Story: Sexualities

Page 6. Midlife and later life

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Perceptions of ageing and sexuality

While middle-aged and older people are often not seen as sexually active, or as objects of desire, sexuality is a lifelong experience. Since the 1990s the sexual lives of older people have received more attention on television, and in movies and advertisements.

Research has challenged assumptions about an inevitable decline in sexual desire and activity for men and women as they age. In a survey conducted by Relationship Services in 2009, people over 60 reported the most overall satisfaction with their current intimate relationship (94%, compared to 83% for all participants). The people most satisfied with their relationship overall were those most satisfied with their sexual relationship.

Women and midlife sexuality

Interviews in 2001 with 27 midlife women whose partners used Viagra (a drug to treat erection difficulties) suggested that, while some women found that interest in sex declined with age, over half of them experienced more pleasure in sexual encounters than they had when they were younger.

A late developer

Allison (43) described herself as ‘a late developer’. She said that she enjoyed sex much more as she got older and only experienced an orgasm for the first time when she was about 30. For her, pleasure was greater when she learnt about her own body and felt comfortable with one partner. She said it was really about ‘becoming more relaxed with one person’.1

Men and sexual satisfaction

New Zealand research with men aged 54–70 who used Viagra demonstrates that sexual satisfaction may not decrease with age, but it can change. Some men in this study reported being less focused on penetrative sex and orgasm than when they were younger. They may also focus less on their penis and more on other body sensations and pleasures. These men also reported becoming less self-centred in their pursuit of orgasm and more focused on their partner’s pleasure as they aged.

The Viagra era

The advent of what is sometimes called ‘the Viagra era’, from the late 1990s, has brought a new focus to the sexuality of older adults and affected perceptions of it. The marketing of drugs to treat what is defined as ‘erectile dysfunction’ suggests that remaining sexually active in later life is an indicator of general health and fitness, and something to strive for. Previously, erectile changes and a lowering of sexual desire were viewed as a normal part of male ageing. However, some men (and women) now experience this emphasis on ongoing sexual vitality as an unwelcome obligation to perform and to engage in sexual intercourse.

Footnotes:
  1. T. Vares, and others, ‘Reconceptualizing cultural narratives of mature women's sexuality in the Viagra era.’ Journal of Aging Studies 21 (2007), p. 157. Back
How to cite this page:

Louisa Allen, 'Sexualities - Midlife and later life', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/sexualities/page-6 (accessed 21 July 2019)

Story by Louisa Allen, published 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 17 Jul 2018