The AARP on Midlife Sex

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?

Gender differences

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.

Sexual frequency

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.

Helen Gurley Brown: Feminist under Cover

Before Sex and the City, before Gloria Steinem, before Jane Fonda, there was Helen Gurley Brown. She was the creator of the iconic Cosmo Girl, wearer of organza and décolletage, and advocate of a woman’s right to a career, sex, and life on her own terms.

It may be hard to remember or to appreciate how radical her approach to a woman’s place in the world was as we look back through the lens of rapid change in women’s rights and cultural expectations.

In the old-school world that Helen Gurley Brown faced in the 1950s and 60s, women had only grudgingly been granted the right to vote. She did not come upon the scene with either pedigree or good looks. (She called herself a “former mouseburger… not beautiful or even pretty… not bosomy or brilliant,” although others said she was “obsessed with boobs,” as the Cosmo covers suggest.) Her achievements came because of hard work and skillful politicking and through the unabashed use of feminine subterfuge and seduction.

In this she differentiated herself from the bra-burning feminists who were to come shortly after. She was the anti-feminist. She challenged the traditional role of women in the workplace (as secretaries) and in the bedroom (as wives) just as vigorously as the ERA women, but from a different perspective. In HGB’s world, a woman had to be smart and confident. But it was also useful to be feminine and to know when to deploy those charms, either to get what you want or for the sheer fun of a sexual romp.

While she predated the feminist movement by almost a decade, her book Sex and the Single Girl was the first crack in the dike, the first shot across the bow, signaling the vast social upheaval that would follow. In her book, “Brown challenged [single women] to take the same liberties as young men: to enjoy a long and lusty sexual prelude to marriage and to use the rest of the time to build a successful career,” writes Gail Sheehy in Cosmo.

Although the feminists who followed disagreed, sometimes vociferously, this was HGB’s homegrown revolution, and she practiced what she preached.

Born into poverty and possessed of no great physical endowment, HGB worked like a draft horse at 17 jobs before reaching the seat of power she’d been striving for at the age of 42—editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan magazine.

For the next 32 years, until she was forced out of her job at 74, HGB created the icon and the culture of the Cosmo girl. And while on the one hand, the Cosmo girl perpetuates the imperative of feminine beauty and bosom, perhaps at the expense of brains; on the other, it celebrates the power and potential of a woman who knows how to use her femininity.

At the time, the Cosmo Girl was fresh and naughty; then, however, as one pundit commented, “she became familiar. And then she became a cliché.” Maybe, in today’s world of silicone cleavage and über-sexiness, she has become a caricature.

But in her work and in her personal life, HGB was a cheerleader for lots of fun, juicy sex. Clearly, sex continued to be important in her last marriage to David Brown as they both grew older. And it is in this capacity that Helen Gurley Brown has something to say to us—mature women who might be wondering what role sex has in our lives and relationships. While we may not want to emulate her, from that perspective we can learn a thing or two.

In memory of Helen Gurley Brown, who died August 13, 2012, at the age of 90, here are a few choice quotes for the older woman:

  • “It’s just ridiculous for a woman over 50 to assume sex has to be over. You may not be as rambunctious as when you were a teenager, but an orgasm is an orgasm, it doesn’t matter how long it takes to get there.”
  • About keeping the romance in marriage: “It helps if you go on romantic trips together. …When you’re in another city and a glamorous hotel that is conducive to sex, you think, ‘Hey, let’s don’t let this go to waste.’”
  • “What you do have to do is work with the raw material you have, namely you, and never let up.”
  • “Being sexy means that you accept all the parts of your body as worthy and lovable ... your reproductive organs, your breasts, your alimentary tract.”
  • “A woman who even occasionally enjoys an orgasm from the roots of her hair to the tips of her toes is sexy.… Remember, frigidity isn’t a physical disability. It’s a curable state of mind.”

Our Bodies, Ourselves—40 Years Later

Maybe you remember reading Our Bodies, Ourselves in the 1970s. Maybe for you, as for me, it demystified your own anatomy. Maybe that knowledge empowered you with a sense of self-determination. For a few people, as for me, it was liberating and challenging enough to inspire a career in medicine.

