GPs should be more invested in supporting people continue an active sex life in older age, according to recent research by Trinity College Dublin. Despite the clear health and psychological benefits of an active life of intimacy, not enough advice is given to support the notion that sex is a life-course issue, and not just the prerogative of the young.
The report’s principle investigator, Prof Rose Anne Kenny, claims intimacy in older age should be promoted by medical professionals as part of a healthy lifestyle. “There is very good evidence that shows that sexually active couples have a better quality of life, with better physical and cognitive mental health than a couple who have no sexual activity.”
Kenny cites an ageist attitude to sex and believes we should be teaching life-course on sexual activity and relationships as part of sex education in schools so that young people understand that sex is an evolving, life-long activity.
“Women and men naturally experience issues with libido and sex as they age, but the majority of issues can be easily treated, yet women rarely report them to their GP. Many believe there is nothing they can do about it, or are ashamed because of societal attitudes.”
I have worked with women in their 70s who want their sexual experiences to be as good as they can be
As we age, people face varying challenges to their sexuality, including interruptions such as childbirth or menopause, and ageing issues such as vaginal dryness or erectile dysfunction so that that our sexual needs and experiences are constantly changing.
“It is so important for you to spend some time to know your own body,” says Teresa Bergin, a Dublin-based sex therapist, psychotherapist and couples therapist. “It changes over time and what makes you reach climax in your 20s might not be the same as in your 40s.”
Bergin has seen an increase in the past six years of people being less anxious about seeking therapeutic help compared with 10 years ago. She has also seen an increase in older couples seeking help who are not willing to give up on a sex life.
“I certainly see large numbers of older individuals and couples who want an active sex life. I have worked with women in their 50s, 60s and 70s who want their sexual experiences to be as good as they can be.”
The Trinity Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing supports this change, according to Kenny. Results showed that the majority of adults over 50 are sexually active on a regular basis, including significant proportions of those in their 60s, 70s and beyond. But, importantly, being sexually active is linked with better health and more positive perceptions of ageing.
“Our sexual function evolves and changes throughout our lives but most of the issues that can affect libido or comfort can be easily dealt with,” says Kenny.
Men get more medical help with fading libidos
“If people realised the majority of issues are treatable, they would be able to continue with sex and intimacy much longer. The medical profession needs to be telling people that sex is really good for you and don’t give up on it,” she says.
Traditionally men get more medical help with fading libidos and often a woman’s sex life is not considered when dealing with issues around menopause, for example.
Yet these challenges can be addressed and women can seek support for some of the common issues that affect a healthy sex life as we get older. The sex toy industry is also changing with the entry of female-led businesses.
“It’s a really exciting time for women, especially if you’re like so many other middle-aged women who are just ‘over it’ when it comes to having your needs ignored by society,” says Shawna Scott, founder of Sexsiopa.ie, an online sex shop aimed for women. She started her business in 2012 when she realised that women in Ireland had very few places they could go to learn about, explore and invest in their sexual pleasure.
“It started because I personally didn’t want to shop in any of the existing sex shops which were very male-dominated spaces or had a very hen party look. They didn’t suit me. I saw my own sexual pleasure as a valid choice and not something titillating or sordid. I wanted to create a space that welcomed all genders, shapes and ages.”
It feels like Ireland is at a place where we can start to have the conversation about sex
Scott chose the online format as it was initially a more low-risk venture, but she finds the privacy of that creates an atmosphere for men and women to really explore what they want.
“I can talk to people from all over the country. The big advantage is that people can ring up or email and ask for recommendations, and for older women especially, it has made it a lot more accessible. I don’t know why we allowed sex shops and sex toys to become something illicit and sordid. But it feels like Ireland is at a place where we can start to have the conversation about sex.”
According to Scott, she is seeing an increase in women and men in later life looking for guidance to explore their sexuality. Four years ago Scott’s main demographic was 25-40 but in the past few years she has seen a definite increase in women over 45, in or post menopause.
“They feel they haven’t had the platform or opportunity to admit that we still have a sexuality. If men are able to have continued sexuality after the age of 45, then so should women.”
Traditionally woman who were divorced or widowed had little opportunity for a sex life without a man. That’s no longer the case. Scott sees women now learning to explore their potential and coming to realise that they are still a person with sexual needs and that maybe they previously never gave themselves permission to talk about or seek guidance.
