Last month I ran a small survey on the über cool over fifties website High50. The results support the findings that are emerging from my bigger study of British sex lives and I’m running them here so that those of you who have taken part in that one can get an idea of where it is heading.
Much of the survey focuses on qualitative, rather than quantitative, responses and as you can imagine, turning something as fluid as attitudes and behaviours into statistics presents some complications. Although the number of times a person has sex can be quantified numerically, you can’t really put a figure on the way a person experiences ‘satisfaction’. So, in order to work out what is, and isn’t, important, I’ve looked at the ‘correlation’, or the relationship between, say, ‘your satisfaction with your current level of sexual frequency’ and ‘the importance you place on sex in your relationship’. By conducting some statistical analysis on those two variables, I can generate a number between 0 and 1 which represents what statisticians call the ‘correlation coefficient’. In layman’s terms, this tells me how closely those two things are related so, for example, a correlation coefficient of 0 tells me that they are not at all related, whereas a correlation co-eeficient of 1 means they are a 100% perfect match.
However, even when the correlation is significant, I still can’t determine which of the two variables is the most influential. Is a person who believes sex is extremely important more likely to be satisfied with their level of sexual frequency, or is a person who is satisfied with their level of sexual frequency more likely to believe that sex is extremely important? I can’t predict the direction of that question so, instead of being able to state, categorically, that a person who believes sex is extremely important is likely to be very satisfied with their level of sexual frequency, I can only deduce that people who believe sex is extremely important, are also more likely to be satisfied with their level of sexual frequency, and vice versa.
Because people tend to be very reticent about sharing information pertaining to their sex lives, I had to guarantee anonymity if I was to have any hope of encouraging honest responses. The downside of anonymous online surveys is that there is no way of addressing the subjectivity that is inherent in any form of ‘self report’. It is a well-known fact that when it comes to surveys, the social desirability bias means that people have a tendency to minimise responses that might make them look bad, or embarrassed. There is also evidence that men and women respond differently to self-report (women disclose more) but fortunately, this gender bias tends to disappear in anonymous surveys. I also have to take into account the issue of sampling bias. High 50 readers may have more interest in, or concerns about, their sex life than other 50+ readers, and therefore their views may not be representative of the general population.
Finally, it is common sense that when you ask someone to describe, or judge aspects of their relationship, or indeed their partner, they are obviously going to be better at evaluating their own feelings and responses, rather than those of their partner. This ‘self-serving’ bias means that people in relationships rarely see their own behaviour as instrumental in any problems they might be experiencing with a partner. In contrast, they are more likely to blame their partner’s personality (he’s nasty), rather than taking situational factors (he’s stressed) into account. When you only get one side of the story, you are never going to get an entirely balanced view. However, despite the drawbacks, gathering personal narratives is still an incredibly valuable research tool because it provides the most direct and immediate estimate of how people ‘experience’ their relationships. The stories people tell about their lives provide unparalleled insights into the very private world of sexual relationships and understanding the universality of certain sexual predicaments will, I hope, help to normalise some of the issues that can undermine commitment in later life.
Age and Gender
The majority of people who took part in the survey were aged between 46 and 65 (73.8%) and the gender balance, or should that be imbalance, is 59.1% male and 40.9% female. A breakdown of those figures by age shows that the survey was more popular with women under the age of 55 (60.9%) and with men over the age of 55 (61.3%). That gender switch is interesting. Does it indicate that younger women of childbearing age are more concerned about sustaining sex in their relationships, whereas older women who are past menopause are increasingly less interested? And does the trajectory of male interest in the survey map the increasing anxiety associated with ageing and less reliable erections? These are questions that can’t be answered with my statistics, but the narratives indicate that these issues merit further research.
In line with the population, 92.8% of participants define as ‘heterosexual’, and 2.7% choose not to define your sexuality. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) suggests that 1% (480,000) of the UK population define themselves as gay or lesbian, and 0.5% (245,000) define themselves as bisexual. In this survey, 0.9% of participants define as ‘homosexual male/female, while a surprisingly large 3.6% define as ‘bisexual.
