Click HERE to return to the Home Page


  << Click to return to

Articles Archive


finance & law  
Free Resources
  free legal advice    
  free maps & directions    
  free games    
    shop for  
gifts & products
  gifts for grandkids    
  product profiles    
Support Our Site
your Home Page
  Click on our sponsors'  

In Association with
The Sexuality of Older Men



The Sexuality of Older Men



by Zenith Henkin Gross


Defining Sex: Then and Now

In this section we will look at some of the stereotypes and clichés that older men have come to believe as gospel and that they have internalized to the sad detriment of their sexuality. We will discuss the solutions that many men have pioneered in the new country of modern aging.


Cliché 1: Older men decline so much sexually with advancing years that it is normal to accept impotence and a decrease in desire and arousal. Of course, Viagra has helped with the mechanics of impotence, but no chemistry can help a man who believes it is normal to give up sexual interests, desires, and fantasies as he ages, or who is caught in an unsatisfying relationship, whether of short or long duration.

            In China, which is just now discovering more liberal sexual attitudes, Viagra is called Weige, meaning “mighty brother,” and for men with very real physical problems or who have been on libido-dampening medications, it is a vital brotherly assist indeed. However, the need to examine the entire relationship in which the newly-invigorated older man experiences sex remains as great as ever, according to James A. Pitisci, a Miami psychologist and family therapist. “If the relationship is in trouble already, Viagra is not going to change much and may become just another area of conflict,” he points out.


Cliché 2: To the older generation, sex — with or without Viagra — is to be initiated and “managed” by the male, and his definition of sex is focused intensely on conventional intercourse, meaning penetration by an erect penis. Anything else, according to the norms of this older generation (which are often reinforced by cultural, religious, and historical beliefs), is not “the real thing” or is foreplay or is a tender and considerate “fooling around” because one’s partner is ill or has suffered some sexual incapacity, but it is not sex as generally understood by men now in the “third age.”

            It won’t be necessary to launch new investigations of Presidential sex scandals of 1999 to know that much of the socio-political traumas of that time turned on the issue of whether nonintercourse forms of sex truly constitute sex. The old-fashioned idea that only a bed — or at the very least the floor or a table — and penile penetration is sex brought the country to a constitutional crisis. Although older cultures in other nations were amazed at these goings-on, the notion that oral sex is not really sex is right up there with the flag and apple pie as American male preoccupations.

            The sun continues to rise on the republic after this great debate, but these deeply ingrained ideas about how to make “real” love are serious hazards for older men and their partners and seem to rule out the thrillingly sexy, intimate touch and embrace that older lovers explore all the time.

            Shere Hite, author of the much-discussed Hite Report: A Nationwide Study of Female Sexuality, said “I’m suggesting we call sex something else, and it should include everything from kissing to sitting close together.”

            Despite Hite’s suggestion, “a hard man is good to find” was the beery anthem sung by young men at fraternity house and high school parties in the 1920s, 1930s, and through World War II and the suburban explosion of the 1950s, and it has not substantially changed as this older generation’s definition of sex. This pervasive fear — recognizing on the one hand the very real declines in biological readiness and the increasing presence of health problems, but refusing on the other hand to experiment with any other sort of psychological or physically sensuous forms of sexual intimacy — leads to what psychiatrists and psychologists now call the “widower’s syndrome.”

            According to Jack Parlow, Ph.D., a Canadian clinical psychologist who has spent fourteen years treating impotence and other problems of sexual dysfunction, the “widower’s syndrome” occurs when an older man is actually sexually viable but has disabling fears because he has been sexually inactive for a fairly long period during a spouse’s illness and then death.

            John H. Driggs, a clinical social worker with a private practice in the Midwest, has seen many patients who have such “performance” anxiety that they may withdraw from sex, rather than “fail” or they may be involved in an unsatisfying relationship and have suppressed their emotional needs for so long that the idea of failure is chronic in their sexual lives.

