Most of us are scared to get old, anxious that silver hair, crinkly eyes and the looming possibility of needing a walker signal the end of life as we know it. More secretively, many of us fear that the outward signs and symptoms of a life long-lived make us less desirable—not just as people, but as partners.
Not surprisingly, one of the most common anxieties people of all ages harbor about growing older is the death of their sex lives.
“I genuinely fear the day I’m old and wrinkled and my boobs are saggy,” Sophie, a newly married 30-year-old fashion executive, tells me. “I wonder, ‘Will my husband and I still find each other attractive? What is sex going to be like for us after 40 years together when I used to be hot and now I’m 70?’”
The answer to that question will vary depending on who you ask, but pose it to Joan Price and she’ll give you one you might not expect.
“At 70?” she laughs. “Sex can be amazing. Expiration dates are for milk, not for pleasure.”
At 74, Joan is the nation’s leading and most outspoken expert on senior sex. A prolific public speaker and the author of three critically acclaimed books, a bevy of free webinars and a popular blog on the subject, Joan traverses the globe, spreading the good word that for people over 50, sex can be not only just as good as it was during a person’s fertile, more flexible years, but better.
“With the right education and sense of humor, the so-called limitations of sexuality in your golden years can actually be reframed as benefits,” Joan argues from her sunny home in Sebastopol, California. “Later-life sex can mean more intimacy, more time spent giving and receiving arousal and pleasure, and a delicious expansion of what people thought they were capable of in bed.”
Truth be told, much research has found sex gets better with age. As the years add up, people become more comfortable in their bodies and are often more adventurous when it comes to trying new things. And while sex in a person’s later years is more often defined by quality rather than quantity, rates of sex amongst the elderly are nearly indistinguishable from those of younger generations: nearly 75 percent of people between the ages of 57-64, and a quarter of those aged 75-85, are still getting it on roughly three times per month, which is only slightly less than those aged 30-49.
Joan is also happy to report that seniors are doing a lot more exciting things with their time than chastely knitting in the warm glow of The Price is Right—they’re watching porn, having kinky sex, dating online, using sex toys and happily engaging in consensual non-monogamy. Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that a recent survey by Match.com found that age 66 (not 26) is the age at which women report having the most pleasurable sex. For men, it’s 64.
This would have been valuable information for Joan to know when she experienced the best sex of her life at 57 with the 64-year-old man who’d eventually become her husband (the late and great Robert). It might have reassured them both that the “glorious” sex they were having wasn’t actually that uncommon for people their age. It might have confirmed her suspicion that, despite the messages mainstream media beats into all of us, a few gray hairs and a few less hormones aren’t actually obstacles to a long life of great, post-retirement sex.
At the very least, it would have been nice to have a resource that could explain the unlikely passion she was experiencing because she and Robert were having mind-blowing passionate sex during a period in their lives where they were supposed to focus on getting their hips replaced. She wanted help understanding why, after a menopause-induced dry spell that left her thinking her sex life was caput, she and her new lover were suddenly more sexually voracious than they’d ever been.
But that sort of information didn’t exist 14 years ago. In fact, hardly anyone even dared to broach the topic of old-age sex. Apart from the odd book that did little more than admit old people were sexually active, there weren’t many examples that Joan could find in literature, TV, film or research that portrayed old-age sex as healthy or normal—let alone hot. The long-lived stereotype of an old-married couple passing their sexual prime and living out their remaining years as platonic companions prevailed, and without role models or media representation willing to prove it wrong, it had run rampant.
“People didn’t want to hear about this stuff back then,” Joan remembers. “Publishing companies wouldn’t publish books about old-age sex. People wouldn’t hire speakers who wanted to talk about it. There was very little information.”
It was actually Robert who suggested that, since there was such little information in the arena of elderly sex, she should fill it herself. Why not write a book of her own that not just documented, but actually celebrated, senior sex? At age 61, she released her first book on senior lovemaking, Better Than I Ever Expected, a straight-talking ode to old age that detailed the passion she and Robert shared, chronicling in no uncertain terms the delights and challenges of sex after 60. The book attracted so much attention that she started a blog by the same name, which quickly became one of the only places on the internet where seniors could go for sex education that catered specifically to their needs.
