Surveys of people’s sex lives: how do we know what to believe?

The over-70s appear to be having a better time than those in middle age

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The Independent Online

I always remember a piece written by our very own Howard Jacobson some years ago, when the use of Viagra first became prevalent. It posed a very interesting question. What's worse than losing your sex drive at the the age of 60? Answer: Having to get it back again. His contention was that, once upon a time, a man of a certain age would be “looking forward to resting his ruined body”. Now, he's down the gym, popping little blue pills, and succumbing to the social pressures that determine we do not go gentle into that good night. Of course, Howard's argument was more sophisticated and nuanced than that, but this was the gist.

I thought of this piece when I read that more than half of men over 70 years old are still sexually active. Meanwhile, a third of women over 70 say that they are having (possibly even enjoying) an active sex life. This discrepancy is not the effect of faulty mathematics: it's because men are more likely than women to have a younger partner.

These were the headline findings of a study of the sex lives of more than 7,000 men and women over the age of 50, the first of its kind to include the over-80s, conducted by the University of Manchester. Yes, we are now studying the sexual lives of the over-80s!  Not very long ago, nothing in that sentence would have seemed feasible. What's more, the oldies seem happy to talk about it: only three per cent of respondents refused to answer questions about their bedroom activities.

We are living longer, we are more open about sexual matters, and there is a whole range of pharmaceutical assistance available to those who want to prolong their active sex life. So it stands to reason that the age at which the river runs dry, so to speak, has been getting increasingly later. But I can't take the results of this survey at face value. Since when did people tell the truth about their sex lives? It's like when a doctor asks how much you drink or smoke. You think of a number and halve of it. Except the opposite is true when it comes to sex. You think of a number and double it.

So one of the findings of this report is that, over the over-70s who claimed to have an active sex life, a third of those said they had sex at least twice a month. Really? I know of married couples in their forties who would be happy with that amount of how's your father. So now, not only do middle-aged people have to feel jealous of the young and vibrant, they have also to cast envious glances to the old and randy.

Few things make people more dissatisfied with their lot than finding out that others are doing better in the bunk-up stakes. It is, I'm afraid, a contest, and as much was admitted by the man who led the research. Dr David Lee said that the findings of the survey would offer “older people a reference against which they may relate their own experiences and expectations”. And thus, an exhaustive and doubtless expensive survey boils down to one, age-old, question: are you getting enough?