Some participants are in the process of discovering more about their sexuality.
“I am currently separating from my husband and redefining my sexuality. My sex life with my husband definitely dwindled after having children. I found I was less interested, more tired and found it routine and predictable. Sounds terrible but I couldn’t be bothered to explain how to better it. Since meeting a woman I have found much more sexual satisfaction because we have a very close emotional bond and we can tell each other anything. This experience has blown me away as I have never had such a strong connection and I never knew I would find it with a woman!”
Female, aged 35-45 years, dating 18mths-2 yrs, has sex daily.
“I am going through a divorce (was married for 25 years) and always known I was gay, but did not understand my feelings and felt that getting married was the ‘right’ thing to do”
Male, aged 46-55, cohabiting 2-5 years, has sex daily.
Satisfaction and length of relationship
Just 16.3% of participants are cohabiting. 6.3% are dating, 2.7% are in a second marriage, 1.8% are engaged and none are in civil partnerships. The vast majority are married (73.2%) and have been for a very long time. An encouraging 26.1% have been married for 31-40 years, and a further 20.7% have been married for 21-30 years. Interestingly, an analysis of variance finds only a marginally significant correlation (0.19, p<0.05) between the length of the relationship and the level of sexual satisfaction with sexual frequency. Predictably, there is more satisfaction earlier in the relationship, but the length of time a couple has been together is definitely not the most important determinant of relational happiness.
Satisfaction and frequency
Overall, 19.5% are very satisfied with their current level of sexual frequency, 23% are somewhat satisfied, 8% are neither satisfied nor dissatisfied, 26.5% are somewhat dissatisfied and 23% are very dissatisfied. In terms of actual frequency, 10% of participants have daily sex, 53.6% have weekly sex, 23.6% have monthly sex, 4.5% have annual sex and 8.2% don’t have sex at all. Unsurprisingly, there is a strong correlation between actual sexual frequency and satisfaction with levels of sexual frequency (0.64, p<0.001) so, for example, 63.6% of people who have daily sex are very satisfied with current levels of sexual frequency compared to 25.4% of people who have weekly sex. No one who has monthly, annual, or no, sex says that they are very satisfied with their current level of sexual frequency.
Although 11.5% of participants who have monthly sex are somewhat satisfied, 38.5% are somewhat dissatisfied and an unarguable 50% are very dissatisfied. Although the relationship between having sex and feeling satisfied about the amount of sex participants are having might seem rather obvious, these figures flag up the fact that couples who are having sex less than once a month are not doing themselves or their relationships any favours.
“I have started to believe the credo, use it or lose it. I feel that frequency leads to frequency. i.e. when you do have sex, it brings a spike of activity but when you don’t it just disappears. I hate not having sex regularly, I don’t imagine going back to youthful just met levels but once a week would make me feel ‘normal’. However I find it almost impossible to force it as it seems wrong intellectually even if it seems instinctively fair enough to make the other person happy. Somehow, I haven’t found the right equilibrium I’m afraid.” Female, aged 46-55, married 11-15 years, has sex annually.
“This is my third marriage. In both previous marriages sex dwindled after about 2 years together, not, to my satisfaction. My present wife promised me that this would never happen with us. Exactly the same thing has happened. Jokes are only funny if people can see the truth in them. One of the oldest jokes I know is “How do you stop a woman wanting sex? – marry them!” Male, aged 46-55, married 11-15 years, has sex monthly.
Once sex starts to slide it is difficult to kick start it.
“My partner had a penile infection (not an STD) and that really put me off for a while. My libido plummeted at the menopause at a similar time. I think it is difficult to get back to sex when you have not had it for some time. Neither of us likes to think we won’t have sex again, but equally we both know it is unlikely.”Female, aged 56-65, married 41-50 years, never has sex.
And inevitably, the sexless relationships are the least likely to sustain.
