Not Your Grandparents' Sexual Activity

Eliza Partika

November 03, 2022

Sexual activity in older adults is something of a taboo, rarely discussed and largely ignored by researchers.

But failing to address human sexuality in old age can lead doctors to ask seniors the wrong questions about sex — if they ask at all.

Dr Janie Steckenrider

When researchers do look at the issue, they find surprises, as Janie Steckenrider, PhD, has learned. In a new study presented at the 2022 scientific meeting of the Gerontological Society of America, Steckenrider, a professor of political science at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, found that previous attempts to qualify the sexual activities of seniors appear to be limited largely to partnered sex — despite the fact that many older people tend to practice 'solo sex,' another term for masturbation.

"Maybe they don't have a partner, or their partner has sexual disfunction, or has died. There could be pain involved," Steckenrider said. "In the hierarchy of sexual activity, penetrative sex is the cultural norm. As people get older, penetrative sex becomes less important. The hierarchy shifts to include more emotional intimacy like touching and fondling."

Of the 17 survey questionnaires Steckenrider analyzed, 11 had questions that focused exclusively on sex with a partner. Nine defined sexual activity and just five included questions about masturbation, she said.

Take, for example, a 2018 poll by researchers at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, who found that 40% of people ages 65-80 said they were sexually active. Meanwhile, nearly two thirds of older adults said they were interested in sex, and more than half said sex was important to their quality of life.

But Steckenrider said this poll, like others, left the term 'sexually active' undefined – raising questions about the meaning of the findings.  

Sheryl A. Kingsberg, PhD, chief of behavioral medicine in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center, Cleveland, Ohio, said she was surprised so few of the studies analyzed by Steckenrider included masturbation in their definition of sex. 

"Clinical trials of potential treatments for female sexual problems, like hypoactive sexual desire disorder or painful sex, include both definitions of sexual activity and questions about masturbation, she said. "Definitions also should not assume partnered sex is male or female," she added. 

Steckenrider and Kingsberg encouraged healthcare providers to address the sexual health of their patients by asking questions about their sexual health and concerns. 

"Healthcare professionals cannot address sexual concerns if they don't acknowledge their patients as sexual beings and inquire about sexual problems," Kingsberg said.

The key, according to Steckenrider, is for clinicians to ask the right questions. But which ones?  

Detail is crucial. 

"I think that's far better than asking whether they are sexually active, yes or no," she said.  "Ask: 'How often have you engaged in these types of sexual activities?' If you are looking for frequency, and be specific about the types of sex: kissing, fondling or masturbation."

Gerontological Society of America 2022 Annual Scientific Meeting: Sexual Activity in Older Adults: We Are Asking the Wrong Questions. Presented November 2, 2022.

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