Older women's sex drives examined

A survey of older women has found they are happy with their sex lives even though encounters tend to be less frequent, the Daily Mail has today reported.

The survey of older women in California found that nearly half were still sexually active, and that around two-thirds of women questioned experienced sexual arousal, lubrication and orgasm. Around 40% reported little or no sexual desire. Overall, the researchers concluded that two-thirds of sexually active women were moderately or very satisfied with their sex lives – as were almost half of sexually inactive women.

Predictably enough, like any study about sex, this was given quite a splash in the media. The findings are interesting, but the limitations of this study mean the findings should be viewed with caution. As with any survey of sexual habits, the data gathered are dependent on the way that the questions are interpreted and the participants’ willingness to share intimate information. Additionally, the women were upper-middle class women from the US who were in good health, so it may not be possible to generalise the results to other groups. Finally, not all the women in the survey answered questions about their sex lives, and it is possible that those who did answer were also those who were more interested in sex or had more fulfilling sex lives.

The study was carried out by researchers from the University of California and the Veterans Affairs San Diego Healthcare System, California. It was funded by grants from the US National Institutes of Health and other public institutions.

The study was published in the peer-reviewed American Journal of Medicine.

The survey was reported fairly, if uncritically, in the papers. However, The Daily Telegraph’s headline that “Sex gets better with age” is not supported by the survey. It did not compare sexual activity or satisfaction at different ages.

This was a study of 1,303 adult women living in California who were sent postal questionnaires about their physical and emotional health, particularly in relation to their recent sexual activity. From these responses, the authors selected and analysed 921, mostly from women aged 40 or over. The authors point out that although sexuality, including sexual dysfunction, is now a major focus of medical research, there have been few studies of sexual activity and satisfaction in older women.

To gather a population to study, the authors of the research drew upon an ongoing study of adults living in California, who have been followed regularly since 1972 to find out about their health and lifestyle. This particular sexual health study began in 2002, when 1,303 of the wider study’s participants were sent a questionnaire in the post, covering physical and emotional health, menopause, hysterectomy status, current hormone replacement therapy (HRT) use, the presence or absence of an intimate partner and recent sexual activity.

Participants were also sent a separate questionnaire, based on a validated scale for assessing female sexual dysfunction. It included 19 questions covering desire (libido), arousal, lubrication, orgasm, pain and satisfaction. To this validated scale the researchers added one further question that asked women whether they had engaged in any sexual activity or intercourse over the preceding four weeks.

They analysed these data using standard statistical methods.

A total of 806 of the 921 women (87.5%) aged 40 years or more answered questions about recent sexual activity.

Their ages ranged from 40 to 99 years, with an average age of 67 years. Most were classed as upper-middle class, 57% had attended at least one year of college and 90% reported good-to-excellent health.

Below are the study’s main findings on sex:

The researchers conclude that half the women surveyed were sexually active, with arousal, lubrication and orgasm maintained into old age, despite low libido in one-third of sexually active women. Feelings of sexual satisfaction increased with age, and did not require recent sexual activity.

Interestingly, they found that only one in five sexually active women across all age groups reported high sexual desire. They also say that while half of women aged 80 or over reported arousal, lubrication and orgasm most of the time, they rarely reported feeling sexual desire. The results support what they call a “non linear model” of sexuality in which desire does not precede sexual arousal and which suggests that “women engage in sexual activity for multiple reasons, which may include nurture, affirmation or sustenance of a relationship”.

The findings of this study are interesting, if a little confusing. It had a number of limitations:

As well as providing intriguing information on the sex drive of older women, this survey highlights the importance of sexual wellbeing throughout life, and that feeling sexually satisfied and being sexually active are not necessarily the same thing.