Sex in Our 60s
By Kieran Yates
The UK’s older generations are enjoying active sex lives — many of which surpass anything they’ve ever experienced before. From sex symbols to STIs, the over-60s are rewriting the rules of body image and desire.
“People need to realise that there is no expiration date on sex,” says Californian author Joan Price. She’s gesticulating as she directs questions into the air, “Where did we learn that our bodies are not sexy because they have wrinkles? Aren’t we old enough now to think for ourselves and reject that?” The 72-year-old calls herself “an advocate for ageless sexuality” and is the author of numerous books about sex in later life.
Price was part of millions of women inspired by the sexual revolution championed by America’s feminists in the 60s, and she believes that they changed the narrative around sexual desire and body image forever. “People saw the idea of older people having sex as ludicrous,” she says. “I decided someone had to start breaking down these barriers. People who thought of themselves as rebels in the sexual revolution were open when they were young, but it doesn’t mean they stayed open. Many of them closed down because their bodies changed, their sex drives changed and they felt like if it wasn’t how it was when they were young and wet and horny, there was no point. That’s not true.”
In 2013, a landmark study by Public Health England revealed that diagnoses of chlamydia, gonorrhoea, herpes and genital warts among the over 65s had increased 8.2% on the previous year. The data was significant in confirming long-held (perhaps obvious) suspicions that people are sexually active late into their old age. Worryingly, a poll from 2013 showed that just 5% of Britons aged 60+ have sought sexual health advice in the last two to three years.
Dr Mark Lawton is a sexual health and HIV clinician at the Royal Liverpool Hospital and part of the British Association of Sexual Health and HIV. “The data showed an increase in the number of STIs diagnosed in the older age group,” he says. “In the over 65s the numbers are still very small, but they are increasing very significantly and more rapidly than in younger age groups.”
While this data tells us nothing we didn’t already suspect, it does make the case for transparency in discussing sex in older age. This may lead to more informed decision-making for a generation raised with limited access to sexual health education.
Certainly an increasingly ageing population has meant ageist stereotypes of sexually-unfulfilled over-60s are now wildly inaccurate. The sexual revolution saw in a new dawn not only in practicing sex, but also articulating sexual desire. Of course, this didn’t mean a spike in rampant and promiscuous encounters, but it did mean attitudes to body image, pleasure and sexual agency were being discussed in new ways. But how did it affect women outside of traditional moulds?
“I grew up in a working class town, and you couldn’t look at another woman back then,” says 63-year-old Pam Warren. “When I was growing up in Britain and starting to explore and experiment sexually, my first encounters were going to youth clubs and finding boys coming on to me — which I rebuffed pretty quickly. I got into a sexual relationship with another woman later in life who completely changed my outlook. Finding acceptance of myself and my sexuality took years.
Last year Britain’s Channel 5 aired a documentary series called OAP’s Behaving Badly which explored the sex lives of the over 60s. 77-year-old Lee Graham — a British expat in Spain who describes himself as “very sexually active” — was one of them. “There was a certain satisfaction in letting the youngsters know that it wasn’t just their territory,” he says. “People think that it’s all finished at my age, but it can be as good as it ever was.”
Thanks to a youth-obsessed pop culture that largely erases the presence of sexuality in older age, sexual prowess is widely seen as a young man’s game, but Graham believes the advent of viagra has levelled the playing field. “That macho thing goes out the window when you’re older” he says. “I’m lucky that I’m fairly physically fit and viagra was a godsend. I enjoy sex, and adventurous sex at that — I’ve had a lot of experience and I’m as lustful as I’ve ever been.”
The physical difficulty of maintaining an erection have been relegated to the annals of history for many men, while postmenopausal challenges like the inability to orgasm or vaginal dryness can be counteracted with lubricants readily available and an open door policy to discuss these issues with clinicians.
Sex toys also play a key part in self discovery as older people explore their sexual identities in new ways. Mathilde Mackowski is the owner of Scandinavian sex toy company Sinful and is an advocate of masturbation in older age. In 1969 Denmark famously became the first country in the world to legalise pornography, and maintains a trailblazing status in terms of European attitudes to sex. Mackowski says, “Our main customer is 40 and up. 60 today is like being 50. My mum is 60 and has a super great sex life; [60-year-olds] like adventure. We have lubricants, gentle vibrators and all kinds of things that might appeal in older age.”
Buying toys online isn’t where it ends. The online dating market is also booming, responsible for 1 in 5 relationships in the UK. Increasingly companies are trying to dispel the myth of senior technophobes, with a glut of dating sites targeted at this demographic: UK Mature Dating, Singles over 60, Single and Mature and eHarmony. One of the largest, PlentyofFish, is noticing a particular uptake in older users.