No topic is too racy for Joan—she flits from masturbation to sex toys to non-monogamy with a fearless directness refreshingly uncharacteristic of someone with her mileage. She’s disarmingly buoyant too. Her voice conveys a certain brightness one might not expect during discussions about how Alzheimer’s affects a person’s sex life or how sex toys can facilitate orgasms when it’s no longer as easy.
While Joan says older folks are typically relieved by her willingness to go there, younger people are surprised to hear her talk like that. Why wouldn’t they be?
Apart from the stray sex-positive TV show (see: Frankie & Grace, Transparent, and, to a certain degree, Golden Girls), senior sex, if it’s shown at all, is almost always depicted as ridiculous, gross, or non-existent. Ever seen Jack Nicholson and Diane Keaton’s 2003 film Something’s Gotta Give? There’s a sex scene in which they attempt to consummate their love, but that in itself is a punchline—Nicholson, it appears, can’t get it up without Viagra.
Likewise, films like Quartet and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel have tried their hands at septuagenarian romance, but whatever sex the characters are supposed to be having must have taken place just out of the camera’s frame, because we never actually see these people, in all their aged glory, making love.
Hollywood has never been good at depicting sex accurately, regardless of how old the people are on screen, but at least sex between people under 50 is acknowledged. Pass that age threshold, though, and it would seem audiences are being spared depictions of aged sex. This lack of visibility and its false representation as “gross” or embarrassing only contributes to the stereotype that older bodies are not worthy of desire, which stokes the fear of younger people who fall prey to the idea that good sex belongs to the taut.
“Although mainstream media tells us younger people are objectively sexier, that’s not necessarily true,” Joan says. “We need to unlearn our society’s attitude that only young, firm bodies are desirable. We are capable of sexual pleasure at any age, and we are also capable of inspiring sexual desire. If we feel sexy and see ourselves as sexy, we project a juicy attitude that is appealing and desirable. Our negative body image is our own worst enemy—that’s what we need to battle, not the wrinkles or sagging body parts!”
Many older people do see themselves and their partners as sexy. In fact, one 1999 survey conducted by AARP and Modern Maturity magazine revealed that the percentage of people age 45 and older who consider their partners physically attractive actually increases with age—a reassuring finding, no doubt, for the many young people biting their nails about growing old.
More soothing still is Joan’s point that it’s not just looks that matter when it comes to attraction. Non-physical qualities like humor, intelligence, kindness, communicative skills, thoughtfulness, sex technique and romanticism factor in equally, if not more, into a person’s allure. More importantly, these qualities—not a really thick head of hair and a glistening set of six-pack abs—are what creates the intimacy and connection that makes sex good. Of equal importance is technique, but even that is ageless. In fact, Joan, and many others, would argue that age only improves and refines a person’s bedroom aptitude.
“That’s why I say sex has no expiration date and that it’s better than anyone expected,” says Joan. “In general, we know ourselves pretty well by the time we hit 50. We know what we like, and we know what we’re looking for—not just sexually, but in life. We’ve already made the requisite mistakes in past relationships, and we’re more aware than ever that we’re not invincible. This makes us less inclined to settle and more interested in the idea of pursuing something, and someone, that works right for us.”
Joan’s message is not that sex-while-70 is fancy-free. Far from it. Those willing to brave it often, though not always, grapple with challenges like decreased libido, difficulty becoming aroused, erectile dysfunction, vaginal dryness, painful sex, a lack of mobility, depression and hormonal changes that can make the idea of sex seem like a lot more effort than it’s worth.
“One reason people give up on sex as they age is they don’t feel the same hormonal urges as they used to,” Joan explains. “We also may have medical or mobility issues, or we’re on medications that dampen our responses.”
