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Start Your Own Later-in-Life Sexual Revolution

How to rediscover sexual intimacy and passion as you age

spinner image a man and a woman embracing
HANNAH WHITAKER

Securing an early check-in for Room 200 at a Quality Inn on a nondescript highway at noon was like leading a high-level trade negotiation. It took one reservation clerk and two supervisors to sign off on the only time we had that week to grab an hour of pleasure. Blame it on my raging libido and a scheduling crunch. Motel sex or nothing? Nothing is not the correct answer.

After a five-year sex drought, I am in a sexual relationship again. At times, it’s all I can think about. When I see Ed, the sex usually comes first.

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Who knew, in my 60s, that sex could feel this powerful? I had missed my sexual self, and for me now there is a sense of urgency around it that I’ve never experienced before. That urgency only makes the sex hotter. I think Ed would tell you the same.

Sex and intimacy disappeared from my landscape when my husband died. Their presence in my life had in part defined me. So did their absence. At some point, I started referring to myself as “celibate.” It seemed more like a glass half-full approach. It’s just a word but it made me feel better — as though I had agency, a choice in the matter. Then I reconnected with Ed, a man I had profiled for a local magazine decades ago. He’d unearthed the article I’d written during a move and found me.

Finally, I figured, I was having sex again, just like everyone else.

spinner image writer ellen uzelac in her home in chestertown maryland
The author at home on Maryland's Eastern Shore.
Stephanie Diani

But what I discovered in conversations with friends, sexual wellness professionals and physicians is that a lot of older people in committed relationships aren’t having sex at all. And while many couples are OK with that, others, understandably, are distraught about it.

One man I talked to told me his wife informed him when she turned 60 that she was done with sex. That was eight years ago. A woman I know says she misses the “sex bunny” she used to be but that her sex drive shut down when she was in her mid-50s. As she frames it: “We could do it, but it would be pitiful. You get sore and you get tired. What we’ve got left are memories.”

Another friend, in her 70s, has turned increasingly to self-pleasure as her husband of 50 years continues to withdraw his physical affection. He won’t tell her why.

“Why aren’t we sitting down and figuring it out? Why do we let go of something that’s so rich and powerful and joyful?” she says. “It’s a deep sadness for me.”

Sad, yes—and also the norm for many couples. In fact, a 2018 National Poll on Healthy Aging sponsored by AARP and the University of Michigan found that among men and women ages 65 to 80, only 40 percent were still having sex. Even among those who were in relationships, the rate was a mere 54 percent.

Margery Kates, M.D., my gynecologist, calls the sex drought an epidemic among folks 50 and older. But it’s an epidemic without a name because no one’s talking about it.

“It’s a real problem,” Kates notes. “There’s a lot in the academic literature that’s coming out now. Has that awareness translated to patients? Not really.”

One of the biggest contributors to the sex drought is a failure to communicate. Many of us don’t have the words to express even the simplest concepts and concerns around sex — not to our partners and not to our physicians.

“Sexual health is one of the most challenging things for us to discuss,” says Wendy Strgar, founder of Good Clean Love, a sexual wellness products company in Eugene, Oregon. “So it becomes an avoidance issue. Sex becomes this thing we don’t do.”

And a lot of older couples aren’t doing it in part because of conditions associated with aging that can be easily treated: erectile difficulties, vaginal dryness, a testosterone deficiency, low libido. Once sex becomes a bit challenging, psychological issues can take over, says Irwin Goldstein, M.D., director of San Diego Sexual Medicine. Erectile dysfunction, for example, “can be devastating to a guy,” he says. “If you want to be intimate and you can’t get hard, your entire ego, your value as a male, your self-esteem shatters.”

Fear of discussing sex can be the biggest barrier to having sex, especially when it comes to getting help. “Many men are reluctant to consult with a urologist or sexual medicine physician,” Goldstein says. Yet there’s a whole array of treatments: hormones, ED pills, injectables, vacuum devices, restriction rings and shock wave therapy, among them. “If a man has a penis, then a man can get an erection,” he says. “There are very few who can’t be treated.”

There are also medical conditions—a bad back or arthritis, for example—that can make it difficult to have sex. In that event, couples may opt to explore what the sexual wellness community calls outercourse: masturbation, oral sex, cuddling, rubbing, fantasizing, sex toys.

I had forgotten how warm and wonderful it feels to want and to be wanted. When I drive to Ed’s, my body often tingles in anticipation. No wonder sex is good for you. Among many other well-documented health benefits, it improves sleep, clears the mind, releases natural painkillers and creates a sense of well-being that, for me, is like no other.

I spoke to Abraham Morgentaler, M.D., the author of The Truth About Men and Sex: Intimate Secrets from the Doctor’s Office and an associate professor of urology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical School in Boston. “Sex is this magic sauce for couples. It’s something that is not only incredibly intimate, but it involves a primitive part of our brain that creates this sense of partnership, exclusivity and intimacy. Once that disappears in a relationship, a lot is lost.”

