We are, as a society, obsessed with young people having sex. Movies, television, music, social science; teen pregnancy, college hookup culture, millennial dating apps. We can’t get enough of how and why 17 and 25-year-olds are banging.
What remains a murky swamp of mystery is the sex lives of older generations. “Grace and Frankie” aside, what happens to our sexual quality of life as we age?
A new study in the Journal of Sex Research has some answers. We spoke with Dr. Miriam K. Forbes, about what they found.
BTRtoday: Tell us about your research.
Dr. Miriam K. Forbes (MKF): We looked at how people’s own perceptions of their sexual quality of life changed as they aged. It was interesting and different because usually when people have done this sort of research, they don’t follow people over time, so it’s difficult to follow that aging aspect.
BTR: We spend a lot of time, energy, and resources studying the sex lives of young people–teens, 20 and 30-somethings–but not so much older generations. Thoughts?
MKF: Sex research as a whole is undervalued, especially in mainstream medical and psychological research. It’s often thought of as a symptom of other disorders rather than an area that can be considered by itself. Certainly I agree that [sex research] in older adults is swept aside.
BTR: What ages are you looking at?
MKF: We had a broad age range, 23 to 90-something. It was across most of adulthood.
BTR: So what did you find? Are people getting more raunchy in retirement?
MKF: Long answer or short answer?
MKF: I’ll give you the medium answer. We looked at about six thousand people. It was a representative sample that followed every nine years for 18 years, so 1995 to 2013 they answered an extensive battery of questions that included questions on their sexual quality of life.
One of the key things we were trying to separate out was: if people do research on sex and aging and they do it as a single cross-sectional study [not over time], it’s really difficult to separate out what is causing the differences. For example, if you have a group of people in their 70s who report a poorer sexual quality of life than people who are in their 20s, is that because of the age difference between them? Is it because of generational differences? Because of sexual attitudes they grew up with and experiences when they were adolescents and becoming sexually active?
All of these things are tangled in cross-sectional research. So we separated those aspects out. We looked at how aging within a person over time predicted their sexual quality of life, separately from the generation they were born in, the year that we were asking about their sex life in.
BTR: Did you find people’s sexual quality of life was getting better or worse with age?
MKF: This is definitely the long answer, but what we found was that age, if we ignored all the other variables in the data set, was related to a declining sexual quality of life. That’s quite different from the literature on other domains of life. Looking at people’s quality of their work life, their finances, their relationships with their children, those things tend to improve with age because people learn skills and strategies and become more masterful in those domains. It’s surprising, then, to see that sex is different. Why is that? Why is [sexual quality of life] declining with age? What our research then got at was trying to tease out what makes people different as they age.
The next step we looked at was if we matched people on the key qualities of their sex life–the frequency they were having sex and the number of people they were having sex with, how much control they felt they had over their sex life, those sorts of core aspects that might predict their sexual quality of life–what we found was that all the people had better sexual quality of life.
Once we saw that pattern, we could see that there were these modifiable aspects that predicted people’s sexual quality of life. And when we looked at what was predicting how people felt about their sexual quality of life, we saw that it was older adults emphasizing the quality of the sex they were having, not the frequency of the sex they were having or the control they felt over the sexual aspects of their lives. That is actually creating this improving sexual quality of life with age.
BTR: This was all self-reported. What’s the significance of doing it that way?
MKF: I think with sex research in particular that is a really important way to do it, because there is no real objective standard to sexual quality of life. It’s really how we feel about it that’s important.
BTR: I’m curious, and I have no idea how detailed or explicit people got in their self reporting, how, if at all, kink played a factor as people aged? Because that’s another factor that is incredibly common yet underreported and not discussed enough.
MKF: Unfortunately that wasn’t measured. There wasn’t that level of detail, I think because of the breadth of the questionnaire they didn’t ask about specific sexual behaviors or patterns or preferences. It was more the broad brush strokes of how people perceive the quality of their sex lives and how often they’re having sex and how much desire they’re feeling, rather than the specific information about people’s sex lives.
BTR: So what’s the takeaway? Things are looking up?
MKF: The two main points that stuck out to me were that the things that were predicting declining sexual quality of life are largely modifiable factors. They are things we can change about our sex lives, like the amount of thought and effort you put into sex, the frequency, those sorts of things can be predictors of people’s self-reported sexual quality of life.
That’s a heartening thing because it wasn’t specifically related to, for example, physical health or sexual dysfunction, [factors] that people have hypothesized are why sex might decline in older age. It’s nice to know that there is some element of control.
The other aspect of it that I felt was interesting was that it looked to us, once we took into account these other variables in the data set, we labeled it a little cornily: “sexual wisdom.” That it looks like people are learning these skills and strategies and changing their preferences and priorities in sex in older age. Becoming more wise, emphasizing quality over quantity, those sorts of things are really shaping people’s sexual experiences later in life. They’re being wiser than the younger adults and that’s giving them a better sexual quality of life.