Earlier this month I had a conversation on an airplane with a woman who works in the medical field. We were talking about the well-being of older people when she mentioned an announcement her elderly relative made during a family gathering.
The 80-something lady was upset about a study showing that old people still have sex, a study like the one that came out last month in The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM). Such studies aren’t fair, she said, “because they stop with people in their 80s. What about the 90s? My boyfriend is 93 and he can’t keep his hands off me!”
Apparently the 93-year-old Romeo was making full use of today's armamentarium of drugs, especially impotence pills, to get all jiggy with his octogenarian babe.
My seatmate said this relative instantly became her role model, and I chimed in with something insightful like, “How cool is that?”
But then I recalled what happened when MSNBC.com ran a picture to accompany the story reporting on the recent NEJM study. Much to my surprise, some readers were offended by the photograph of two old people kissing.
“Perverts,” one reader said. Another declared that the “picture of two old people kissing on your home page is disgusting … It makes me want to puke.”
Really? Disgusting? An upchuck? Because two people were kissing?
Reactions like that prove the point the researchers made when they announced the study, that our insistence on seeing older people as asexual is flat wrong, not to mention rank prejudice.
True enough, among the oldest of the people surveyed, only about a quarter reported having intercourse. But that doesn’t mean all the rest of the elderly aren’t sexual or don’t want sex. Some may want it but not have a partner, others may have a partner yet have health problems that make sexual expression difficult or impossible, still more may be healthy and have a healthy partner but not be at all interested. Fine.
But to discount the power and benefits of sexuality just because somebody is older is boneheaded. Sex, being a sign of good health and vigor, ought to be celebrated no matter how old we are.
No expiration date on desire
Sex is the most basic human drive. As has also been reported recently, we humans can come up with hundreds of reasons to have it. Sure, 90-year-olds aren’t going to be making babies, but if they are able, they can feel the pleasure, the emotional connection, the intimacy generated by sex. Why do some of us apparently feel that such a need has an expiration date?
Confused by the attitude displayed by some of the correspondence to MSNBC and by some of the negative comments I found on blogs and Web sites discussing the NEJM study, I called Terrie Ginsburg, a geriatrician and assistant professor at the New Jersey Institute for Successful Aging who has made sexuality among the old something of a specialty. She labeled such reactions “ageist” and blamed a lack of good sexual education that could teach people that sex is not just for 20-year-olds or 40-year-olds, but for older adults as well.
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Dr. Alison Moore, a UCLA geriatrician was surprised at the comments, too, and then speculated that the reaction is similar to not wanting “to think of our parents having sex, either. That is magnified in grandma and grandpa. We want to see them as sweet, harmless, old people. Even though sex is sweet and often harmless, that can be threatening to a younger generation.”
I thought “threatening” was an interesting word choice. I hadn’t thought of it before, but Moore’s idea that younger people are afraid of oldster sex makes sense because it forces us to confront the reality that we’ll all be there, eventually, trying to negotiate old age.
For most of us younger people, sex comes easily and, with any luck, frequently. Sex helps us bury thoughts of the coming debilitation we face. We want to be young forever and sex is generally thought of as our bailiwick. If old people get to do it, too, there is one less division between the generations.
We also tend to infantilize old people, Moore notes. We call them “dearie” or “sweetie,” or by their first names. But an 85-year-old has not only lived through a Depression, a World War, a Cold War and the dawning of the computer age, but through a profoundly changing set of sexual mores. Those born in the 1920s left the Victorian era behind for good. They were the first readers of Playboy. (Hugh Hefner, a walking Viagra commercial, is 81.)
So why should we expect seniors to suddenly stop thinking about sex? “They get a sense of well-being, nurturing, a feeling of companionship” from sex, Ginsburg says. Why should society deny this to anyone?
The danger of such prejudice, Ginsburg says, is that older people tend to “give into the myth of aging and see themselves as asexual or perverted if they want sex. They are just supposed to be grandparents. They internalize this view and prohibit themselves from engaging in sexuality whether it is hugging or kissing or intercourse. When I talk to patients about this, they agree.”
Both Moore and Ginsburg say we had better get used to the idea of the wrinkled necking. People are living longer and since the baby boomers are notorious for living in a permanent state of youthful nostalgia, we have a big, horny bulge in our demographic pants. It’s armed with attitude and the drugs to live it.
In fact, Ginsburg says, “I will be seeing all these patients and we now have to be concerned about STDs and HIV. I really have to educate more that it is great to have sex, but they have to make sure they are protecting themselves.”
Still, Moore suggests, the coming boom in elderly sex “is a good thing. At first our society will have some discomfort with it, but we should get used to it. It will become the norm.”
MSNBC.com columnist and Glamour magazine contributing editor Brian Alexander’s book, “America Unzipped: In Search of Sex and Satisfaction,” will be published Jan. 15 by Crown/Harmony Books.
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