Originally posted on Women's Voices for Change.
The Wall Street Journal published an essay by Dr. Mark Lachs, head of geriatrics for the New York-Presbyterian Healthcare System, on sex and aging. He made it clear, with references to the Bible, Socrates, and Plato, that it has long been held that older people are not expected to be sexual. Little has changed, and most Americans are uncomfortable thinking about older people having sex. When you're 18, "old" means anyone over 40. But as Lachs points out so well in this elegant essay, "The great irony of ageism -- and what sets it apart from other forms of prejudice -- is that you eventually become the target of your own bigotry."
People over 50, and even people over 80, who are freed from the fear of unwanted pregnancy, the care of children, and an intense focus on careerism, have sex in greater numbers than almost anyone imagined. Lachs cited the largest systematic study of sex among the aging, published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2007, which revealed that "about half of individuals between the ages of 65 and 74 remain active, as do 26 percent of those between 75 and 85. Among those in this second group, 54 percent said that they had sex at least two or three times a month, and 23% reported relations with a partner at least once a week. "
The Baby Boomers are all over 50 now. We are the ones who grew up with sexual freedom, as Lachs points out. Drug companies want everyone to believe that sex without pharmaceutical support is nearly impossible once men are over 55 or so. In my own practice, I have seen that this is an extremely inaccurate portrait of my patients and their partners. Of course, erectile function and vaginal health change over time for most. It is disappointing that health care providers do not take the time to discuss sexual and relationship issues with their patients, since many studies (and common sense) point out that sex is really good for emotional, physical and relationship health. When people enter their 60s, the subject of sexual activity is rarely mentioned in either the doctor's office or in the public and private discourse of American conversation.
A knowledge of erotica, sex toys, and a past history of sexual experimentation have created a new generation of aging men and women who know what it takes to make sex hot. Sexual expression was part of the learned experience of the Baby Boomers and that cannot be said about any other generation in American history. Once again, this cohort of American society will do what it always has done: push boundaries and defy expectations set by common beliefs of what is believed to be appropriate behavior.
Aging Americans have not lost their impulsivity and carelessness when it comes to unsafe sex. Many women who no longer need contraception use magical thinking when they decide to forego asking new partners to use condoms. This is the cause of a new epidemic in STD among this group of people. With renewed focus on safe sex and recognition and encouragement of sexual activity for people over 50, hot sex in the retired crowd may make this life stage more exciting than people ever imagined. After all, would you rather go on a cruise to Alaska or spend your evening in front of a fireplace on a bear rug?
Patricia Yarberry Allen, MD, director of the New York Menopause Center, is a gynecologist affiliated with New York-Presbyterian Hospital and a board-certified fellow of the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology. She is a spokesperson on women's health, and the publisher of Women's Voices for Change.