Sex Ed

How Older Adults Define Sex—And How Their Views Change Over Time

September 9, 2020 by Justin Lehmiller

Research has found that different people define sex in radically different ways.

Most research to date has focused on heterosexual, college-age adults and their views of sex, which reveals that penetrative intercourse (vaginal and anal) is really the only activity that a majority definitively recognize as “having sex.” However, there isn’t 100% agreement on anything—some don’t count intercourse as sex, while others count kissing, nipple stimulation, mutual masturbation, and oral-genital contact as sex.

Research has recently begun to explore how other populations define sex. For example, a study of gay, lesbian, and bisexual adults found that sexual minority men tend to define sex narrowly, with a majority only counting anal intercourse. By contrast, sexual minority women tend to take a more expansive view, with most counting at least ten distinct activities as sex, including oral sex, mutual masturbation, genital rubbing, and penetration via sex toys. Again, however, there isn’t 100% agreement on anything—there’s a lot of individual variability.

A new study published in the Journal of Sex Research took this work further by exploring how older adults aged 65-82 define sex [1]. Researchers conducted interviews with 30 men and women in Poland (16 women, 14 men). All participants were heterosexual and Catholic, but came from diverse educational and economic backgrounds. Also, half of them had a current romantic partner while the other half did not.

During the course of a 2-3 hour interview, participants were asked extensive questions about their sex lives, which the researchers then analyzed for common themes. The main focus of analysis was the meanings that participants attached to sex, and the factors that influenced their understanding of sex.

There were really three different meanings of sex that emerged: 1) sex as intercourse, 2) sex as physical intimacy that can take on a number of forms, and 3) sex as emotional intimacy.

Among female participants, most understood sex as sexual intercourse only when they were younger. At that time, they tended to see sex as a duty or obligation, or as a means to procreate. Their own pleasure wasn’t a big part of it, nor was intimacy.

Later in life, however, most women’s views shifted. A few still saw intercourse as the defining feature of sex; however, most transitioned to a view of sex as intimacy-focused, having both physical and emotional aspects. Sex became more about activities that bring pleasure and closeness with a trusted partner, with intercourse being optional.

Among male participants, views were similar. Again, while younger, most viewed sex as intercourse—however, they largely saw it as a biological need. It was characterized as a physical act in which intimacy was seen as unnecessary or as a distraction.

By contrast, in later life, most men’s definitions of sex shifted toward intimacy, both physical and emotional. They reported recognizing the importance of partner pleasure, a willingness to explore a range of activities beyond intercourse, and a tendency to place more value on closeness. Those who still took a more restricted view of sex as intercourse tended to see sex as mostly a source of problems in their life, both physically and in terms of their relationships.

These findings indicate that, just as with every previous group studied, there isn’t universal agreement on what constitutes sex among older adults, either. However, the results also tell us several other important things.

First, the meaning of sex is something that appears to change over time for many people—and, specifically, the predominant shift seems to be from sex-as-intercourse to sex-as-intimacy. Importantly, this shift is one that seems to occur among men and women alike.

This makes sense because what makes for pleasurable sex is likely to change to some degree as we get older, due—in part—to changes in our bodies and sexual functioning (e.g., intercourse might not be as feasible or enjoyable with certain chronic health conditions that become more common with age). However, it’s also likely due to changes in our love lives. In fact, in this study, those whose views on sex evolved the most usually reported ending a long-term relationship and then developing an emotional bond with someone else. This suggests that perhaps the experience of romantic loss shifts one’s needs or leads to a reevaluation of priorities.

Second, there seems to be a shift in gendered views of sex over time. As women got older, they reported caring more about their own pleasure—and as men got older, they reported caring more about partner pleasure. In other words, the gender gap in pleasure seems to narrow over time.

Third, those who retained strict views of sex-as-intercourse in older age seemed to be the least satisfied. Among men with this view, they were more distressed about their sexual functioning and reported more difficulties establishing new relationships and finding compatible partners. Among women with this view, sex largely ended for them—they essentially became asexual. In fact, some of these women reported being eager to stop having sex because it was simply a “duty” that they no longer wanted, let alone enjoyed. All of this suggests that, as we age, shedding narrow definitions of sex and taking more expansive views has the potential to enhance our intimate lives.

This research is obviously limited by the relatively small sample size and the fact that all participants were heterosexual and from conservative religious backgrounds. More work is needed with larger and more diverse samples that are also inclusive of sexual and gender minorities. Nonetheless, the results provide valuable and provocative insight into what sex might mean to older adults and how views on sex appear to change over the lifespan.

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[1] Gore-Gorszewska, G. (2020). “What Do You Mean by Sex?” A Qualitative Analysis of Traditional versus Evolved Meanings of Sexual Activity among Older Women and Men. The Journal of Sex Research.

Image Source: Photo by Dylan Sauerwein on Unsplash

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Written by
Dr. Justin Lehmiller
Founder & Owner of Sex and Psychology

Dr. Justin Lehmiller is a social psychologist and Research Fellow at The Kinsey Institute. He runs the Sex and Psychology blog and podcast and is author of the popular book Tell Me What You Want. Dr. Lehmiller is an award-winning educator, and a prolific researcher who has published more than 50 academic works.

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