            “Often,” says Driggs, “the question older men struggle to answer is: What value am I as a person if I am not the stud I used to be?” Seeking younger partners as a youth elixir or passively shunning sex to avoid answering this question is often the fate of both straight and gay older men, reports Driggs.


Cliché 3: “It’s not my medicine, it’s not my disorienting retirement, it’s just age — what should I expect?” is the mantra of men who left the gathering of health information to their wives over a long lifetime. When they lose that source of comfort and information, many men have no idea that drugs can have a negative effect on libido or that certain reversible illnesses can be erased or moderated through proper medical treatment, thereby improving sexual responses.

            And anyway, say older men, passionate sex is for youthful bodies and good-looking people. When older bodies explore sex it is unattractive at best and disgusting and perverse at worst. Besides, older people have health problems and no one with health problems can be truly sexual.

            All these clichés, and many more, once perhaps contained a tiny seed of truth; clichés are what they are because so many people have experienced something like what they reflect. But whatever tiny germs of truth these clichés may have once contained have now been obliterated by changing times, new knowledge, and advanced medical developments like Viagra.

            Today’s older men are overturning these clichés, and their partners and medical and mental health professionals are assisting them in fighting ageism in the sexual realm.


Deepening and Strengthening Love and Sex

The idea that is “normal” for sex to wane and then disappear as men age is a misreading of what actually happens when physical changes occur and a misunderstanding of how those changes can be modified and turned in new directions. In addition, the helpless “over the hill” feeling, all too readily embraced by men alone, ignores completely the resources of mind, spirit, and experience that can alter old patterns and lead to deeply satisfying new relationships.

            There is no question that aging and sometimes oncoming but undiagnosed health problems, affect how a man functions sexually in purely physiological terms. In his later years, a man may indeed find that desire, arousal, and orgasm may not all occur together as they did when much younger; but he may also be surprised to find that women greet this change of pace with delight, finding a place for their own loving attentions to him to become more welcome. Women, too, in later years, freed from fears of pregnancy and the exhausting demands of childbearing and rearing, find it easier to explore their sexuality and accept pleasure in many different forms, as do gay and lesbian lovers.

            In 1989, nearly two thousand men between the ages of forty and seventy, chosen to reflect race and ethnicity as represented in their communities, were involved in an extensive survey of their sexual lives as part of a long-term study on all aspects of the aging process conducted under the aegis of the National Institute of Aging. The study, known as the Massachusetts Male Aging Study, remains one of the most detailed and exhaustive analyses of male sexuality in mid- and later life since the Kinsey Report of many decades ago. The interviewers covered just about every manifestation of male sexuality encountered among normally healthy men who were living in their own communities, and were not institutionalized. The physicians and other health professionals who conducted the survey were affiliated with major Boston medical centers and they looked at everything that might affect sexual function - prescription drugs, work habits, availability of partners, attitudes toward a range of sexual activities other than intercourse, and half a dozen more.

            What were the results of hundreds of interviews, months of work, and years of interpreting the data?

            When men get older, the ability to have an erection, to maintain it, to control ejaculation, and to recover and be ready for further sexual activity all slow down when seen in purely biological terms and can be seen as a normal aspect of aging, although sometimes they are precursors of health problems.

            However, the study also revealed a number of other not very surprising realities:

        Good health usually means more involvement and satisfaction with sex.

        Depression and repression of anger, taken together, were “strongly associated with increased sexual difficulties.”

            In other words, we are back, after getting validation from as precise an examination as we could hope for, to the basic facts that all the elements of a man’s emotional setting — his fears and anxieties, his relationship with his partner or partners, his lack of knowledge about his own health status, and his frequent inability to understand his own emotions and express them — play a very big role in his perceived troubles and these factors can be changed!

            The authors of one part of the Massachusetts study argued that while aging certainly influences some sexual slowdown, “a large number of social, psychological, and lifestyle phenomena taken together also contribute significantly to the variations across the age range.”