“Currently PlentyOfFish has over 100 million registered users,” the service says. “This surge in use spans across all age groups, with an ageing baby boomer population becoming more and more open to meeting someone outside of ‘traditional’ methods.”
“Attitudes are changing though. I’m at ease with myself at this point in life. I could never imagine a time where my sexuality wasn’t mocked, and now I feel very accepted where I work and among friends and family.”
Certainly the UK’s landmark same-sex marriage legislation in 2014 shifted a national attitude. Warren is in a committed sexual relationship now but has observed a cultural shift. “These days I see older sexy women about all the time. I think they’re aware of their sexuality too — sometimes there’s just a look and you know that there’s a spark.”
Warren’s experience of adopting her sexual identity later in life is something mirrored for many people in older age, which may be thanks to a renewed visibility of non-binary gender identities, including agender and transgender members of the LGBT community.
The notion that sexual desire evaporates in later life is also increasingly challenged in popular culture. Subcultures in porn celebrate older stars like Bea Cummins (72) and Ron Jeremy (62). In the mainstream, heartthrob status was afforded to Richard Gere (66) in 2015’s Best Exotic Marigold Hotel 2. Helen Mirren, thanks to her now infamous viral beach pic in 2011, is widely regarded as a pin-up at 70. The wider world is slowly accepting that the spirit of sexual freedom remains for a population moving into their 60s and 70s.
“I got into a sexual relationship with another woman later in life who completely changed my outlook. Finding acceptance of myself and my sexuality took years.”
Encouraging online dating has its obvious benefits, and while many older people are open to new sexual experiences, more traditional notions of what might be called quintessential English reserve still persist. 66-year- old Peggy is adamant that the attitudes she adopted in her formative years haven’t carried over into later life.
“I didn’t really have much of a sexual revolution until I left home,” she says. “I used the pill, but I was considered to be quite conservative because I didn’t do one-offs. I was never promiscuous but I did enjoy good sexual relationships without being married. I’m still quite conservative I suppose. I don’t have any desire to carry on having sex now, I’m too old for all that! If anything I think that everything’s become a bit too sexual now, which worries me. Sexual empowerment is as much about not wanting sex as having it.”
Conservatism and a reluctance to discuss sex with peers is prevalent in many of the UK’s Black and Minority Ethnic communities. For 62-year-old Ray Singh, such talk is unheard of. For many rst generation immigrants, the accelerated Western sexual freedom was a shock to the system. “When I came to the UK 40 years ago, I was shocked at how liberal people were,” he says. “I had never seen a woman in a miniskirt. I came from Delhi and I felt like people were talking about sex all the time in London. In my community, and many Asian communities, sex is not discussed at any age.”
Ray’s experience of grappling with a Western sexual liberalism is, for many, part and parcel of the immigrant experience. The complexity of unpicking these communities is clear, but for Ray even admitting a lack of discussion highlights incremental shifts in perspective. Thankfully immigrant communities are being continually supported by organisations like The Naz Project, a sexual health charity focused on the UK’s BAME population.
73-year-old Maureen Naven is part of the 7% of widowed Brits. She lost her husband two years ago, but enjoyed a thriving sex life before he passed away. “We had sex weekly,” she says. “We were married for 54 years and we both enjoyed sex. I think the term spooning was what we did — he would lay on his left side and I would go to sleep with my arm holding his willy.”
Of course, with an ageing population enjoying a longer lifespan than at any other time in history (an average of 81 in the UK, according to 2013 data), it seems obvious that longer life means a longer sex life. Naven is like many widows across the UK whose healthy sex lives were curtailed before they were ready.
“When he died I felt like I’d been chopped in half,” she says. “I speak to my friends who are widows and they say the same as me, that they miss the intimacy of sex. The idea of having sex with someone I’m not married to is dif cult because in my day you didn’t have sex before marriage. But it all depends — he’d have to be really nice.”
While many of these baby-boomers experienced sexual awakening thanks to America’s 60s sexual liberation, the ways this affected their sex lives are varied and multifactorial. Changes in social attitudes, sexual encounters outside of marriage and the widespread effects of technology have all paved the way to a brave new world. Continuing to rewrite the narrative of sex in older age will be crucial to a future of strong, enduring sex lives. “This is the body that brings me pleasure,” Price finishes, “and you know what? Right here, right now, it’s as young as it’s ever gonna be, so I’m gonna embrace it. Just wait ’til you get here!”
This is an extract from Weapons of Reason’s third issue: The New Old, available to order now. To explore the subject of ageing we’ve teamed up with The Powerful Now, an IDEO + SYPartners initiative poised to creatively redefine ageing as a path of continual growth instead of decline. Together we want to explore the ways in which health, money, work and communities will exist in our future, and initiate discussions to find radical new solutions.
Banner illustration by Jonathan Calugi.