For every reader of a study, there’s a different headline. That’s my conclusion after reading The Lancet’s publishing of the findings from the British National Surveys of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (NATSAL).
I’d been intrigued by an article in The Guardian that suggested Britons are having less sex because of the struggling economy and too much technology. I think either is credible. I agree with Kaye Wellings, of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, when she says that “there’s a strong relationship between unemployment and low sexual function [which] is to do with low self-esteem, depression.” And common sense tells me that it’s hard to be aroused by a partner with an iPhone in his hand.
But when I read the full research report, there were other things that spoke to me.
This is the third time the full research has been done, using comparable methods so that trends can be examined over 60 years. And this is the first time that the eligible age range went beyond 44 years—all the way up to 74!
And that’s a very good thing, ladies, because we haven’t stopped having sex just because we’ve passed our mid-40s.
In fact, that one change to the study’s design led to two of their most notable conclusions:
- That sexual lifestyles have changed substantially in the last 60 years (which sounds elementary, my dear Watson, but they can tell us exactly how!)
- And that “research into the sexual health and well-being of men and women in later life—who now have increasing expectations of sexual fulfillment—and make up a growing segment of the population—is a neglected area.”
Well, yes! And I’m grateful to see conclusions like those from well-respected research projects!
A couple more things struck me as I read through the details, because they resonate with my experience as a menopause care provider. The frequency of sexual encounters does decrease as both men and women grow older; among women 65 to 74, intercourse is happening about a third as often as among women 25 to 34. There is, though, still a variety of sexual experiences among the older women, including oral and anal sex.
I note that men over 55 are more likely to have a partner of the opposite sex than are women at the same age, and yet men of that age are three times more likely to self-stimulate than women are. Now, I know that sexual behavior depends on many things, including social norms and attitudes.
But I also know that women are uniquely “use-it-or-lose-it” creatures. When we’re without partners, we can’t assume that our sexuality is stowed away to be taken out again at some later date. I encourage women to think about self-stimulation, because orgasm is good for us physically and mentally, and it helps us maintain patent vaginal tissues.
Given the numbers, I know it can’t happen for everyone, but I’ve seen enough women find a second love to think it’s worthwhile to maintain our sexual health. Not because a woman needs a man (that whole fish without a bicycle thing), but because sometimes the right woman and man find each other. And it’s a whole lot easier to maintain your sexual health and capacity than it is to reclaim it.
Because data show—British researchers proved it—that “sexual health is a key component of well-being,” even for those of us over 44, and even for those of us currently without partners.
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.