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Sex in the Fifties

Check out the results of our sex and romance survey, and see how your own love life stacks up.

How often do you have sex? How about oral sex? Ever had an affair?

These probably aren't questions you'd relish answering, at least not in front of the kids. Luckily for us nosy types-and those who have a purely academic curiosity about the sordid details of other people's sex lives-AARP has released the official findings of its 2009 Sex, Romance, and Relationships Survey. Using a random sample of 1,670 Americans ages 45 and older, it revealed exactly what older Americans do behind closed doors (and plenty of other places), as well as their honest opinions about things you'd typically get punched, slapped, or arrested for asking.

Following are some of the biggest revelations. Are they inspiring, comforting, or troubling? That depends on what's going on in your bedroom-and how your love life stacks up against the "norm." A clue: If you're a woman in your 50s and you have sex at least once a week, 64 percent of your peers might be jealous.

Baby, It's Cold Inside
Wondering if you're the only person in the country whose sex life has taken a dive even though you're healthy, hardy, and still highly interested in your partner? Stop wondering. It seems that there's been an alarming drop in our nookie sessions. Between 2004 and 2009, the percentage of people in their 50s who say they have sex at least once a week took about a 10-point plunge for both sexes (women dropped from 43 to 32 percent, and men from 49 to 41 percent). The 50-somethings aren't special; most other age groups saw a drop in their frequency of sex, too.

And guess what? They're not happy about it. The survey found that only 43 percent of older Americans say they're satisfied with their sex lives (down from 51 percent in 2004), while the percentage who are dissatisfied with their sex lives increased.

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The chill isn't confined to the bedroom, sadly. The percentage of people who say they engage in affectionate acts like hugging, kissing, and caressing at least once a week also fell between 2004 and 2009. About half enjoy such simple nurturing activities at least weekly, although those with a regular partner are much more likely to report such frequency.

So, what caused the recent nosedive? Good question. We're certainly not more prudish. Consider that the number of 45+ Americans who believe that only married people should have sex has dropped by nearly half in five years-from 41 percent in 1999 to 22 percent in 2009. What's more, fewer survey respondents agree that "there's too much emphasis on sex today" than they did in 2004 (though maybe Janet Jackson's wardrobe malfunction at the 2004 Super Bowl had us fed up back then).

For one possible answer, check your wallet.

Research has long shown that money worries sap sex, and with the recent unemployment scourge, yo-yoing 401(k)s and rampaging foreclosures, there's been no shortage in worries. To put it mildly, financial stress is probably hitting midlifers below the belt.

"Financial worries tend to seep into all parts of a couple's life together," says Dr. Pepper Schwartz, a sexologist at the University of Washington in Seattle and AARP's love and relationships ambassador. "It's hard for some people to feel warm and sexy when they are afraid of losing their home-or they have already lost their job! People complain of feeling distant, disconnected, and emotionally bound up."

Not surprisingly, more Americans believe that having a healthier bank account would get their home fires burning. The percentage of 45+ Americans who say that having better finances would make their sex lives more satisfying increased from 2004 to 2009 (from 17 to 26 percent among men, and 9 to 14 percent among women, respectively).

They're probably right: Healthy people with no financial worries and low stress levels (and, of course, a partner handy) have the most sex, and are most likely to say they have "extremely satisfying" sexual relationships.

Me, Myself, and I
What hasn't taken a hit from the money woes? Self-love.

Nearly one-quarter (22 percent) of all 45+ Americans say they engage in "self-stimulation" just about weekly (nearly identical to 2004), though men are more avid devotees than women. Among people in their 50s, about 42 percent of men and 15 percent of women say they indulge in self-stimulation "about once a week" or "more than once a week." The chips may be low, but as Sinatra sang, "they can't take that away from me."