And even if you don’t remember reading the book, you were probably affected anyway by the changes toward women’s health care that it ignited.  “Women were treated as ‘small men who have babies,’” says Dr. Susan Love, a well-know surgeon and breast cancer specialist. “Men were the model, and women were sort of this extra thing.”

Our Bodies, Ourselves challenged that paradigm. With explicit, well-researched, and no-nonsense information about women’s bodies and their sexual and medical issues, the book “changed the basic discourse” within medical circles and cultures around the world.

This approach was revolutionary. The book began in quintessential female style, almost literally around the kitchen table when a group of women began meeting during the summer of 1969 to research their collective questions about women’s health. They compiled a 193-page course called “Women and Their Bodies.” The first book under the present title was published in 1971 and quickly sold 250,000 copies. It was, apparently, a topic whose time had come.

Our Bodies, Ourselves turned 40 this autumn. The Boston Women’s Health Book Collective—which grew from that first group of girlfriends—has now published several books targeted toward various demographics, including Our Bodies, Ourselves: Menopause, so the generation that came of age during that seminal edition can grow old with this one.

While health issues have changed (HIV/AIDS wasn’t around in 1971, for starters), the perennial appeal of Our Bodies, Ourselves, which now includes the book, the website, and the collective—the group of women who run the whole shebang and who work together to compile the books—remains strong. The group is marking this milestone with a new edition, which includes entries from over 300 contributors.

Even in this post-feminist, technological era, where health information is a few clicks away and women are more strongly represented in medicine than ever, Our Bodies, Ourselves remains a practical, “girlfriend” guide for women. It may (and has) been argued that it created a new genre.

“The legacy of Our Bodies, Ourselves is that it spawned a whole new kind of book,” said Courtney E. Martin, an editor at in a recent interview, “like your best friend sitting down in a room with you and telling you about your body and how it works without any embarrassment.”

Kind of like this blog, we hope.

May 23, 2011


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Sex Goes Mainstream!

I’m very happy to tell you about an article that appeared recently in the Wall Street Journal about... sex! It’s encouraging to me to see that a traditional business publication like the WSJ is actually broaching the subject; the more we see sex talked about in mainstream media, the better for us all.

Because as I’ve said before, I don't think sex should be a taboo subject; it’s a big part of our lives. The more informed we are about it, the better.

In the past, it’s pretty much been the domain of women’s magazines, but the articles on sex have often been of the “How to please your husband in bed!” variety, rather than more serious discussions, like how it affects or interacts with your overall health.

I’m seeing evidence that it’s changing. Psychology Today, too, now often reports on sex in a very open way, as do many highly respected websites, including and

I’ve even been invited to appear on local television—and before 9 p.m.!—to talk about the role of sexuality in our lives as mid-life women and how to keep the spark alive in long-term relationships. (I don’t often toot my own horn, but if you’re curious, you can see the video online.)

As for the Wall Street Journal article, called “The Joy of Researching the Health Benefits of Sex,” it covers some of the same topics we’ve discussed here on the blog, like how sex increases oxytocin (the author referred to it as “the cuddle hormone”) which promotes bonding and stimulates endorphins.

I’ll talk more about other medical findings they mentioned in another post; my point here is that I’m just so thrilled to see mainstream media joining in the discussion!  Who knows how many dinner table (or wine and cheese) conversations that story prompted between friends or spouses and partners. The more comfortable we all become talking about sex, the easier it will be for women to feel free to discuss sexual problems with their doctors. And that’s huge.

The discouraging part about the article was what a scientist said about getting funds for sexual research. “If ‘sex’ is in your grant proposal, it’s very hard to get it approved,” said Dr. Irwin Goldstein, director of sexual medicine at Alvarado Hospital in San Diego and editor in chief of the Journal of Sexual Medicine. Bummer: No money, no research, no new information to enlighten us.

But I really do believe that’s changing, and you have the power to help. So I encourage you all to contribute to the discussion. If the Wall Street Journal can talk about how many calories sex burns (about five a minute), so can you!