            It is in the area of social and psychological factors that older men have tentatively begun to take new steps and to look at sex in new ways.

            For example, the terrible “performance anxiety” that many health professionals have observed can be alleviated almost completely if older men are able to abandon the vision of themselves as eighteen-year-old hormone-driven conquerors and look closely for a moment at what it is their partners may really want in the way of sexual or any other kind of communion. This turnabout in lifelong attitudes and expectations is not easy or quick, but is warm and rewarding when accomplished.

            “I think men are often sex experts but intimacy apprentices,” says John H. Driggs, the Minnesota social worker and human sexuality expert. “Men may have had lots of sex, know how special it can be, but are still learning the ABCs when it comes to connecting emotionally.”

            No less an authority than advice columnist Ann Landers has backed up, in easy-to-understand terms, Driggs’s view that now, in older years, men may slow down enough to understand their partners’ wishes for a closeness that does not depend on an erection or on conventional intercourse at all. In 1985, she asked her female readers “would you be content to be held close and treated tenderly and forget about the ‘act’?” Some ninety thousand readers responded. Seventy-two percent said “Yes,” and, interestingly enough, 40 percent of that group were under forty years of age.

            This certainly suggests that for most of their lifetimes, men and women have often been “out of synch” in pursuing their sexual lives with each other and now, in their older years, perhaps at last perhaps their pace and wishes can be adjusted more lovingly.

            The disjunction between what women have always wanted out of a sexual relationship — emotional closeness, as well as sexual pleasure — and what men have wanted — orgasmic release first, maybe romance later — was the subject of a witty observation by the late Dorothy Parker, the author-poet who often cast a wickedly amused eye on the eternal war between the sexes. “Love is woman’s moon and sun, man has other forms of fun,” she wrote in a brief poem, “with this the gist and sum of it, what earthly good can come of it?”

            A similar bracingly astringent, if more scientifically-based, attack on conventional notions of what constitutes true sex, particularly as one ages, has been put forward for more than forty years by a pioneering authority on human sexuality, Dr. Richard J. Cross of the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, New Jersey. A medical educator and administrator responsible for training generations of physicians and other health care workers, Dr. Cross, now at eighty-four an emeritus professor but still active in sex education, has strong and provocative ideas about the obsession with the male erection and about American attitudes about sex generally.

            In introducing a study session for doctors in training on “overcoming erectile difficulties,” Dr. Cross’s approach was straightforward: “Why do older men need an erection? This is a holdover from the era when sex was seen as dirty unless used for making babies. Do older men and women really want pretend procreation? No, of course not. What they want is closeness, exciting touch, recognition that sexual interest, desire, and activity last throughout life and need to be adapted in new ways as biology slows them down in later years.”

            “Recent decades,” says Dr. Cross, “have brought greater understanding of the many wonderful benefits of a good sexual relationship, but we still tend to regard penis-in-vagina sex as the best kind and this needs to be reexamined. It only happens because that is the way we were socialized.”

            “Can we change [this belief]? We can,” he says, but warns that we can’t make these changes easily or quickly. “The sex drive is powerful, primitive, and complex. It can’t be turned on or off or diverted whenever it suits our convenience. For better or worse, we live in a society in which men are respected and honored for their competitive drive, their aggressiveness, their potency, their ability to ‘get it up and keep it up.’ We can’t just decree that potency is no longer important and thereby eliminate men’s concerns,” says this wise and humane doctor.

            Dr. Cross’s writing, lectures, and views on sex education also reflect the secret (besides faking orgasms) that women have kept from their lovers forever. As this medical educator writes, “experienced women generally agree that skillful application of fingers, tongue, and/or vibrator causes far more enjoyable sensations and intense orgasms than does an erect penis. And men can learn to enjoy hugging, cuddling, kissing, sexy massage, and intimate talk, since many women say they’d like more of those things, too.”

