Americans read adult studies for one reason, .They want to know, 'how am they are doing?' . They suspect that somewhere out there, someone else is having more fun in bed. The desire for comparisons is meaningless. Among the most widely publicized sex reports in decades, stunned the world by revealing that Americans' favorite sex act was plain intercourse. Pundits concluded that tradition (and the missionary position) reigned supreme in the bedroom. In 1998, study commissioned of the sexual attitudes and practices of Americans 45 and older—the first such nationwide inquiry to span midlife to old age. Earlier polls may have underestimated the sexual activity of healthy older adults by lumping together people who have a regular partner with people who don't. The AARP/ Modern Maturity Sexuality Study didn't make that mistake—and the results don't lend themselves to easy generalizations . What emerges is not one big picture but a series of closeups, illuminating the physical and emotional complexity of sex in midlife and beyond. Among the most significant snapshots: About half of 45- through 59-year-olds have sex at least once a week, but among 60- through 74-year-olds, the proportion drops to 30 percent for men and 24 percent for women.
While frequency drops with age, more than 70 percent of surveyed men and women who have regular partners are sexually active enough to have intercourse at least once or twice a month. About two thirds of those polled were extremely or very satisfied with their physical relationships. With advancing age, any gender gap in behavior is overshadowed by a partner gap between the haves (men of every generation) and the have-nots (half of women 60 through 74 and four out of five 75 and older). More than 50 percent of men and women with partners—but less than half of 1 percent of women and only 6 percent of men without a regular partner—have intercourse at least once a week. The generation gap in sexual attitudes between those who came of age in the 1960s and their parents is as apparent today as it was then—especially among women—and may foreshadow a more active sex life for the younger generation as it ages. Women 45 through 59 are much more likely to approve of sex between unmarried partners and to engage in oral sex and masturbation—and less likely to believe that "sex is only for younger people"—than women 60 and older. Older men also espouse more conservative values than younger men, but the gap is much narrower. Only a small proportion of men—5.6 percent—are currently trying new treatments for impotence, but half of those taking some form of medication are taking Viagra. More significantly, the majority of the men and their partners said that the drug had increased their enjoyment of sex. Americans 60 and older believe that better health would do more to enhance their sexual pleasure than any other life change. Nevertheless, more than half of men and 85 percent of women say that their sex lives are unimpaired by illness—even those age 75 and older. "The falloff in frequency begins with the aging process. All drugs, disease, and relationship problems get added to this basic evolutionary shift," Over age 50, the quality of sex depends much more on the overall quality of a relationship than it does for young couples." Perhaps the saddest truth embedded in the numbers in this study is that for most (though not all) older widows, the loss of a husband translates into the end of sex. At 75 and older, when more than four out of five women are widowed (compared with only one out of five men), the percentage of women who had gone six months without intercourse or "sexual touching and caressing" was virtually identical to the percentage of widows.
Women of all ages consider close friendship and family ties more important than fulfilling sex. Among 45- through 59-year-olds, more than two thirds of women—but only 41 percent of men—regard friendship and family bonds as very important to their quality of life. But men value their friendships more highly as they age. Of those 75 and older, nearly 60 percent of men attribute great importance to ties with friends and family.
At every age, though, sex does seem to hold greater importance for men than women. Nearly 60 percent of men—but only about 35 percent of women—say sexual activity is important to their overall quality of life. The gap in attitudes between women over and under 60 suggests that Baby Boomer women, the oldest of whom are in their late 40s and early 50s, will be much less likely than their mothers' generation to accept celibacy as the natural outcome of widowhood. "These women came of age believing they had a right to sexual pleasure," Zussman says, "and that belief isn't going to evaporate at age 65 or 75." About 5 percent of men 75 and older—but more than 35 percent of women in that age group—say they would be quite happy if they never had sex again. Among women in their 40s and 50s, only 9 percent are sanguine about such a prospect. At no age do a majority of men declare that sex outside marriage is wrong (a finding not likely to surprise women). The study did not ask about adultery—which presumably would have elicited much stronger disapproval from men and women of all ages. There's an obvious connection between a woman's attitude toward nonmarital sex and her sex life after widowhood. For a woman who might want a man in her life but does not wish to remarry—the position of many older widows—the belief that sex outside marriage is morally wrong is likely to pose an insurmountable barrier to any erotic relationship. Older women are also more conservative in their attitudes toward masturbation. Under age 60, approximately a third had masturbated on occasion in recent months, while more than 90 percent of women 75 and older said they had not. Overall, a majority of men without partners said they masturbated, while more than 77 percent of women didn't.