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Cory Silverberg

New Study Untangles Sexual Satisfaction, Desire, and Activity Among Older Women (and the Rest of Us)

By January 6, 2012

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A study published this week in the American Journal of Medicine challenges some of ways we tend to think about and talk about sex and aging, and as importantly, challenges the dominant medical frame on sexuality, which focuses on dysfunction rather than satisfaction or pleasure.

The study asked just over 800 women aged 40 to 99 to respond to surveys about their recent sexual activity, overall sexual satisfaction, and sexual desire. The women were not representative of the general population, they all came from suburb of San Diego and have been involved in a longitudinal research project called the Rancho Bernardo Study which began in 1972. So the findings shouldn't be thought of as highly generalizable, but instead as an interesting snapshot of one group of women in one place at one time.

The women were asked if they had engaged in sexual activity in the past four weeks. In this study sexual activity was described as including caressing, foreplay, masturbation, and penile-vaginal intercourse. In analyzing the data the researchers divided the women into four age groups, each with about 200 women in them. Here are some of the basic findings of the study:

  • 50% of the women reported having had sex in the previous 4 weeks and 80% of those women were living with a partner/spouse.

  • 40% of all respondents said that they never or almost never felt sexual desire, and 30% of women who were having sex said they felt low, very low, or no sexual desire.

  • 64% of all respondents said they were moderately or very satisfied with their sexual relationship.

  • 64% of women who had sex in the past 4 weeks reported being aroused most times, almost always, or always.

  • 67% said they achieved orgasm most times, almost always, or always; women in the youngest and oldest groups reported the highest orgasm satisfaction.

These findings highlight how slippery statistics are. After all, if I chose to tell you that 40% of women over forty years old said they almost never felt sexual desire you'd probably feel bad for those women, right? But of those women 67% who were actually having sex almost always had orgasms, 64% felt aroused and were satisfied with the sex they were having. So which number matters most?

This is the problem with quantitative research; it can never answer that question. But this study does give us a lot more to think about. For example:

Sexual Activity and Sexual Satisfaction are Not the Same
This is a no brainer for anyone who has had bad sex (which I believe would be everyone who has had sex). If you've had sex more than a couple times you've probably had sex that wasn't very satisfying, and even sex that, in retrospect, you could have done without (I'm not including non-consensual sex here, which by definition is sex you don't want).

But studies and statistics can easily confuse us, and most of us probably think at least a little bit about how much sex we're having and whether or not we should be having more.

The women in this study offer a cautionary note about this way of thinking. When divided up by age, women in the youngest group were most sexually active; 83% of women in the youngest group were sexually active as opposed to 13% of women in the oldest group. But women in the oldest group reported the highest levels of sexual satisfaction; 25% of younger women reported being very satisfied as opposed to 48% of women in the oldest group who were very satisfied.

One thing stats like this might lead us to think about is how important the frequency of sexual activity is. It might also get us thinking about how the researchers defined sexual activity and what these folks might be doing outside that definition that's making them "very satisfied".

Which Comes First: Desire, Arousal, or Sexual Activity?
Traditionally it is thought that first we experience a desire to have sex, we then feel aroused (or turned on) and finally we go ahead and have ourselves some sexual activity. It's an old, but still widely used model of sexual response. It's also one of the most obvious disconnects between people's lived experience of sex and the way that sex researchers talk about sex. If you ask almost anyone to really think carefully and thoughtfully about the difference between desire and arousal, most people will begin to describe overlap. Is desire just a mental thought and arousal the physical sensation? What about when you just feel in your body that you want to have sex, and there's no thought there? And what about when you're so nervous about it going well that you actually don't feel turned on or comfortable until you've started actually having sex of some kind?

In this study 50% of women 80 and older reported that they didn't feel sexual desire. But they also reported feeling aroused and experiencing orgasm most of the time. Suggesting that desire to have sex (the current target of so much pharmaceutical wrangling) may not be all it's cracked up to be if the goal is to enjoy the sex you have.

In fact as sex educators often point out, increasing desire for sex without helping people figure out how to have sex they actually enjoy, could actually make things worse. The idea that all we need is sexual desire is a big business misdirect.

The final surprise in this study comes from the authors themselves. Maybe the surprise is a reflection of what I (unfairly) expect from physicians, but after considering the data the authors choose to focus not only on one or two data points which indicate dissatisfaction or which point to the possibility of dysfunction, but instead to consider the bigger picture this study offers, to which they suggest that overall:

"A more positive approach to female sexual health focusing on sexual satisfaction may be more beneficial to women than a focus limited to female sexual activity or dysfunction."

And unlike the particular responses of these particular women, I'd add that this more positive approach is one that we would all benefit from, regardless of age, gender, orientation, the kind of sex we're having, or the kind of sex we'd like to be having.

Source: Trompeter, S.E., Bettencourt, R., & Barrett-Connor, E. "Sexual Activity and Satisfaction in Healthy Community-Dwelling Older Women," American Journal of Medicine Vol. 125, No. 1 (2012): 37-43.

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Comments
January 11, 2012 at 10:11 am
(1) Vallin says:

BRILLIANT!

Firstly: I love that the researchers included more forms of sexual expression than the traditional ‘Clockwork Orange’ “ol’ in-out-in-out” penis-vagina vanilla (see my Fetlife address). There’s SO many ways to pet that pussy (or dragon).

Secondly: I like the point of big pharma’s misdirect over mainmast hard arousal 24/7. Well, they sell what they got; ya’ can’t really blame them. When the only tool in your box is a sledgehammer, everything looks like a rusty train spike.

Finally–and most importantly: You mention the slippery slope of what psychologists call “not generalizing from one case; generalizing from TWO cases.” Or the current journalistic pseudo-science of quoting “studies-after-studies” hypotheses as their conclusions. This gets you a “D” in freshman Psych 101. It’s called “lying with statistics” or “lies-damn lies-and statistics”. I highly recommend Darrell Huff’s 1954 classic ‘How To Lie With Statistics’ and Kayt Sukel’s new book ‘Dirty Minds’ on this topic.

January 11, 2012 at 7:20 pm
(2) taters says:

Cory, thank you for sharing the interesting results of this study. Just wanted to find out more about the “age” delimiters of the “four groups” so that I can fully comprehend this: “13% of women in the oldest group [were sexually active]. But women in the oldest group reported the highest levels of sexual satisfaction.” Is the oldest group aged 80 and above, or something else? Thank you as always! Food for thought.

January 11, 2012 at 11:25 pm
(3) Cory says:

So this is one of those data analysis things which one could argue is somewhat arbitrary, but what I appreciate about the way they wrote the paper is that they’re pretty clear that they are doing it for descriptive reasons.

They divided the 806 repondants into four groups with roughly the same number of people in each group, either 201 or 202 people in each group:
age less than 55
age 55-68
age 68-79
age 79 and older

And then they started looking at their different variables and comparing the age groups. Hope that clarifies it, and thanks!

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