What Your Grandmother Didn’t Tell You About Her Sex Life
How does, or will, your sexuality change as you get older?
By Susan Krauss Whitbourne Ph.D.
For many people, aging implies a complete loss of sexuality. Yet, logically, there is no
reason why anyone 40, 50, 60 , or older should give up their sex lives. Why do we “de-
sex” our elders? One obvious reason is that if people older than you are having sex,
this could mean that your parents- or worse- your grandparents are “doing it.” That’s
a tough image for many people to swallow. This was humorously portrayed in the
HBO series Girls, when the lead character rescues her father after he fell in the
shower after having sex with her mother. Everyone treated the situation surprisingly
well. However, this is by far the exception. Can you imagine yourself helping your
naked parent recover from a sexual accident? It’s a pretty powerful image, is it not?
In a TV comedy intended to provide plenty of shock value, such a far-fetched scene is
intended to push all of our buttons, and if you haven’t seen it, just hearing about it
probably pushes a few of yours. The fact is, however, that people continue to have
sexual relationships for their entire adult lives. The National Social Life, Health, and
Aging Project (NSHAP) was conducted on a large national sample of adults 57 to 85
years of age. As described in an extensive article by Principal Investigator Linda
Waite of the University of Chicago (2009), the study was intended to test the
hypothesis that older adults with strong sexual and intimate relationships would have
more favorable health in general. They defined sexuality as reflecting a combination of
physical ability, motivation, attitudes, opportunity, and actual sexual behavior.
Behind the Survey
You might wonder just how to go about constructing a survey to test these potentially
sensitive personal questions, particularly to people who (if the stereotypes are true)
would feel uncomfortable answering them. However, Waite and her team believed that
the best way to get the information was just to ask for it. They certainly respected
their respondents, but didn't hesitate to ask them the tough questions needed to gain
as complete a picture as possible of their sexual history, practices, and attitudes.
They clearly had to get over the mindset that they were asking their parents, or their
grandparents, to provide such private information. The best way to approach this
problem was to make the questions as straightforward as possible, to act
professionally, and not to become embarrassed themselves by the answers they
Because the study was carried out at one point in time, the researchers couldn’t
establish causality between sexuality and health. The authors believed that active
sexuality is important for good physical and mental health, but they had no way of
teasing apart how much healthy sexuality contributes to these other features of a
healthy life or vice versa. However, in this phase of the study, the researchers were
looking simply to describe their sample. A follow-up would be needed to find out if
sexual behavior at time 1 would predict mental and physical health at a later time.
The authors recognized that because they were comparing different age groups within
the 57 to 85 range, they could not conclude that the patterns they observed in the
results were due to the effects of aging. In analyzing the responses, Waite and
colleagues did try to find out which differences were due to generational effects. That
is, the older adults in this age range would have reached early adulthood in a sexually
more conservative time than the younger adults, who grew up in the 1960s and
1970s, which had far more progressive attitudes. As you’ll see, there were some
areas of sexual functioning in which those different cultural and historical influences
played an important role.
The researchers obtained much of the information about sexuality through interviews,
including the standard information about sex and marital status of the respondents.
These were reasonably straightforward questions, the stuff of much survey research.
The questions because more delicate, however, if respondents weren't married.
People who answered something other than being married or cohabiting were asked if
they had a romantic, intimate, or sexual partner. The interviewers then went on to ask
the remaining questions about this sexual partner, who they labeled the "current
partner." Remember, again, that some of these respondents could have been as old
as 85 years. You might think of questions about a sexual partner as more appropriate
for a person 50 or more years younger than these participants. If so, you're already
confronting one of the stereotypes that we have about aging. This reaction can give
you insight into why scientific objectivity is so important in any kind of research, but
particularly in research that touches on sensitive topics such as sexuality and aging.
Because it was theoretically possible for researchers to spend hours interviewing
respondents about the sexual history of their entire lives, Waite and her team focused
on the 3 most recent partners within the past 5 years. They also asked if the
respondent expected to have sex with the partner again.
The questions about sexual partners were asked in person, but perhaps recognizing
that either the interview would take too long or tread on really sensitive information,
the researchers asked questions about attitudes toward extramarital sex and sexual
values and beliefs in a printed questionnaire that respondents were asked to return by
To find out about attitudes toward extramartical affairs, respondents stated whether a
particular behavior was "always wrong, almost always wrong, wrong only sometimes,
or not wrong at all." The behaviors included a married person having sexual relations
with someone other than their marriage partner. Given the age of the respondents,
they also answered questions about hypothetical situations in which the spouse or
partner was ill with dementia or another mental or physical ailment, or was unable to
have sex at all. Perhaps the researchers felt it would be better to ask these
particularly sensitive questions, which would seem subject to response bias, in a way
that allowed respondents to feel more private.
