The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), the venerable group that’s always looking out for our best interests, has completed three major surveys of the sexual behavior of midlife (and older) adults.
This third such survey was released in 2009 (following earlier surveys in 1999 and 2004), and while nothing was truly shocking, some information was interesting, and some might be helpful. And, with three such studies conducted over a period of years, the organization is able to identify some trends and changes.
The 2009 study surveyed 1670 adults (the “panel”) over the age of 45. According to the firm commissioned to conduct the study, it’s “the first online research panel that is representative of the entire U.S. population.”
So, what’s happening behind our bedroom doors?
It’s no news flash that men and women are different in the way they view sex. For one thing, Mars thinks about sex more than Venus. (Men are five times more likely than women to think about sex once a day). They masturbate more (34 percent to 12 percent) and admit to having oral sex more. (Presumably with women? So… are the women just too timid to admit it?) They are also twice as likely to have sex outside their long-term relationship (21 percent of men admit to infidelity as opposed to 11 percent of women).
Bottom line: “Sex is far more important to the overall quality of life of men than women and also more critical to a good relationship.”
This doesn’t mean women don’t like sex—or think about it, or fantasize, or masturbate. It just means sex is front and center in the male brain, while it nestles cozily into a less prominent lobe in women.
Married vs. dating
While simply having a partner increases the odds of sexual satisfaction (now there’s a news flash), being married doesn’t—necessarily. Respondents who were “partnered but unmarried”—single and dating or engaged—have sex more often and like it more than their married counterparts.
Gives those of us who are married something to work on, hey?
But having a partner, whether married or not, also seems to make a difference in the broader scheme of things. Partnered respondents reported significantly higher overall quality of life and greater sexual satisfaction than those without a partner. And, obviously, they have sex more often, too.
So here’s the news flash. According to the study, “the number one factor predicting satisfaction with one’s sex life is the frequency of sexual intercourse.” See? Use it or lose it. The more you have it, the more you like it.
You heard it here first. What are you waiting for?
Among those who have sex once a week, 84 percent are satisfied with their sex life, compared to 59 percent of those who have sex once a month and 16 percent of those who haven’t had sex in the past six months.
And how often are those Eveready bunnies doing it? Of those who have partners, 41 percent are doing the once-a-week thing and 60 percent have sex at least once a month. Partnered folks are pretty touchy-feely, too: 78 percent hug and kiss at least once a week and 64 percent caress or otherwise give a little booty squeeze (sexual touching).
For women, that whole partner business is a bit of a conundrum. As we know, demographics is not on our side, since we live about five years longer on average than men, plus men tend to partner with younger women. As we age, we are more likely to be unpartnered, with the predictable impact on our sex life.
In addition to being affected when we're partnerless, sex is, of course, exquisitely sensitive to other events in our lives. The major life events that impact sexual frequency and satisfaction are health, stress, and financial worries (a different kind of stress, no?).
Good health is a top predictor of sexual frequency and satisfaction in many surveys. In this one, of those who rated themselves in “excellent” health, 42 percent have sex at least once a week and 54 percent are satisfied. Of those in fair health, 19 percent have sex once a week, and 23 percent are satisfied.
And while good health is partly the result of good genes and good luck, it’s also strongly related to good habits. The most active respondents—those who report exercising at least 3 to 5 times weekly—also rate themselves in excellent to good health.
Stress “is a major factor in sexual satisfaction,” especially among the youngest respondents. After age 60, respondents tend to experience lower stress levels. So, while younger people tend to be more sexually active, the study’s authors hypothesize that they might be even more so if they were less stressed.
The economic crisis and its attendant financial uncertainties may account for lower levels of sexual frequency and satisfaction, which were a full ten points lower than the 2004 survey.
From the mass of data they collected, the study’s authors compiled a short list of qualities that are good predictors of a happy sex life. They are:
- a partner
- frequent sex
- good health
- low stress levels
- lack of financial worries
Whether you’re a tortoise or a hare on the sex scale, remember that studies like these are only for information; they aren’t meant to pigeonhole or categorize. Your sex life and habits are unique to you and your partner. If sex is pleasurable and satisfying for both of you, who cares how often you “do it”? And if you find yourself dissatisfied and frustrated, well, this is one area in which improvement is always possible.
If you want to read the full report, you can find it here.
Dr. Barb DePree, M.D., has been a gynecologist and women’s health provider for almost 30 years and a menopause care specialist for the past ten.