Pepper Schwartz: AARP's sex adviser shares views on intimate senior activity



Pepper Schwartz, 71, is a University of Washington sociology professor touted by AARP as its “sex and relationship expert.”

A past president of the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality, she has written numerous books and columns related to sex and older adults and lectures frequently on the topic.

Pepper Schwartz
 

In the wake of a national study that raised concerns about how older men with the most active, satisfying sex lives could be at risk of greater heart ailments, Aging Edge sought Ms. Schwartz’s insights on that and a range of issues relating to sexual activity in later years. (The interview has undergone editing for greater clarity and brevity.)

Aging Edge: Baby boomers are known as a generation that tries to do everything differently from their parents, so now that they make up a large percentage of seniors, what’s different today from the past about the nature of sex for people in their 50s, 60s and beyond?

Schwartz: I think the difference is that sex is much more important to baby boomers in terms of defining their youth. There is something about continuing to be sexual that defies old age and tells you you are still a physically capable human being. If you were never sexual previously, it’s not going to be as big a deal, but for people whose lives have been sexual it’s just like wearing jeans or doing all those other things that make you feel current in life instead of like you’re winding it up. If you look at people in their 60s and 70s — how they dress, their haircuts — and compare those to people who were in their 60s and 70s 50 years ago, there’s a dynamic there about showing how to be vital, how to be yourself, how not to give up.

Aging Edge: There’s a perception that as they get older, people would be not only having less sex but be less interested in it. Is that true, or is that some kind of ageist fallacy?

Schwartz: I think it’s somewhere in-between. The fact is that there’s a diminution of of testosterone and estrogen, coupled with the hormones associated with desire. But on the other hand, it really depends on how important sexuality is for you. For example, a 2010 AARP study took a look at both a Caucasian and Hispanic population sample, and it found the Hispanic sample had more sex and thought it was more important, even under circumstances of having lesser health and more conditions, like diabetes that have an effect on sexuality because of the disease itself and the medications you have to take for it. So even though there’s a physical issue, it really depends on how important sex is for you. Yes, physical needs and other things get in the way of maybe having sex the way you used to, but it does not mean it’s not important to you.

Aging Edge: You note the physical challenges to enjoying sex as much as people were able to do when younger. How important are the mental issues involved, such as sexual urges diminishing simply from perceptions that people and bodies lose their attractiveness over time?

Schwartz: It depends. Some people get stuck in a template they got from when they were 20 to 40 years old, and they can’t seem to change it, while other people change it as they go along. If you’re 50, and your template is stuck on 18-year-olds, you’re going to very lonely, because their sexual attractions scale won’t extend to you. But if you’re 50 and can focus on others in their 50s and think they look good, you’re going to be better off. The same in your 70s and 80s. I think one of the biggest problems has to do with how you look at yourself. If you see yourself as someone who’s less attractive at an older age, you’re going to be less motivated now because you don’t feel comfortable or confident. That’s an internal struggle.

Aging Edge:The recent Michigan State University study using a broad national sample found older men with the most frequent and satisfying sex lives had more heart problems than did men who were less sexually active. Do you believe there to be health dangers from sex by older adults?

Schwartz: I have to tell you most of the research I have seen about sexuality is associated with good health, not risks. So while this is a serious study, it’s not the only study out there, and it’s definitely controversial in that it’s an outlier rather than the main. There was a study in Wales looking at men over many decades, and it associated their sexual frequency with less morbidity, less illness and increased longevity.

Aging Edge: From adolescence on, there seem to be sharp differences between the genders in attitudes toward sex. In later years, does that divide become more pronounced or do men and women actually come closer together in their views?

Schwartz: It’s definitely true that through the life cycle men are more focused on pursuing sex than women. On the other hand, women today are more interested in it and enjoy it more than their mothers did. The huge gap we used to think of as natural maybe isn’t there anymore. In AARP studies looking at how people rated sex as well as the frequency of it at every age, after age 70 the percentage of men who were extremely pleased with their sex life went down drastically, to less than 5 percent, but with women, about 20 percent remained extremely pleased. Maybe it gets to the point where men’s hydraulic issues make them unhappier than women. A lot of the gender difference may be based on how physically capable they are of having enjoyable, non-painful sex. Rather than a gender difference, it almost becomes a health difference.

Aging Edge: Could some of that be a difference in how women define sex compared to men?

Schwartz: A lot of women are not as orgasm-focused as men are. A lot of women would be very happy with petting or sexual fondling -— they have a broader palette.

Aging Edge: While a lot of this has been focused on the difficulties that aging can pose for a happy sex life, are there also upsides in bed from being older?

Schwartz: There’s definitely an upside, and one is that men are much more able to be emotionally present, are much more able to think about their partner’s inner life as well as what’s happening physically. Some men, from taking longer now to have orgasms, are also able to enjoy a more protracted sexuality. A lot of what I hear is that the emotional connection for couples is much better now that performance demands have modified. It used to be that if a man can’t have an erection, or a woman can’t have an orgasm, then it’s a problem that’s a reflection on you rather than something occurring at that particular moment — better understanding about that goes way up with age.

Aging Edge: What about sex at really advanced ages, like for people in their 80s and 90s? How possible is that, and what kind of limits are there for them?

Schwartz: I think diseases get in the way — not so much desires as diseases. If you have diabetes or heart problems or any or the many diseases that attack the central nervous system or affect body functions and need very powerful medicines to counteract problems, those medicines can make it almost impossible to get aroused, almost impossible to have desire. It’s a rare person that doesn’t want to hold a partner and kiss and hug and have some feeling of sexual connection, but in terms of sexual arousal and touching and penetration, for many people as they age other things are going to interfere.

Aging Edge: There are so many pills and supplements and devices to assist older adults that wouldn’t have been there in prior generations. Are you a fan of all these or do you have any concerns about sex being different from the more natural ways of the past?

Schwartz: I’m a big fan of anything that works. There are people who say no, that it’s not natural so I’m going to let my body fall apart, but most say if there’s a technological answer, a medical answer, let’s use it. What worries me is there are lots of things on the market of questionable merit. There are a lot of fly-by-night herbs that are not medically tested and things that are maybe dangerous, and the use of erectile dysfunction drugs for some people should be evaluated, because having sex is not as important as staying alive. Everything should really be put into the context of your own situation and what’s advisable for you.

Aging Edge: Anything else you’d like to emphasize that you focus on when giving talks?

Schwartz: I think we have to realize how much ageism affects us. Our culture’s always been youth-focused, and we’re uncomfortable with aging bodies and our ability to change. It’s hard to think of yourself as sexual when the world is telling you that if you’re still interested, you’re a dirty old man or randy old woman. There’s a certain amount of personal activism in terms of projecting and saying to people, “Of course I’m a sexual person, and of course I care about being connected to my partner.” So in a sense, if you want to be sexual for the rest of your life, to some extent you have to be an activist on your own behalf.

Gary Rotstein: grotstein@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1255.





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