I don’t always catch AARP The Magazine, I suspect because I’m still adjusting to thinking of myself as part of their demographic. But the most recent issue contained an article I’m glad I saw: “You’re Old, I’m Not,” a report on an AARP survey on “Aging in America.”
Among the findings are a few you’ll accept as common wisdom: People in their 40s define “old” as younger (63) than people in their 70s (75). As we grow older, we find that the process is “easier than I thought,” that we’re not held back from doing what we want to do. Older people appreciate old-folks humor more than younger folks do.
One section of the results, though, sparked my interest in a different way. There’s a difference by gender in agreement with this statement: “I know I’ll enjoy sex no matter how old I am.” Seventy-one percent of men agreed; only 51 percent of women did. Gender mattered much more than age: There’s only a 7-point difference between people in their 40s (66 percent) and people in their 70s, 59 percent of whom still expect to enjoy sex.
Given my line of work, I take that difference by gender as something as a battle cry. I certainly don’t want women to be like men—vive la différence! But I take it as a personal, professional, and generational challenge to see more women look forward to enjoying sex!
I doubt that AARP was able to delve into the thinking behind people’s responses to that question. My guesses about why women are less optimistic than men are based on my years as a menopause care provider, not on AARP’s data. But here are my theories:
First, we’re young at understanding menopause. The average age for menopause is now 50; until 1900, few women lived past that age. We’re living longer now, and have much more experience with menopause, but we have no deep cultural expectation of conversation about it.
And that leads to the second factor: In the absence of good information, the worst-case scenario tends to take over our imaginations. Have you noticed that talk about child birth and root canals nearly always leads to the sharing of horror stories—the labor that lasted four days, the excruciatingly painful dental experience? Even though those stories are the exception, not the rule? I’ve seen the same thing happen with women talking about menopause, and the women who hear those stories are more willing to accept limitations and less empowered to take control of their own sex lives!
There’s one more factor, too: We as women start to receive messages that sex and older don’t compute. For some reason, “sexy woman” conjures a young woman in our media and culture—and, for some reason, we’re susceptible to that suggestion!
I don’t know when AARP will conduct this survey again. But when they do, my hope is that women agree just as often as men that “I’ll enjoy sex no matter how old I am.” Because we can, when we take the time to understand what’s happening as our bodies change. And we want to, when we recognize what sex means to our health, our well-being, and our relationships—and all the ways those intertwine.
And, okay. Because we women can be a little bit competitive, too.
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.