Does sexual behavior increase or decrease with age? Since American society links sexuality to youth, beauty, and vigor, sexual behavior among the elderly is treated in the literature as a talking platypus phenomenon. That older individuals engage in sex at all is apparently worthy of comment. Several studies have remarked on the continued interest in and expression of sexual activity in the elderly (Hallstrom & Samuelsson, 1990; Hawton, Gath, &. Day, 1994; Kobosa-Munro, 1977; Koster & Garde, 1993). Some have even suggested there might be enhanced sexuality in the elderly (Adams & Turner, 1985). However, most also note gradual decline in sexual interest or capacity with age, and clinic staff have been alerted to the presence of sex problems that should be diagnosed (Sarrel & Whitehead, 1985). In almost no study was there any concern about the meaning or function of sexuality for personal, interpersonal, or social identity.
A variety of reasons for the decline in sexual activity have been proposed. A well-known quote by Alex Comfort presents one analysis. “In our experiences old folks stop having sex for the same reason they stop riding a bicycle—general infirmity, thinking it looks ridiculous, no bicycle” (Comfort, 1974, p. 140). Ann McCracken (1988) has wisely added another possibility, namely, never having learned to ride a bicycle with confidence. It seems that barring illness or poor health, past sexual behavior is the best predictor of future sexual behavior (Bretschneider & McCoy, 1988). In some longitudinal studies, there may be a self-fulfilling prophecy at work; that is, respondents who anticipated a decline with age subsequently did experience this with menopause (Koster & Garde, 1993).
Such self-fulfilling prophecies based on traditional stereotypes and myths about sex interfere with our ability to answer any questions about sexuality at mid-life. In the traditional sexual script, the only sexual event of any significance is heterosexual intercourse. However, some researchers have begun to expand the script by introducing a bit more complexity into their questionnaires and interviews such as needs for physical affection, emotional intimacy, and social partnership (Kaplan, 1990; Malatesta, Chambless, Pollack, & Cantor, 1988). Researchers also have begun to separate measures of interest or motivation from behavioral activity (Nilsson,
An interesting finding is that men typically report more interest or activity, or both, than women and that when sexual intimacy is stopped it is most often the man’s choice (Pfeiffer, Verwoerdt, & Wang, 1968). This seems to reemphasize the interpersonal and heterosexual understanding of sexuality. It also suggests that men may have more influence in the expression of sexual intimacy than do women, a pattern that may have begun in early dating negotiations about sexual intimacy. It also may mean that when men can no longer achieve the sexual script of their youth they may forgo sexual intimacy entirely, perhaps because it is so difficult to modify this culturally compelling script about male sexuality.