            Of course, Dr. Cross is not the only health professional who has been attempting to help men, and their partners, understand that the different nature of aging sexuality does not mean that older people are not sexual. Health professionals dealing with both physical and mental health problems in the U.S. and in many of the developed countries around the world are trying to prepare for the “age wave” that will soon inundate most services that deal with older people.

            In Australia, for instance, researchers at two Australian universities have pooled their expertise in gerontology, health sciences, and epidemiology and have been undertaking large scale investigations of late-life sexuality among men and women in that country.

            Their survey of one thousand men and women between sixty-five and ninety-three, the first ever in Australia, found that, while two-thirds of senior citizens polled believe that sexual relations are an important part of intimacy in later life, many lack knowledge in key areas of sexuality.

            The researchers found that a large majority — 62 percent of older people — were unaware of the adverse effects that both prescription medications and depression can have on a person’s sex drive. Only a little more than one-third of the respondents recognized that sexual activity in later life can have important physical and mental health benefits.

            Two of the study authors, Professor Victor Minichiello, Ph.D., of the University of New England and David Plummer, Ph.D., of the Australian National University, strongly urged Australians to combat ageism by “treating older people as sexual beings and investing the same level of resources (as with younger groups) in sharing appropriate information about sexuality.”

            Back in the U.S., a poll of 118 people, taken at a senior center in Palo Alto, California, among men and women aged fifty-six to eighty-five, found that they are already learning and acting on many of the new findings that experts report.

            One of the two directors of the survey, Walter Bortz, M.D., a Palo Alto internist and authority on geriatrics, reported that “intercourse is not highly ranked as a lovemaking technique” by the seniors he interviewed. He said, “other methods, such as oral sex, manual genital stimulation, and kissing were listed as alternatives.”

            Older people usually assume that those who are younger will always favor the conventional view of sex: only beautiful young people are good candidates for “real” love-making and old people are “out of it.” But there are a few hopeful signs on the horizon that in all age groups, the single-minded emphasis on youth equals sex may be slowly changing.

            In 1994, a small sample of fifty men between twenty-two and sixty-three revealed some startling developments toward a more mature view of things when New Woman magazine asked these men what they really found sexually exciting in women.

            Most surprising to women readers was that physical perfection almost never came up, and that, in fact, some men said the gorgeous models in ads looked plastic in their perfection and were a turn-off.

            `Key for our interests was the finding that “as men age, their ideas about what makes women truly sexy apparently change. An older man may hardly notice wrinkles,” the magazine’s report said.

            A fifty-three-year-old psychotherapist in Tampa, Florida, told journalist Sue Browder, who did the survey for the magazine, that: “I know I’m still supposed to find nubile twenty year olds in bikinis the sexiest women alive, but, to tell you the truth, I’ve begun to see all those girls as my daughters...and forget sex with a young twenty-something woman...I’d be thinking ‘are you sure you should be doing this yet?’”

            And a fifty-six-year-old Ohio novelist and screenwriter told Browder, “I used to want to touch all the parts of a woman’s body, but now I want to touch her very soul. And of course that means that for a woman to be sexy to me now, she has to have far more depth.”

            During interviews conducted for this book with men from sixty to ninety-three, it became clear that, contrary to women’s firm beliefs that men will always seek renewal in young flesh, older men who conquer their fears enough to undertake new relationships most often wind up with women somewhere close to their own generational group, and, according to a recent American Association of Retired Persons’ survey, older lovers find their partners physically attractive way past middle age.

            What happens is that women see only the first steps in a process that often begins with what I call the “candy store” phase of an older widower or divorced or never-married man finding himself alone and back in circulation.

            During the first months and possibly years of being single, which he never anticipated or planned for, a man is astounded to discover, like a child in a candy store, that he has incredible choices for dating and romance among much younger women. On every side women in their twenties, thirties, and forties, seem eager to convince him that he is still attractive and virile, especially if he’s endowed with money and power, those tried and true aphrodisiacs.

