I hesitated before writing about this topic. For a start, I did not want some smutty fella doing a search for the topic and possibly using a photograph of me to – well, you know. Eeeuuuwwww!
In addition, I did not want to have to reveal my own position on sex in older age, though I am sure the very fact that I am writing about it might make some of you wonder. So I will say it now. I am not about to tell you anything about my own sex life or lack thereof. Sorry if that disappoints. You are perfectly at liberty to stop reading right away.
So why is this topic important?
Well, for a start-off, I am sure there are still lots of ageist attitudes out there about older people and sex. We should not really be doing it, and if we must – well, per-leeeeeaaaaase! Just don’t talk about it. These ageist attitudes can then get internalised, and as older people we can feel a bit guilty if we are ‘doing it’.
Of course, these assumptions that sex is just for the young can be useful to some older women. For some women, it is a relief to be free of having to respond sexually to a partner. The reasons for this are legion: some women might find sex uncomfortable or even painful, for example due to a prolapse; others might no longer find their partner attractive, but not wish to split up; still others might feel tired or depressed; and for some women, sex has always been distressing due either to negative messages about sex during their formative years, or due to abusive experiences. About a third of women over forty report low or no sexual desire according to one American study (http://www.amjmed.com/article/S0002-9343(11)00655-3/fulltext) and I would be the last person to suggest that those women are in some way abnormal, or should change to fit some kind of imposed norm.
However, there is a growing body of research about older people and sex which suggests that quite a lot of us are still having sex. A longitudinal (1971 to 2000) Swedish study of 1506 people (946 of whom were women) showed that the proportion of 70-year-olds having sexual intercourse increased over this period in both married and unmarried people, and for both men and women. Not only that, but those from later birth cohorts reported less sexual dysfunction and higher rates of sexual satisfaction. In short, we are luckier than our mothers in how many of us seem to have a happy, healthy sex life (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2483873/).
Staggeringly, having regular sex is not uniformly good news. A recent American study suggests that it might just put older men at risk of a heart attack, whereas it has the opposite effect for women in that it can help keep blood pressure at a healthy level (https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/09/160906084835.htm).
So, what are the risks for women, of sexual activity in older age? Well, it depends who you do it with, and under what circumstances. Older women might think less often than younger women about the risks of STDs including HIV and Hepatitis C. Many older women might forget to take the usual precautions to ensure their safety, including insistence on using a condom. They might think that since they cannot get pregnant, there is no need. But given the good news that more of us are having sex, we can assume that more of us are also having more than one sexual partner in our lifetimes – who probably has also had more than one …
Alcohol plays a big part in putting older women at risk sexually, whether it is in forgetting (or not caring) about condoms, or not being on our guard enough to protect us from situations in which rapes can occur. Some older women are lonely, making them more vulnerable. Others are disabled and dependent on others for care. None of us, whether old or young, gay or straight, woman of colour or ‘white’, disabled or able-bodied, is immune to the risk of sexual assault. I don’t want to be a downer or scare my sisters out there, but we all need to be vigilant. And being out of your head on alcohol or drugs is not going to help you to do that.
I have found very little from my cursory searches that focussed on lesbian, bisexual or transgender older women and sex. However, one study found that lesbians are more likely to orgasm during sexual activity than heterosexual women (https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10508-017-0939-z). However, they also found that women who orgasm frequently were more likely to have oral sex, have sex that lasts longer, be happy in their relationships and be able to ask for what they want in bed.