“Haven’t had sex in nearly 11 years. Seriously contemplating separation.” Female, aged 46-55, married 21-30 years, never has sex.
Importance and satisfaction
There is also a significant correlation between the importance a person places on sex and their level of satisfaction with sexual frequency (0.23, p<0.05). The more important sex is to a person, the greater their level of satisfaction in their relationships.
“We both agree that sex brings us closer together, and we make it a priority to make time and cuddle whenever we can. We’re both cuddlers, I think that having a similar level of need for physical contact is important in a relationship. My present boyfriend is a very good match there compared to my previous ones and I feel a lot more connected to him than I’ve ever experienced before.” Female, 35-45, cohabiting 2-5 yrs, has sex weekly.
“Being ill or tired does have an impact, but we both feel sex is a big important part of our relationship and we make an effort to overcome illness or tiredness. We don’t go more than 2 nights without making love if we can possibly help it. We have both had previous relationships where the relationship got out of the habit of regular sex, and both of us were unhappy with that.” Male, aged 45-55, cohabiting for 6-10 years, has sex weekly.
When sex is more important to one partner than it is to the other, it can create problems.
“I am more adventurous and want to try things eg. Sex toys. I use free Internet porn and my partner doesn’t mind but I would prefer to use prefer photos of partner which she doesn’t mind but won’t do often i.e. they are all yrs old. She doesn’t mind me masturbating, but rarely encourages it, or offers to help. My libido is much higher than hers but she doesn’t want to help. She does enjoy sex when it happens but is rarely the initiator. She does admit to masturbation but doesn’t like to talk about it, whilst I would like to listen and watch.” Male, 46-55, married for 21-30 years, has sex weekly.
“I suffered with vaginismus for 4yrs in a previous relationship and attended sex therapy for this. It did not help with that relationship but I think has helped in this relationship. Now I have anxieties about the future because I am anxious to get married, but my partner is often tired at bed time and is therefore not inclined to want sex. I always seem to want sex even if tired.” Female, 25-35, cohabiting 18 mths – 2 years, has sex weekly.
Sometimes, people just resign themselves to a life without sex.
“I expected frequency to diminish with time and children. I put up with absence of sex because I love my wife and children and would not want to put the family at risk over something my wife does not deem important so I bear my resentment silently.” Male 46-55, married 11-15 years, has sex annually.
Satisfaction and communication
One of the most interesting findings is the highly significant correlation between levels of satisfaction and finding it easy to talk about sex with your partner (0.68, p<0.001). Results show no gender differences on either communication or satisfaction with sexual frequency so this correlation is the same for both men and women. Your narratives show that if you can discuss your sexual needs with your partner you can overcome pretty much anything that life throws at you.
“My partner had cancer before I knew him and his treatment has decreased his ability to be able to maintain an erection. He takes Viagra on private prescription because sex is important to both of us, in this, our second relationship. When we first got together we talked about sex and how much it mattered to us – thus we both knew what we needed.” Female, aged 56-65 years, cohabiting, 6-10 years, has sex weekly.
In contrast, not talking about sex leads to frustration and dissatisfaction.
“I just think my husband is not very fond of sex. He once told me “people give too much relevance to sex”. I always have vaginal pain but I think it is because I get easily distracted and I don´t get enough stimulation from my husband. We rush to penetration and I tend to lose the little lubrication I can get at the start. We haven`t tried anything to improve our sexual life. I`ve thought about it and I`ve put the subject on the table, but my husband avoids the discussion. It`s like he has nothing to say or has no opinion about how we can enjoy more our sexual life.” Female, aged 35-45 married 6-10 years, has sex monthly.
Satisfaction, familiarity and novelty
Though we tend to assume that lack of sexual novelty is problematic in a long-term relationship, many of you are thriving on a combination of familiarity and creativity.
