Frisky over 50
Three quarters of Irish people aged 50-64 enjoy regular sex, according to new research by Trinity College. So it's a myth that sex is off the menu in midlife and beyond - in fact, our reporter discovers, many say it only gets better
If you are young, it may astonish you to hear that people do not stop having sex once they are past 50.
If you are nearing 50, you will be greatly relieved that you don't have to automatically swap it for gardening in the coming decades. And if you are over 50, you're probably having sex right now and not even reading this.
New research from Trinity College Dublin into the "little-studied and infrequently discussed" sex lives of older Irish adults asked 8,175 people over 50 about their intimate lives. The results were resoundingly positive - sex is alive and well in midlife and beyond. One-third of those surveyed enjoy sex once or twice a week, 36pc at least once a month, and 50pc had been sexually active in the past 12 months. Three quarters of respondents aged 50-64 enjoyed regular sex, as did 23pc of those aged 75 and over.
Living with a partner or spouse figured significantly in midlife sex - three-quarters of those who were sexually active were cohabiting, compared with 34pc who were divorced, widowed or single. Of the 9pc in non-cohabiting relationships, 88pc were enjoying regular sex with their partner. Good work, midlifers!
We have always known that the idea of sex belonging to youth is a myth, but it's nice to have hard evidence to back this up. And the knock-on effects are glorious - less depression, less long term disabilities, less negative perceptions of ageing. Sex, if not the elixir of eternal youth, at least helps with eternal youthfulness.
"People who are sexually active consider themselves to be in better health, report a better sense of wellbeing and overall have a better outlook on life," says Christine McGarrigle, co-author of the report and research director at The Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing (Tilda).
"We found it's normal to be sexually active when you are over 50, and that perception is linked to activity - if you think sex is important, then you are more likely to be sexually active. It's a very important part of life for all ages, and it's also very important to understand the links between health and wellbeing."
Quite. An orgasm a day keeps the doctor away. Yet many of us assume that, with age, our libido falls away. That menopause and andropause kill desire and response stone dead. Is this really the case?
"If a couple have always been sexually active, this will continue, irrespective of age," says sex therapist Mary O'Connor. "Equally, if sex has never been high priority within the relationship, or with one of the partners, this is unlikely to change as the couple get older."
Contributing factors to a couple's intimacy being boosted in midlife include the psychological liberation of menopause. "There's almost no chance of pregnancy, which is very freeing," says O'Connor. "Also, we are not parenting 24/7 anymore, and may have more time to sit still. Unless, of course, the children move back in."
Other factors include being in a second relationship ("where sexual relations start afresh, and couples are enjoying the newness of it all") and the advantages of pharmaceutical intervention.
"There are ways around the menopause," she says. "And there is Viagra."
Indeed, a 2012 study from the University of San Diego, which sampled 800 women whose average age was 67, found that 61pc were satisfied with their sex lives and 67pc "mostly or always" orgasmed. Sexual satisfaction, according to those surveyed, came from "emotional and physical closeness" with their partners. So no Tinder hook-ups, then, but sexual delight born of long-term intimacy.
But what of the downside? Anyone who has experienced the menopause will know that sex drive, no matter how formerly robust, can fall through the floor. As does physical response. "Dwindling supplies of oestrogen, progesterone and testosterone will definitely play havoc with your sex drive and the way you enjoy sex," writes Jill Shaw Ruddock in The Second Half of Your Life. "(This) can lead to loss of elasticity and thinning of the vaginal tissue; reduction in the blood supply to the vagina, which can make it too dry for comfortable sex; decrease in the amount of natural lubrication; orgasms becoming less intense and the anticipation before an orgasm decreases." There is more, but these are probably the most depressing.
For men, there are prostate problems, loss of libido and erectile dysfunction to look forward to. However, lifestyle and attitude can contribute enormously to outcome. What you eat, how you exercise, your levels of emotional awareness, and a willingness to adapt and explore as your physical sexuality changes and deepens with age are all vital in keeping your libido alive and kicking. And lube. Lots of lube.
Jennifer and Adrian, both 54, have been together 25 years and have three teenage children. "We are going through a renaissance in our marriage at the moment," she says. "I lost interest in sex for a long time, when the kids were small, but now that we have more head space, we're going away for weekends, and doing that Netflix-and-chill thing a lot more."
Sex therapist Esther Perel in her book Mating in Captivity writes: "Eroticism in the home requires active engagement and wilful intent. It is an ongoing resistance to the message that marriage is serious, more work than play; that passion is for teenagers and the immature. Complaining of sexual boredom is easy and conventional. Nurturing eroticism in the home is an act of open defiance."
Think Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell, together 34 years, and their erotic bond still intact.
Equally, if newly in love, the idea of sex tapering in midlife might sound insane. Meet Laura and Oisín, 56 and 52, both divorced with young adult children. They met a year ago and live separately.
"We have sex every time we're together," she says. "I can honestly say I am more sexually active in my 50s than I was in my 20s, and it's way more fun. You really know yourself when you're older."
Oisín agrees: "Also, we're both into fitness and nutrition, and - not to sound smug - but it has a great knock-on effect on all areas of health.
"Sex is really good for your body as well as your mind. As long as you avoid the cigarette after."
Sex and the sage celebrity
"Everything that truly makes us happy is quite simple - love, sex and food." Meryl Streep, 67
"I wish I had invented sex." Debbie Harry, 71
"I was always very open-minded about sex, and I'm glad I still am… After all, God gave us the equipment and the opportunity." Dolly Parton, 71
"You never have sex the way people do in the movies. You don't do it on the floor; you don't do it standing up… You know, if anybody ever ripped my clothes, I'd kill them." Julianne Moore, 56
"We are always the same age inside." Gertrude Stein (1874-1946)
"In my sex fantasy, nobody ever loves me for my mind." Nora Ephron (1941-2012)
"Sex was paranoid and empty in my youth but now it's great, just wonderful." Helen Mirren, 71
"If you have been celibate for a long time and then begin a new love affair, be aware your vagina is going to need some attention." Jane Fonda, 77
"As I get older, I just prefer to knit." Tracey Ullman, 57
"I'm still just as horny as I have ever been." Betty White, 95