Do Boomers and older Americans even have sex? Not according to popular media -- vigorously, according to NSSHB
Vanessa Schick is a post-doctoral fellow at Indiana University's Center for Sexual Health Promotion. She also is part of the research team that conducted the landmark National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior, the largest nationally representative study of sexual and sexual-health behaviors ever fielded. The survey gives insights into the sexual experiences and condom-use behaviors of 5,865 people ages 14 to 94 but for this piece, Dr. Schick focuses on people 50 and older. Survey findings, published in the "Journal of Sexual Medicine," can be downloaded at no cost from this website: https://www.nationalsexstudy.indiana.edu.
Local, national and even international media outlets were abuzz last month about a brand new sex survey released from our research team at the Center for Sexual Health Promotion at Indiana University. We surveyed more than 5,000 people from around the country about the "who, what, where, when, whys and hows" of their sex lives. This study was the first of its kind in almost 20 years and the very first glimpse into the sex lives of Americans over 80. So, what did we find? Here is a list of some of the most interesting findings involving men and women aged 50-94:
The Boom Boom Boomers
Given the technological and pharmaceutical advances along with social and political shifts over the past 20 years we were not surprised to find that many older adults were still quite sexually vigorous (or should we say sexually viagarous?).
In their 70s, more than half of the men and more than a third of women masturbated within the past year. Although older men and women reported engaging in vaginal intercourse less frequently than those in younger generations, we still saw more than a third of men in their 80s and more than a quarter of women in their 70s reporting that they had engaged in vaginal intercourse at least once (and frequently more) in the past year. In addition to vaginal intercourse, men and women in all age categories reported giving and/or receiving oral sex with a small number of men and women reporting anal sex.
Not only did respondents in this age group report diverse behaviors, they also reported a variety of locations for their sexual activity with the most common places including at home, at a friend's home, outside and on a cruise.
Does the sex life of these older Americans surprise you? If so, don't feel bad. When was the last time you saw the face of a woman over 45 on a magazine with headlines promising to 'mix things up' in the bedroom'? Rarely, if ever. These images are much more likely to be associated with mixing up a new recipe or décor in the living room. The media seldom talks about sex in advanced age, leaving people to believe that sex ceases after a certain point in peoples' lives. However, according to our study, this is far from true. Now, if only we can get the images of sex to reflect this in the media, we can start to better understand and embrace the ways in which sex changes (and stays the same) across the lifespan.
Wrap it up
The image that comes to mind when thinking about men and women in their 80s 'wrapping it up' likely is more reminiscent of leftovers in Saran Wrap than condom use. As with the magazine covers, this may be due to the misperception that sex and condoms are for younger or 'riskier' generations.
Sure, post-menopausal women may no longer be at risk for pregnancy, but unintended pregnancies are only one of the risks of unprotected intercourse. When HIV first became a widespread public health concern, safe sex messaging was not directed at men and women within this older age bracket because the prevalence rates were so low. However, that was more than 20 years ago and the older adults are now the young adults who were in those high-risk groups. Yet, these updated messages are likely not reaching this population because sexual health information is often only disseminated in schools (if at all) and often focuses on abstinence or safety before marriage.
According to our study, approximately a third of women and close to a half of the men reported that their last sexual partner was not a relationship partner. This may be because many older men and women may find themselves newly single after many years of marriage. Where does someone get information about sex after marriage? Are they forced to rely on the sexual education from their youth? It's safe to say that information about sex and condoms was quite different in the 1940s than it is today. Thus, these newly single men and women may find themselves resorting to older conceptions about condoms as 'only for sailors' or as a tool to prevent pregnancy. Those who do want to use condoms may feel uncomfortable broaching the topic with their partner or may feel uncertain about how one is used.
Given the possibilities around missing or misleading information about condom use for older adults, we were not surprised that when we asked single or newly partnered men and women whether they had used a condom the last time they had sex, the answer was an overwhelming 'no.' A total of 20 percent of men and 24 percent of women reported that they did not use a condom the last time they engaged in intercourse. Although the rates did increase slightly when the sexual situation had a higher probability of transmission of a sexually transmitted infection (e.g., they had a known STI), the rates were still dramatically lower than those reported by teens. So, instead of the typical 'sex talk' with teens, where they're merely being talked to, perhaps we should consider a dialogue. We all have a lot to learn from one another. AARP provides information about safe sex at https://www.aarp.org/relationships/love-sex/.
Better with Age
There are some things, like milk and produce, that simply do not last long past their expiration date and other products, like cheese and wine, that get better with age. So, what is sex -- broccoli or wine? The answer is neither. For some it may get better, for others it may get worse. However, overall, it stays pretty darn good! Almost 100 percent of men and women reported that their last sexual encounter with a partner was 'pleasurable' with more than 75 percent reporting that it was 'quite a bit' to 'extremely' pleasurable. It isn't clear whether these trends have changed due to the introduction of Viagra, the continued advancement of lubricants or the rising popularity of vibrators. However, one thing is for sure -- there certainly is no expiration date on sexual pleasure!
Find these interesting? Want to know what people in your age group are doing? The full report is chock full of interesting findings and is available for a free download at: https://www.nationalsexstudy.indiana.edu/.