A new study by University of California researchers, just published in the journalPsychology and Aging, surveyed 5,500 users, aged 20-95, of the dating site eHarmony and found that desire was considered just as important as companionship by those aged 60 and over. It’s not the first, nor will it be the last, piece of research to find that sexual desire doesn’t expire. But what’s interesting is that this has to be rediscovered again and again, as though it so contradicts the dominant narratives around both ageing and sex that we somehow can’t believe it.
Our thinking about sex has been so colonized by the gymnastic model – all acrobatic contortions, supposedly inimical to arthritic hips and dodgy knees, that the finding simply seems counterintuitive. The old saw about the most erogenous zone being between the ears is buried when this kind of position-speak prevails.
Then there’s the presumption that desire thrives on, even demands, novelty, as if it were some transnational corporation that needs to come up with ever-changing products to keep us interested (hence the cliche about passion inevitably declining in long-term relationships). We undervalue, perhaps, the experienced lover, as against the rookie. Certainly, enshrined in the idea of the asexual old are some pretty dubious stereotypes. It appears that sexual desire is too fierce an emotion to reconcile with the caricature of old age (don’t get yourself too excited, dear, you’ll have a coronary).
It’s all part of the pastel-isation of old age, the notion that when the hair goes grey so does the emotional palette: that advancing age requires a winceyette nightdress and mug of cocoa, a companion (a word that carries a whiff of the commode) not a lover.
Wrinkled old bodies are often described as though they were inherently repellent. While women are particularly vulnerable to this kind of disgust and often internalise it, the sexually active old man is also the subject of jokes and distaste, regarded as either an inadequate Viagra needer or a dirty old man.
How ill-served men – and women – have been by the hydraulic view of male sexuality: sex as mechanics, pressure, angles.
In reality, and despite cultural differences, sexual desire for many (but not all) is a basic human appetite: while some people may grow less interested in, say, food as they grow older, or eat less, we wouldn’t therefore assume that old people in general don’t get hungry or enjoy eating.
Indeed old people often report a craving to touch and be touched. Though there are many other, non-sexual ways that can happen, sex is a pretty good one. But this has proved particularly problematic in the more paternalistic care homes where any hint of sexual congress between residents is frowned upon.
Indeed, many older people’s reactions to the new study will be a frank “if only”. It’s lack of opportunity and not desire that they rue. The new study is based on users of a dating site, and it’s conceivable that the older people using these are a touch racier than the rest of their age cohort. Yet where’s the evidence that long-term relationships inevitably get less sexy? Might it not be the case that when men become less sexually impatient and women more sexually assertive, when a couple get to know each other’s needs and bodies better, the sex – while different – can get more and not less erotic? Or, when there’s no need for contraception, or no prospect of children wandering in, at any rate less anxious?
We know that the experience of ageing is changing. The current cohort of older people came of age sexually in the 1960s – they’re the generation of the pill, gay liberation and so on. Caitlyn Jenner, new trans poster woman, is 66. Polymorphous sexuality isn’t the preserve of the young.
It would be a pity if successive findings that desire doesn’t necessarily decline with age are used as another edict – you must keep at it – to add to all the other punitive norms about “good ageing”.
Some men, and women, are only too pleased to be rid of the whole business. But then, this applies to people of all ages.