            But even older men who lack those baits find that society smiles and approves when they take out much younger women, and for a while the older male is surfeited with sweets.

            But then something else sets in, as wittily and touchingly portrayed in Olivia Goldsmith’s clever novel-movie, First Wives Club. What begins to happen is that the experiential and cultural gap between the generations starts to shadow the “hot sex” era the older man thinks he is in. Since even the aerobics instructor who replaces the first wife in the movie has to get out of bed some time, the need for conversation develops. Then, both in the movie and in real life, the older man realizes she doesn’t “get” his jokes (she never even heard of Milton Berle), and she thinks the Great Depression is back there with the Crusades in medieval history along with the great experience of his life, World War II. In my research, if she’s as young as male fantasies often suggest, she can’t even remember the Vietnam War, he discovers.

            The candy store phase begins to wane (though older women have averted their eyes long since and aren’t aware of it) when he realizes that his youngest daughter is not that much younger than the young partner he is with, and that none of his children are interested in this woman as a stepmother.

            It is about at that point that the process of renewal changes. One such man I interviewed told this story: he is invited to the wedding of his closest male friend’s granddaughter and there he meets a charming widow whose late husband turns out to have served in the same unit as he did in Europe during the D day invasion. They talk animatedly about those wartime years, they don’t even notice the other guests, she looks into his eyes with warmth and sympathy when he talks of the loss of his wife of fifty years and bingo, the aerobics instructor or her facsimile is history. It turns out the widow has gray hair and is not a size four and has grandchildren of her own, but somehow they manage to slip off and drink champagne and decide that there is life after death and they best explore it.

            This is actually a reflection of many older men’s experiences, and while women find it hard to believe that men, given their greater choices, do not all automatically wind up with women half their age, the hard facts are that usually the age differences among stable older late-life lovers are not all that great. A minority of men do, of course, end their lives with much younger women and often it is an intense and very genuine love that binds two very substantial people, but that number is statistically much smaller than those who tend to choose companions of their own generation. Older women are so used to devaluing themselves as objects of love or sex that they sometimes seem to be willfully blind to this reality even though it is quite well known to social workers, senior center directors, and others who have insight into the dating and mating patterns of older men.

            Older women also have little understanding of the other great fear of older men, which is often linked with the fear about sexual performance, and that is the fear of rejection.

            A poem submitted by the New Yorker Irwin Hasen to the New York Times should elicit some awareness from their female age-mates that all is not “candy store” for older men, either.

A Senior Citizen on an Uptown Bus

He edged his way to where the

Lovely young woman was seated.

His eyes met hers, and in that

Moment, he designed a possibility.

Cocktails at the Carlyle,

Dinner at the Mark.

Suddenly, his sparse gray hair

Grew fuller and his liver spots

Graciously took refuge.

Then the lovely young woman

Rose to offer him her seat.

            In a few short lines, the heart-tugging reality for older men is laid bare for older women to ponder; is there not some role there for the benefits the years have given older women? Is not the greater emotional depth life has created in them worth something on the scales of mutual attraction between both gay and straight lovers? Those roles do exist for older partners, and the struggle to connect can be successfully waged at any age.

            “Deep down,” says writer David Foster Wallace, “we all know that the real allure of sexuality has about as much to do with copulation as the appeal of food does with metabolic combustion...[R]eal sexuality is about our...struggle to erect bridges across the chasms that separate selves.”


From Seasons of the Heart by Zenith Henkin Gross. Copyright © 2000 by Zenith Henkin Gross. Excerpted by arrangement with New World Library. $14.95. Available in local bookstores or call 800-972-6657, Ext. 52 or click here.




Advertising | Writer's Guidelines | Privacy Policy
Email Us | About Us | Links
© 1995-2010 Reece R. Halpern. All rights reserved.