When the actress Sophia Loren asked her grandmother Luisa when she lost interest in sex, the 80-year-old is said to have replied: "I don't know, dear, you will have to ask someone older than me."
Today, she would not be alone. The over-seventies are having better sex, and more of it, than ever before, a study has found. The Viagra generation is continuing to enjoy sexual intimacy in a way denied to their forebears.
Those who were in their thirties during the sexual revolution of the 1960s still retain a liberal attitude to sex four decades later. But while male performance has improved, it is women who are reaping the benefits. Women in the age group report being particularly satisfied with their sex lives, while men report declining satisfaction.
Swedish researchers surveyed attitudes to sex among the older generation in four separate surveys conducted over 30 years, from 1971 to 2001. They interviewed 1,500 people aged over 70 about their sex lives, including their sexual activity, marital satisfaction and sexual dysfunction.
The results show that the number of men and women continuing to have sex into old age has increased in both sexes. Among married men it rose from 52 per cent to 68 per cent and among married women from 38 per cent to 56 per cent.
The unmarried also enjoyed more sex, rising from 34 per cent to 54 per cent among men. Unmarried women over 70 saw the biggest rise in sexual activity – more than tenfold – from 0.8 per cent to 12 per cent. A substantial proportion report having sex once a week or more, 31 per cent of the sexually active men and 26 per cent of the women. The studies were funded by a group of Swedish charities and foundations.
The findings suggest that the era of sexual liberation which was ushered in by the introduction of the contraceptive pill in the Sixties has not been limited to the young. The incantation of the flower power generation to "make love, not war" is still ringing in the ears of an older generation.
"Our study shows that most older people consider sexual activity and associated feelings to be a natural part of later life," Nils Beckman, who led the study, and colleagues from the University of Gothenburg write in the British Medical Journal.
However, while female sexual satisfaction has increased, satisfaction has decreased among men. The authors suggest that men are performing better, thanks to Viagra and similar drugs, but are enjoying themselves less. Athough some things never change, it appears. Men are still blamed, by both sexes, for when sex ends. Peggy Kleinplatz, from the School of Psychology at the University of Ottawa, Canada, says this finding has been consistent for the past 40 years.
"Even if women are coming into their own sexually – and are more satisfied than ever in the latest cohort – years of men being in charge of making the first move in adolescent sexual encounters in the 1940s and during marriage in early adulthood in the 1950s and 1960s has led to the expectation that men remain responsible for making sex happen. Thus, attributing responsibility for the frequency or lack of sex to men continues," she writes in an accompanying commentary.
The research highlights the need for doctors to ask all patients, regardless of age, about their sexual concerns, Ms Kleinplatz says.
Petra Boynton, a British sex researcher, said: "It is encouraging that more people are having active sex lives later in life. But reports like this can increase pressure on people to think that there is something wrong if they are not doing it. They need to be reassured that there isn't."
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