In 1974, in what seemed like a wild notion at the time, sex researchers William Masters and Virginia Johnson introduced the idea of mutual sex as a “pleasure bond.” They theorized that couples reaffirm their commitment through affection and intercourse, orgasm releases pair-bonding hormones, and this pleasure bond lasts a lifetime, even as our sexual desires evolve with age.
Decades later, we know how the reassurance of touch, sexual or sensual, is essential to our well being as singles or doubles. Yet even when we are free from raising families or full-time work, it is no surprise that desire continues to diminish. Fatigue, surgeries, medications, and disabilities take a toll. Familiarity and incompatibility are factors, too.
Some older couples become satisfied with affection. Others want more and end up negotiating what is acceptable and what will satisfy. We are individuals with varying sexual desires, and when desires don’t match, it’s essential to talk about differences because silence feels like rejection. Self-stimulation is a common remedy when patterns don’t match.
Happy couples report that, for them, sexual contact becomes less goal oriented and more pleasure oriented as they age. It is a different, but still wonderful, kind of excitement that gives them a deep sense of satisfaction. This special intimacy requires trust, which requires monogamy. Humans aren’t alone in pairing up: Orcas, grey wolves, beavers, albatross, bald eagles, barn owls, swans, and even some rats and vultures form bonded pairs.
For humans, the monogamy dilemma is that nothing seems to replace the early thrills of the unknown, the chase, the first times with someone new (assuming it goes well). That particular kind of sexual intensity is built into our genes to ensure we reproduce. But people who have a high need for that intensity over and over find it rarely turns out well. A few seniors seek the rejuvenation of a much younger lover. Sometimes it works out, especially for older men (think Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire, and Tony Randall) who have money and charisma. But more often, age differences matter and multiple partners corrode the deeper pleasures of sex as well as long-term relationships.
There are easier ways to re-create sexual thrills, whether you’re single or partnered. Mrs. A, an 84-year-old-widow who spoke to my medical school class, had almost given up on men after an excited lover nearly suffocated her with a pillow. But she found that creating an imaginary scene starring herself as a Playboy model helped get the juices flowing again. Of course, students in the 1970s were stunned that this dumpy gray-haired granny was even sexual.
Arousal and passion are psychological as much as physical. Couples make intimacy easier by scheduling time together—mornings are usually better for older men—and then creating anticipation by complimenting, helping each other, flirting, or playing favorite music. During the “date,” everything from clothing, toys, and high-tech lubes and even pornography can generate thrills, as long as there’s mutual agreement. Trust is basic—but so is openness to new things. We all have stored sexual scenarios we can call on. I am partial to cowboys and scientists!
Reduce performance pressure by eliminating the goal of orgasm, or take turns reaching that peak. The missionary position is hard on aging bodies and there are many alternatives. (Who knew that at 21?) You don’t even need a bed if you have the right chair. It takes longer to be aroused, so just being close is sensual and satisfying.
Sex works best when communication is easy, both parties can laugh, and no one pretends. Self-stimulation is fine, vibrators can help you “finish,” and offering a “quickie” is fair. If you are left up in the air, then cuddle and resolve your situation together. Remember that medications, more than age, can affect both desire and erections. Too many doctors do not talk about the side effects of various treatments, so don’t hesitate to Google for information.
Perhaps you are thinking, “What will the kids say?” Protect their psyches. Remember to lock the door. I always called my elderly mom in the morning, but one day there was no answer. Finally, at 11 a.m., I was worried and went to their nearby house. No one answered the door, so I quietly entered…and quickly backed out.
Another time—while cleaning out the house because mom, widowed again, had moved into a retirement center—I found Polaroid pictures under the mattress. I wish I had not looked. Alert! Clean out your own nightstand. A friend was helping her parents pack last year and ended up in a discussion about whether her parents should take their sex toys to the assisted living home. It’s a new world, no one was embarrassed, and yes, they packed them.
And what will the kids say if you date? My son assumed I would just be granny when I was widowed at 59, but I got lonely despite having amazing friends. I needed someone to talk to in a different way. When a girlfriend hung a thong and a note on my front gate the same day a neighbor, wearing an oxygen tank, knocked on my door and asked me out, I knew it was time to do something.
I wanted conversation so I joined Science Connection, an online group that required members to have a medical degree or a doctorate, so I had hopes of interesting emails. Given the gender imbalance in science, women were outnumbered 10 to 1 among the group’s participants and I was suddenly popular. When I joked with my son about being “hot,” I got a serious condom lecture similar to the one I had given him 30 years before.
I eventually dated four or five men but stayed celibate. Then I met my now-husband, a molecular biologist, when we were both 60. I started playing Elvis CDs while driving to dates with him. I began to feel like 17 instead of 60, but I shied away from sex. Most of the men I had met pushed sex way too soon.
It’s OK to be cautious, go slow, and stick to your pace. Do not invite anyone to your house or discuss your finances until you are sure the relationship is serious. Watch out for alcoholism and do not ignore red flags or your past mistakes out of loneliness. Tell the truth about your age and health by the third date.
There are guys who will push for sex before you know their name. If you are a man, resist the idea that you always have to make a pass. Men and women alike have told me about one-night stands. Some laugh, but it feels creepy. Okay, I sound conservative about intimacy, but just wait until you feel safe and cared about. Then bring pajamas and stay overnight.
You need a safe place and a generous spirit to feel truly passionate. The first time with someone new, inexperience is fine. There can be no bragging, no comparisons, nothing but compliments. Take precautions and be easy with mishaps. My now-husband lit a romantic fire but forgot to open the fireplace damper, which set off a smoke alarm that could only be reached by a very tall ladder. It was very funny, and watching him run around in his shorts warmed my heart.
Remember that it takes take time and a good sense of self to find your new rhythm. Trust yourself: If something doesn’t feel right, don’t do it just to please someone else. That kind of generosity is for long-time partners. Ask for an exclusive relationship if you continue to be intimate. You do not have to share.
Sex is good for you. It feels good, it is fun, and orgasm relieves pain and stress. Intimacy with a beloved is wonderful, but it’s better to be alone that to take risks to be with the wrong person. If you’re not ready for sex, remember that affection, hugging, or massage also provide the touch and comfort you deserve.
Finally, pleasuring yourself is always an option. The hand you hold the longest will always be your own. Loving yourself is basic; loving someone else is a gift.
Jennifer James has a doctorate in cultural anthropology and master’s degrees in history and psychology. She was a professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Washington Medical School. Jennifer is the founding mother of the Committee for Children, an international organization devoted to the prevention of child abuse worldwide.