopausal decrease in uteral spasms
- Taking longer to achieve erection
- A decrease in the expulse pressure of seminal fluid
However, these factors alone are not what make sexual aging most difficult. Ironically, it’s the fact that people aren’t taught to expect these changes over the course of their lives that does the most damage. These changes are part of the natural trajectory of sexual maturation — and when they’re unexpected, they can lead people to conclude that other, more sinister things are at play.
The Mental Aspect of Sex
Let’s say you and your partner are in your 60s, after years of a sexually fulfilling relationship. If your partner never used to have trouble maintaining an erection and does now, you might wonder if they are no longer attracted to you. You might begin to ruminate whether they’ve met someone else, or whether you’ve “let yourself go.” These worries can be insidious, and might affect your ability to feel aroused because you find it difficult to be vulnerable with a partner you perceive as judgemental. At the end of the day, both you and your partner are left feeling emotionally disconnected, hurt, and uncertain about your sexual compatibility.
Maintaining Emotional Connection Might be Key
Now, in comparison, imagine the scenario where you expect that you and your partner’s bodies may change as you age. Then, when your sexual encounters don’t last as long, you can have an open conversation about maintaining and even improving your physical connection. Perhaps this means the addition of something new and exciting to the bedroom, or talking to your doctor about medications like Viagra. It could also mean talking with a therapist about performance anxieties — in other words, you’re confront these changes together, as a couple.
In the second scenario, the change presents a chance to be vulnerable and to grow with your partner, instead of letting insecurity and mutual dissatisfaction fester. What is the takeaway here? Expectations about sex when aging make all the difference.
But What If Age Is a Good Thing?
Both the physiological changes and societal stigma regarding aging and sex lead many people to believe that their sex lives are over when they hit their 50s. (This is also around the time that people with uteruses experience menopause.) This could not be further from the truth. In fact, studies show that the old saying “use it or lose it” also applies your sex life as you age. A landmark study first published in 1981 drives this point home when discussing sex post-menopause: In it, the researchers explain that menopause and any loss of estrogen that results during it can create some physical changes in a person’s body, and those changes are made worse if that person is not regularly having sex. “If the aging woman has the good fortune to have a sexually knowledgeable, cooperative partner, these physiologic alterations are usually reversed within six weeks to three months,” the researchers note.
In other words, if you and your partner can work to overcome these obstacles, they don’t necessarily have to be permanent. Yet it’s easy for couples to get discouraged, stop having sex, and fall into a rut permanently.
Embracing the Hurdles
Realistically, there may be some cases where some hurdles cannot be overcome, including if your partner’s health is declining severely. It may be more difficult to completely fulfill your physical desires if that’s the case. But would this make sex pointless? Studies suggest that the answer is no.
In fact, a survey of older couples showed that people were motivated to have sex not because they were trying to fulfill sexual desire, but because they wanted to improve their emotional connection with their partner. Sex has a function far beyond merely “scratching an itch,” and brings you closer to your partner and solidifies your physical and emotional bonds.
At the end of the day, most people will be lucky enough to grow old and experience the changes that come with age and wisdom. Sex is part of a balanced lifestyle, and there is no reason to believe that it should be unattainable when you get older. The stigma surrounding the sex lives of older people merely reflects a lack of societal awareness, which you can combat with meaningful conversations with your loved ones. Because, again: knowing what to expect will ultimately determine how you’re able to handle age-related changes to your sex life.