Similarly, respondents were asked to indicate their agreement with statements about
their general values and beliefs regarding sexuality, such as "I would not have sex with
someone unless I was in love with them, my religious beliefs have shaped and guided
my sexual behavior, satisfactory sexual relations are essential to the maintenance of a
relationship, and the ability to have sex decreases as a person grows older.
Finally, also using the paper-and-pencil questionnaire, the researchers asked
respondents about how important they believe sex to be, how often they think about
sex, the importance of satisfactory sexual relations for the maintenance of a
relationship, and how often they had sex because they felt obligated or that it was
Now that you've seen the questions, ask yourself both how you would answer them
and how you think the older adults in the sample would. Of the 1550 women and 1445
men in the sample, reflecting demographics and the relative rarity of "cougar" women
who have much younger partners, women were far less likely to have a current
partner (41% 75 to 84 compared to 78% of men.
Far fewer had ever cohabited, but the percent wasn't negligible, amounting to 21% of
women 65-74, and 30% of men. The percents were lower in the older group, and
higher in those 57-64, reflecting the fact that cohabiting is on the increase in
successive generations of adults. Rather than being an effect of aging, the
researchers concluded that this trend in cohabitation was one of many reflecting
generational (or "cohort") effects.
More men (3%) than women (1%) also reported multiple sex partners during the
Fewer and fewer reported more than 2 heterosexual partnerships throughout their
lives, also reflecting what the researchers believe to reflect cohort differences.
There were many other interesting statistics to emerge from this study,
including the fact that in the oldest group, 38% of men and 17% of women are
still sexually active. Most regarded vaginal intercourse as integral to their definition
of sexual relations, but in the oldest group, this seemed to become more "optional." In
the oldest groups, sexual activity seemed to consist almost entirely of kissing,
hugging, and sexual touching, according to the authors.
A substantial percentage reported having at least one same sex partner, with
7% and 3.4% of men and women, respectively.
Many of these elders also engaged in oral sex (28% of men and and 36% of
women), but the percentages were higher in each younger cohort. Again, this pattern
seems to reflect socialization and the differing acceptability of oral sex in successive
Time for a reality check.
How are you doing as you imagine these older Americans engaging in "sexual
touching?" Now it's time for an even stronger dose as we look at the results regarding
masturbation. By definition, masturbation does not require a partner, so a person's
frequency of masturbation should reflect almost purely, sexual interest. However,
even those with partners were engaging in masturbation, including 63% of the
In the older groups, people not having partnered sex were less likely to engage in
masturbation, but the percent was not zero. 28% of men and 16% of women 75-85
reported that they masturbated at least once in the previous year. Even so,
these percents were lower than among the 57-64 year-olds, who were products of a
sexually more liberal culture during their formative years.
Similarly, cultural influences seemed to account for the data showing that men at all
ages were more positive about sex and sexual expression regardless of
circumstances. Even the oldest-old men still said they had sexual thoughts. In general,
however, attitudes toward sex were more conservative in the older cohorts. The
oldest groups were most likely to regard extramarital sex as wrong and, for women,
to believe that sex was necessary in order to maintain a relationship. The authors
believe that women don't inherently come to value sex any less than men do, but that
they adjust their sexual thoughts according to the availability of a partner. Grandma
needs a grandpa in order for her to feel like having sex, but grandpa thinks about sex
One of the more important discoveries of this study had nothing to do with sex, but
with affection more generally. Almost all of the participants hug or hold their partner
fairly often (90%) if they have one. If they don't they don't have an outlet for this form
of physical and emotional expression. The situation is particularly rough on older
women, because if they lack a chance to express their intimacy in non-sexual ways,
their mental, if not their physical, health can suffer.
The moral of the story is that older men for sure, and older women, if they have a
partner, experience a full range of sexual feelings which they seem to enjoy right up to
the end. The study also shows how important cultural influences are on the way we
think about, and express, our sexuality. Those cohort effects were substantial in
almost all ares of sexual functioning and attitudes. However, they are not limited to
sexuality as many studies on aging are subject to the same influences. It was just
easier to spot them in this area of psychological functioning.
With luck, you'll have what Masters and Johnson called "an interesting and interested
partner" with whom to enjoy your later years. At the very least, you can hope to find
someone to hug, and to hug you back.
Copyright 2013 by Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D.
Reprinted with permission