I know what that loss feels like. To be on the other side of it is magical, as Morgentaler says. But it took some work to get here. I, like most women my age, experience vaginal dryness that can make sexual intercourse painful. A medically prescribed estrogen cream and an over-the-counter lubricant have been game changers. And I’m not the only one experiencing a sexual renaissance: Despite the fact that older women have less sex than men, a study by the National Council on Aging found that women in their 60s often rated their physical satisfaction with sex as equal to or better than it was in their 40s.

Yet many of us remain uninformed about our sexual health as we age. But we can take some lessons from those around us, who have made it work, joyfully.



Real People, Real Sex

spinner image michelle paris and kevin porter of elkridge maryland
Michelle and Kevin, married three years.
Lexey Swall

Michelle, 59, & Kevin, 63

When Michelle Paris started dating Kevin Porter in 2015, she was 52 — and on the other side of menopause. Among other common side effects, she suffered from vaginal atrophy, or dryness.

“Having sex was like rubbing my vagina against a carpet. It was painful,” says Paris, whose novel, New Normal, will be published this spring. “I went to a gynecologist when we got serious to explore what alternatives there were.”

Paris’ fix? A vaginal estrogen cream that has made sexual intercourse comfortable again.

“When you’re single in your 50s, it creates this anxiety around your body and your sexuality,” adds Paris, who lives in Elkridge, Maryland. “Everyone comes to middle age with so much baggage. I kept telling myself that if I remained alone, I’d be OK. But Kevin and I are compatible in every way. To this day, I get giddy when he touches me.”

Paris and Porter, who met on the OurTime dating site, wed in 2020.

“I tease Kevin about my taking old lady cream,” says Paris. “But, in all honesty, it saved me.”

spinner image billie best and roger emmert of oregon
Billie and Roger in Oregon.
Celeste Noche

Billie, 68, & Roger, 67

“Instant physical chemistry.” That’s how wellness blogger Billie Best sums up her first date with Roger Emmert. The couple, both in their late 60s, had sung in the same choir as teens, but they hadn’t seen each other in more than five decades until early 2020, when they reconnected on Facebook.

“We were very attracted to each other physically,” says the Eugene, Oregon-based Best, creator of the Billie Best Blog: Aging Beyond 60—Loving Life, Staying Relevant. “We had both been single for years. Sex and intimacy? It had been forever.”

During that sex drought, what Best describes as the “geography between my legs” had grown dry as a result of age-related vaginal atrophy, and both she and Emmert, a hot tub salesman, have joint issues with knees and hips. Their preference at this stage in life is oral sex and skin-to-skin contact throughout the day.

“One of the benefits of being older is that you’re clear on what you want, what your boundaries are, who you are as a person,” says Best.

“Older sex is slower, it’s not gymnastic. It’s about finding ways to give each other pleasure. I just love going slow, really drawing out the experience and taking time for it. I only see it getting better and better.”

spinner image raven wylde and istvan szilvassy in santa barbara california
Raven and Istvan in California.
Yuri Hasegawa

Istvan, 73, & Raven, 67

Twice a week, Istvan Szilvassy and his wife, Raven Wylde, find time for a lingering sexual encounter that leaves them “fulfilled” and “happy.”

“What we do is colorful and sexy and stimulating. We talk about it. We believe in it,” Szilvassy says. “We do everything to please each other. And there are all kinds of tools to make that happen.”

Szilvassy, an artist known professionally as Pali X Mano, hasn’t had reliable erections for the better part of a decade, so he takes a medically prescribed pill in advance of their sex dates.

The Santa Barbara, California, couple face “the usual challenges” with sex and aging, according to Wylde, a retired nurse. Both of them have arthritis, which has caused them to modify their positioning during sex. Wylde also uses an estrogen cream to treat vaginal dryness.

It wasn’t until she was in her 50s, Wylde says, that she began to value slow, languorous sex that is as much about her pleasure as her partner’s.

“I just love slowing everything down and savoring it,” she says. “Sex at this stage is so much more fun. When you’re older, you let a lot of self-criticism go. It’s liberating.”

spinner image raven wylde and istvan szilvassy in santa barbara california
Raven and Istvan in California.
Yuri Hasegawa

Istvan, 73, & Raven, 67

Twice a week, Istvan Szilvassy and his wife, Raven Wylde, find time for a lingering sexual encounter that leaves them “fulfilled” and “happy.”

“What we do is colorful and sexy and stimulating. We talk about it. We believe in it,” Szilvassy says. “We do everything to please each other. And there are all kinds of tools to make that happen.”

Szilvassy, an artist known professionally as Pali X Mano, hasn’t had reliable erections for the better part of a decade, so he takes a medically prescribed pill in advance of their sex dates.

The Santa Barbara, California, couple face “the usual challenges” with sex and aging, according to Wylde, a retired nurse. Both of them have arthritis, which has caused them to modify their positioning during sex. Wylde also uses an estrogen cream to treat vaginal dryness.

It wasn’t until she was in her 50s, Wylde says, that she began to value slow, languorous sex that is as much about her pleasure as her partner’s.

“I just love slowing everything down and savoring it,” she says. “Sex at this stage is so much more fun. When you’re older, you let a lot of self-criticism go. It’s liberating.”

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