“After being married for 35 years we know each others bodies pretty well and what works and what doesn’t work for each of us sexually. A degree of variety – times, locations, positions, clothing, or lack of – helps us maintain good sex.” Male, aged 56-65, married 31-40 years, has sex twice weekly.
Another woman sums up the cumulative changes that have had a positive effect on her sex life.
“Significant weight loss, Viagra, children becoming young adults, revisiting anal sex after a bad experience in my twenties, more use of porn and vibrators. Good dressing up and lingerie.” Female, aged 46-55, married 31-40 yrs, has sex weekly
Clearly, the more couples invest in their sexual relationship, the more they get out of it.
“I think it is easy if you’re not careful to drift into periods of sexual inactivity especially if life in general seems to get a bit tedious, but if you put a little effort into having and enjoying sex it makes things very much better quickly. Sometimes I think you have to come up with different and new exciting things to do with each other to keep things interesting – often when we do different things that excite both of us we’ll be at it like rabbits for a week or two. Over years you can amass quite a catalogue of interesting and kinky things that you both enjoy and can put aside, then revisit every now and then. Male, aged 56-65, married 31-40 year, has sex weekly.
Not living in each other’s pockets seems to encourage positive autonomy.
“Spending time apart really helps keep the interest. We tried Viagra together which was fun for me too. Joining a womens Tantra group this year. And I don’t do any domestic chores for him.” Female, aged 46-55, dating for 2-5 years, has weekly sex.
And where was this guy when I was looking for a husband?
“Do not take things for granted. Introduce new activities and adventures. Look around the corner. Maintain health and physical activities. Run her a bath (with candles and a glass of bubbly). Give back massage and body oil! Have a break from any routine, the ironing can wait.” Male, aged 56-65, married 31-40 years, has weekly sex.
Others find alternative outlets as a way of sustaining their relationships.
“The introduction of another male. Weight loss from partner (wife)” has significantly improved our sexual relationship. Male, 56-65, second marriage 31-40 years, has sex monthly.
Actually, infidelity is surprisingly low: 73.3% of you say that neither of you has ever been unfaithful, which is impressive when you consider that 61.6% of you have been together longer than 21 years.
“Anyone married for 30+ years probably has little sex. It’s no big deal as long as I can still see prostitutes and Mistresses a few times a year.” Male, 46-55, married 31-40 years, has sex annually.
Just 9.5% of you have been secretly unfaithful and 7.8% of you say that you know your partner has been unfaithful. Interestingly, the highest rates of infidelity are associated with either ‘self’ (44%) or ‘partner’ (50%) openly using porn, however the difference is not statistically significant. With a larger sample size this result might change.
Satisfaction, work, and leisure
The majority of you are either working full time (50.9%) or self employed (25%) and work stress is an issue that pops up repeatedly.
“I have suffered economically and mentally from a stall in my work load. My profession has taken a huge hit from the economic depression. It has definitely affected my outlook and burdened me with frustration and anger at times.” Female, aged 56-65, cohabiting 11-15 years, has sex weekly
Although there was no correlation between hours spent working and satisfaction, there was a correlation between leisure time and satisfaction (0.24, p<0.05). The more leisure time a couple has together, the greater their levels of sexual satisfaction and 59.6% of you agree that holidays alone together increase your levels of sexual frequency.
“Holidays definitely help! We relax, chat, cuddle and bonk! At home with all the tensions of everyday life, it tends to be confined to cuddling. I’m not complaining!” Male, aged 66-75, married 16-20 years, has monthly sex.
“Holidays are great. We recently agreed, following a Times article to have sex every day while on holiday and it was brilliant! Since that 7-day challenge, we have had sex twice every weekend since – double the norm!” Male, aged 56-65, married for 31-40 years, has weekly sex.
Clearly, the more relaxed a couple are, the more likely they are to have sex, but sex is also one of the best ways to relax.
One woman observes that “when rare sex does occur, it is always when we are more relaxed than normal. i.e at our holiday house, after a pleasant evening out etc.” Female, aged 46-55, married 11-15 years, has annual sex
Saturday morning is the most popular time of the week to have sex, but finding a time for sex that suits both partners can be difficult.
