There’s an old saying: Men have relationships to gain sex. Women have sex to gain relationships. This isn’t true for everyone, but it’s true often enough to become cliché—at least for people under about 50. But after 50, things change. At least that’s what researchers found in an analysis of data on 1,035 heterosexual adults, age 40 to 59, from the National Health and Social Life Survey, a representative national sample of Americans.
Their findings suggest that older woman continue to care about emotional closeness, but that the physical aspects of sex—its frequency, duration, and women’s regularity of orgasm—become increasingly important to them. Meanwhile, men continue to value the physical joys of sex, but relationship quality—feeling emotionally close to the woman—becomes increasingly important.
A New Focus on Sex During Midlife and Beyond
Until Viagra’s release in 1998, sex researchers virtually ignored the sexuality of post-menopausal women and older men. But during the 14 years since the drug’s approval, many studies have explored the physical, relationship, and cultural factors that affect sexual satisfaction after 50.
Among physical factors, health is paramount. Good health is strongly associated with sexual satisfaction at every age. But after 50, aging-related illnesses take an increasing toll: diabetes, heart disease, cancer, stroke, high blood pressure, arthritis, depression, and others. Adding insult to injury, many of the drugs used to treat these conditions cause sex problems, notably antidepressants and blood pressure medication.
In addition, after 50, sex changes. In both genders, desire tends to decline (but not disappear), arousal becomes increasingly problematic, and unless older adults perform Kegel exercises, orgasms often become less intense because of diminishing pelvic muscle tone. In addition, in women, decreased vaginal lubrication and thinning of the vaginal lining (vaginal atrophy) make intercourse less comfortable and often painful. In men, erection difficulties become common and many men experience a resurgence of ejaculatory control problems, typically linked to their erection issues.
Relationship factors affect sexual satisfaction at every age. But after 50, compared with those who rate their relationships as “generally unhappy,” those who rate them “generally happy” enjoy significantly greater sexual satisfaction.
Finally, cultural attitudes often persuade people over 50 to withdraw from sex. American culture views sex as the province of the young. Our culture considers older adults “in decline” and “not sexy.” Many older adults internalize this and retire from lovemaking.
Surprise: Physical Women, Emotional Men
The recent study confirms one previous observation about sex after 50. Sexual satisfaction is strongly associated with the couple’s health. When one spouse suffers a chronic condition, sexual satisfaction plummets for both.
But this study suggests that older women become less preoccupied with relationship quality and more concerned with the sex itself. Independent of how they feel about the relationship, older women say they feel sexually satisfied if they have sex regularly, if it lasts longer than 30 minutes, and if they are regularly orgasmic.
Meanwhile, men in this survey said they derive as much satisfaction from the physical elements of sex as they did when younger, but that after 50, they value emotional closeness more than ever.
In other words, after 50, the gender gap in relationship and sexual satisfaction narrows. Women become more focused on the sex—and presumably more assertive about asking for the erotic moves they want. Men become more focused on the relationship—and hopefully on giving women the kind of sexual experiences they want.
Many aspects of aging are problematic—more aches and pains, more chronic medical conditions, and more drugs that may have sex-impairing side effects. But aging also offers older lovers some compensations—a convergence in men’s and women’s values about sex and relationships. The implication is that, assuming good health, older men and women might get along better and feel more sexually compatible than ever.
The study: Carpenter, L.M. et al. “Physical Women, Emotional Men: Gender and Sexual Satisfaction in Midlife,” Archives of Sexual Behavior (2009) 38:87.