Dr David Lee, a research fellow at Manchester University’s School of Social Sciences, calls them “sexual survivors” – people over the age of 80 who still enjoy an active sex life. In a report written with Professor Josie Tetley, using data from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing, he notes that while physical challenges (erectile difficulties, for instance) occured more frequently with age, the emotional side of sex appeared more fulfilling for people over 80. Men and women in this age bracket reported more shared sexual compatibility and emotional closeness than those in their 50s, 60s and 70s – which sounds like good news for anyone going through a drought in middle age.
Sex isn’t defined by penetration, says Lee – some older people find more imaginative ways to keep their sex lives active. “We saw quite a lot of adaptation in the older people, saying they no longer had penetrative sexual intercourse and were more content with kissing and cuddling and general intimacy. We kept a very broad definition of sex. We saw what appeared to be adaptive behaviour in the older members of our sample.”
Don’t bank on hitting your sexual peak so late, though. The problem is, having a sex life at all in your 80s is far from guaranteed. Only about one in 10 women aged 85 or older, and nearly one-quarter of men of that age, enjoy one. “They’re a minority, clearly, but they’re an interesting minority,” says Lee. “Among those who were [sexually active], it was quite interesting that they seemed happy with their sexual lives.”
Lee is studying what it takes to become a sexual survivor. There is likely to be a range of factors, he says. Having a partner is important, of course, and many people in their 80s have been widowed. “I would envisage that these [sexual survivors]are the healthiest people in older age,” he adds. Medication, for instance, can interfere with sex drive and ability.
Sexually active octogenarians are still considered such a curiosity that documentaries are made about them (such as Channel 5’s Party Pensioners, which featured an octogenarian burlesque dancer, and Sex and the Silver Gays, a film about older gay men who go to sex parties). Sites aimed at millennials run interviews with them, too – in 2015, Vice published an interview with an 82-year-old called Chris Wilson about his exploits on Grindr (he said he found the hook-up app “especially helpful when travelling. When I was in London, England, I got hit on by about 40 guys. I had sex eight times in seven days!”).
Lee says we need to get used to the idea that some older people may want a fulfilling sex life – and take seriously the means to allow them to achieve this. “We’re simply trying to broaden the discussion around sex and saying, irrespective of age, there is a need for joined-up healthcare services that people can access if they wish. We’re seeing from the comments in our survey [that]when older people try to access healthcare [for]sexual problems they have come across dismissal: ‘You should expect it at your age.’” But Lee has also seen how it becomes internalised in older people: “They think: ‘It’s not relevant to me any more.’” Better, instead, to know you could enjoy a later-life sexual peak.