I've seen see women who have gone through an a marriage without having experienced an orgasm
“There used to be a set prescribed narrative for women,” says Scott. “You get married, have your babies and then retreat but now they are asking, ‘What is our role now?’ They want to reclaim themselves for themselves and sex is part of that.”
Terese Bergin agrees she is seeing more older women come to her practice. “I see women who might have gone through their marriage and they are in an entirely new relationship or want a different experience now where they have a better understanding of their own sensuality.
“I certainly would see women who might have gone through an entire sexual relationship or marriage without having experienced an orgasm and feel in their late 40s or 50s that they’ve reared their family and now want to refocus and redirect attention to themselves.”
Men also seem to becoming more comfortable with women taking charge of their own sexual pleasure. While her customer base is now divided equally between the sexes, with half living in Dublin and the rest around the country, Scott had initially assumed it would be mostly women. “At first it was mostly women but now men are able to accept a vibrator in the bedroom and a lot of men are buying toys for their wives and girlfriends.”
The most popular products she sells on her website are vibrators and lubricant. Despite the fact that Viagra and other male supports have been around for many years, the needs of women are finally being addressed with the likes of lubricant being sold in chemists.
Yet, according to Scott, when she worked in a pharmacy, women seemed more embarrassed asking for lubricant because there was a stigma attached to it. “But for a lot of us it’s something we will always need. It takes initiative to know yourself and what you need, but shame has held back women in this country for so long, but finally that shame is dropping.”
However, Kenny believes the medical profession needs to do more. “The data concurs with international data and emphasises the contribution of sexual activity to quality of life and good physical and mental health.
“Where difficulties with sexual activity are present, effective treatments are available and we anticipate that the new data will reinvigorate GPs and healthcare professionals to inquire about patients’ sexual activity as part of routine clinical assessment and care.”
This idea of reaching a second adulthood once the breeding years are over is growing momentum. The Gorgeous Grey philosophy is getting more space in media, TV and cinema, and where middle age was once seen as the beginning of the end, it can now be seen by many as the beginning of a whole new half of life.
According to Bergin, many women are not willing to give up on their sex lives. “I see women with a real sense of ‘I want to do what I want for myself. I matter and I’ve served the needs of others.’ Or I see couples who have reached an emotional maturity about what they are looking for and they are not prepared to give up.”
Recently a woman in her 70s contacted Scott looking for help after she had lost her husband. “She didn’t want to date any more but really wanted something for herself because she recognised she needed sexual relief. How brave. It made my career having that conversation.”
The research shows that men and women can, do, and should enjoy an active sex life well into later life, and that their physical and mental health will benefit. Those who are having sex are more positive about getting older and less likely to consider themselves as old.
“Sex is a life-long issue,” says Kenny, “which children need to learn in sex education and then they might eventually knock this ageism on the head, and add a richness to their own experiences.”
— 59% of adults aged over 50 in Ireland are sexually active (had sex in the past 12 months).
— One-third (33%) of them were sexually active once or twice a week and more than one-third (36%) were sexually active once or twice a month.
— Being sexually active is less likely in older age groups with three-quarters (75%) of those aged 50-64 being sexually active compared with just under one-quarter (23%) of those aged 75 being sexually active.
— Sexually active adults tend to be more positive in their perceptions of ageing. They are less likely to consider themselves old and less likely to believe that ageing has negative consequences.
— Sexual activity is related to health; those who consider themselves to be in better health are more likely to be sexually active, as well as those without long-term conditions or disabilities, and those with fewer depressive symptoms.
— Source: Longtitudinal Study on Ageing, by Trinity College, involving more than 8,000 adults over the age of 50.
How to continue an active sex life
— Get honest with your doctor: Everything from chronic pain conditions and medications to hormonal changes can dramatically impact sexual relationships. A good practitioner can help sort through problems and explore solutions.
— Don’t ever put up with discomfort: There are many reasons why sex can become painful in older life, but most of them can be fixed.
— Use it or loose: The longer you leave it, the more problems will present.
— Have patience: with each other and talk openly about your needs.
— Attention: Set clear intentions and give it the attention it deserves as part of your overall health and lifestyle.