(Don't) Put a Ring on It
It may be a cliche, but the survey did indeed find that single 45+ Americans who are dating have more sex (and better love lives all-round) than their married counterparts. They win for sheer frequency; 48 percent of singles with regular partners have sex at least once a week, compared to only 36 percent of married folks. It's no surprise that 60 percent say they're satisfied with their sex lives, compared to 52 percent of their hitched peers (and just 19 percent of the single-but-not-dating crowd). When it comes to a sizzling love life, finding a partner seems to trump marrying a spouse.

More likely, it trumps living with someone who has stopped trying. "When people are dating, they are 'auditioning'," says Dr. Schwartz. "Unfortunately, many long-term couples start to put away those little affectionate details and take each other for granted. They get functional about sex instead of seductive." Dating couples have a much different mindset, she says, "and it shows in their sexual satisfaction and happiness with one another."

For some, dating just one partner may be too limiting. "My sex life is even better than [it was] in my teens and 20s," says Carrie F., 50, who keeps a full dance card in Van Nuys, Calif., and isn't planning on settling for one beau any time soon. More options means she's never dateless, she points out. "If one of my partners is not available for whatever reason, I can always call another one."

Of course, a lot of married people are doing just fine and laugh at the notion that great sex and marriage don't endure. "I still find my sexual relationship with [my wife] Barbara to be largely the most wonderful activity of my life," says Ken M., 72, from Tacoma, Wash. "We have been married for over 50 years and continue to have sex nearly daily."

We Will Survive?
We all know that infidelity is a potent relationship-destroyer, an atom bomb that few unions withstand. Right?

Maybe not. Among all the survey respondents, 21 percent of men and 11 percent of women admit that they cheated during a current or recent long-term relationship. In pointing fingers, about 12 percent of both sexes say that their partner cheated on them-which hints that many ladies are too optimistic about their man's whereabouts at this very second. Surprisingly few people say the cheating did irreparable harm to their relationship: Roughly 40 percent report that it had no effect at all, about 30 percent think it only caused temporary tension, and a mere 6 percent or less say it was the fatal blow.

What's more, some report that infidelity made their relationship better. About 25 percent of cheaters say that it gave their relationship a boost in the sex department, and 11 percent of cheatees agree.

"Sometimes a crisis shows you what is really important," says Schwartz. "Infidelity is sometimes caused by each person, or by one person in particular withholding love, affection and sex. When another person enters the picture, the spouse who was inattentive can suddenly realize they have been part of the problem. So if both partners really want the relationship to last, they work harder at everything-including sex."

As you can imagine, who did the cheating matters. People regard the infidelity as far more damaging to the relationship if they were, shall we say, the last to know. Nearly 60 percent of female cheaters say their stepping out had "no effect" on their relationship, and just 9 percent think made their sex lives worse. Among women with cheating partners, however, only 24 percent say it had no effect on the relationship-and almost 40 percent say it made their sex lives worse. (Perhaps some of these lucky "no effect" folks had struck a pragmatic arrangement; one survey respondent added, "We lived 300 miles apart at the time and agreed to a 'don't ask don't tell' policy."

Gender matters, too. Women were almost three times as likely as men to say that their partner's cheating caused a lasting tension and lack of trust. Men are either more forgiving or just harder up: Only 6 percent of male cheatees say their sex lives were worse after their partner's infidelity. Hey, if she's back in your bed, why hold a grudge?

Ironically, a wandering partner may be doing you a big favor. Joe B., a writer in northern California, was devastated in 1998 when his wife of 25 years told him she was leaving to be with her high school sweetheart. He met a certain mortgage broker while working out details of the divorce, and business quickly became pleasure.

"Mary and I married in 2002, and I am thoroughly in love!" says Joe, 59. "I actually thank my ex-wife, because my life has never been better-life is precious now." And the sex? "We're like rabbits! It's amazing. Honestly, with my first wife, the sex was good for maybe the first week and then it was pretty much nonexistent. But Mary and I are still crazy about each other. We can't believe how lucky we are."

Ron Geraci is the author of The Bachelor Chronicles. He hopes to have a second marriage like Joe's if he ever gets married a first time.

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