Insecurity about the aging body’s appearance and physical abilities can also make older folk withdraw from sex. Many people Joan’s age retreat from the world of romance over anxiety about having sex with a new person, and many more are overly cautious about exploring pleasure in their older years because of lingering damage from a past relationship. New and unfamiliar feelings also come up as people age—a person’s sexuality, after all, is dynamic and often in flux across their lifetime. Not surprisingly, Joan says one of the most common things she hears from people is that they want a different kind of touch than they used to, in a different place, and by a different person (even by a different gender).
“Any combination of these things can lead us to assume that part of our lives is over,” she says. “But that doesn’t have to be true!”
What’s important for people her age to remember, she says, is that these changes and challenges are not insurmountable obstacles to satisfying sex. They just mean seniors have got to learn to work with what they’ve got.
Thankfully, Joan’s got an arsenal of reassuring tips to help them do that.
One of her favorite and most effective nuggets of wisdom is a concept called “responsive desire,” an idea popularized by author and sex researcher Emily Nagoski in her book Come As You Are. Responsive desire describes a simple method for getting in the mood when you’re not feeling aroused: stimulating yourself physically before you’re feeling randy. A diametric reversal of how pleasure works in a person’s younger years—arousal first, then stimulation—responsive desire is a game-changer for vintage bodies who, for the myriad reasons listed above, may not feel as lusty as they used to.
“Many seniors think, ‘If I don’t have the mental urge, it means I don’t want or need to have sex’,” says Joan. “Not so. You just have to create that urge yourself by getting revved up physically even if you don’t feel desire at that moment. Once you do, the desire will follow.” In other words, senior desire is there, it just needs to be awakened in the body first.
This is a life-altering revelation with real effects. One of Joan’s readers wrote in to say that learning about responsive desire saved her marriage. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to have sex, she discovered, it was just that she was waiting for desire to occur rather than creating it herself. Once seniors learn they have more control over desire than they think, explains Joan, an entire world of passionate and pleasurable sex opens up.
This is especially true if they’re willing to evolve their understanding of what the word “sex” actually means. As opposed to its standard definition of “penis going in and out of vagina,” Joan urges the people she speaks with to see sex as “anything that arouses them and brings them sexual pleasure.”
Defined in those terms, sex becomes more than just a single, penetrative act by which to judge the success of a romantic undertaking. Instead, sex can be viewed as a whole spectrum of acts: masturbation, using sex toys, kissing, a BDSM power exchange, watching porn together, the stroking of a partner’s newly replaced knee under the table. It all counts as long as it’s pleasurable.
Often, what feels good need not include orgasm or an erection to occur. In fact, taking the emphasis off both these things can provide an opportunity to explore a new, more intimate and more fulfilling iteration of lovemaking—one that’s based more on extended arousal and foreplay, an elongation of the pleasure process and less pressure to “perform.”
And while many younger people may gawk at the prospect of orgasm-less, erection-free sex, this expanded-definition approach has worked wonders for Joan’s senior readers (it can for people of all ages, actually—you don’t need to wait until you’re 75 to realize that goal-less, more full-body sex can be beyond pleasurable). One older gent who viewed one of Joan’s Great Sex Without Penetration webinars wrote:
“How is it possible for a 69-year-old woman and a 72-year-old man to enjoy three continuous hours of non-stop sex and joyful lovemaking, and then fall contentedly to sleep? And pick right up in the morning, seemingly where we left off? Use Joan’s ‘sex without penetration’ method, and leave out any and all expectations!”
Joan is flattered but not surprised by success stories like this. “Sex really opens up for us when we realize it doesn’t have to take a particular form, go in a particular direction or have a particular outcome,” she says. Viewed like that, it’s no wonder so many older people are maintaining healthy and active sex lives. They might not be having intercourse per se—though many are—but they are sure as hell having sex.
“We don’t have older-age sex ed, so when we start not being able to have orgasms with penetration or enjoy sex at all because of vaginal pain or erection problems, people are usually relieved to find out that sex isn’t over for them,” says Joan. “People just need the right education and a spirit of adventure.”
“That,” she adds, “and a sense of humor. If you can’t laugh at sex at our age, what can you laugh at?”