“ When my partner comes home from work during the week, we have three hours together before he falls asleep; he awakes at 5 am. We are on different wake and sleep cycles. We try to play catch up, but that usually only comes on a Sunday morning and sometimes I don’t want sex if it’s scheduled in like another item on our long list of things to do.” Female, aged 56-65, cohabiting 11-15 years, has sex weekly.
Another man explains a similar conflict. “Working too hard affects my partner adversely whereas the same problem for me makes sex more important for relaxation.” Male, aged 56-65, married 21-30 years, has weekly sex.
On a more positive note, one woman admits that “realising it’s ok to plan to have sex, rather than waiting for passion to strike, has made a big difference to us”. Female, aged 46-55, married for 31-40 years, has sex weekly.
And this couple prioritise sex because it makes them feel connected. “I think it is easy to get too comfortable, cuddling but leaving sex to another night when you are less tired, and before you realise it can be a month without sex. We don’t want that to happen to us, so we try not to go more than 2 nights without making love. Both of us are far nicer, more relaxed people if we get to make love. It connects us.” Female, aged 46-55, cohabiting 6-10 years, has weekly sex
Pregnancy and children
Having and raising children is obviously a testing time, but the process of getting pregnant can be just as trying.
“We’ve recently had a baby. I don’t feel very attractive at the moment and I’m so tired that the effort sex takes can be too much. One of the simplest things that’s killing our sex life is the fact that I go to bed earlier than him now, and although the mind is willing the body is weak. We have also suffered two miscarriages and spent two years trying for a baby so sex became slightly regimented. Things do get better but you’ve got to be on the same page.” Female, aged 25-35, married 6-10 years, has weekly sex.
Those who have been through it and come out the other side offer this sage advice.
“When life is more stressful and tiring (e.g. when you have small children) you need to make more effort to maintain a good sex life. We always, throughout our marriage, have tried to make love at least once per week – a decision we made early on and largely managed to keep too (except for a couple of months after the birth of each our children). As you get older you have to avoid the mental trap of thinking that older people have less sex (which is the way our society portrays things – though this seems to be changing). If you believe that it is likely to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. We continue to enjoy sex regularly and I think that is the result of having a good marriage – we enjoying being with each other, talking, sharing experiences and doing things together (including sex).” Male, aged 56-65, married 31-40 years, has sex weekly
Stress, Depression and Self-Esteem
A lot of the people who took part in the survey are living incredibly stressful lives.
“We had to live seperately for one year (Though I would come home during the day) as our eldest daughter had severe mental problems (she was later admitted to a mental institute) and I found it hard to cope, ( I had a breakdown). We are all getting on well now and have been for about a year. Male 46-55, married 21-30 years, has sex weekly.
“Stress is always a passion killer. If she wakes up with a stiff neck and I’m randy, too bad! If I’m worrying about something, I don’t get erections. Simple!” Male, aged 66-75, married 16-20 years, has sex monthly.
Depression is also an issue that many have struggled with.
“I have depression due to coping with a son on the autistic spectrum.. worries about redundancy and constant battles over education for our son” Female, aged 46-55, married 21-30 years, has sex weekly.
“Depression, lack of self confidence, difficulty trusting due to experience of having been sexually abused as a child. Oh, and anorgasmia when on antidepressants.” Male, aged 25-35, married 6-10 years, has sex weekly.
Anti depressants kill libido, but as one woman points out
“I suffered from depression until recently and was taking medication for that. This had a huge negative effect on my libido, interest in sex, ability to orgasm and so on. Approximately 2 months after I discontinued the medication, my libido returned to its ‘pre-depression’ levels.” Female, aged 25-35, cohabiting for 6-10 years, has sex weekly.
“I had breast cancer in 2010 with mastectomy and chemo. This has affected the way I feel about my sexual confidence. We have also had huge relationship issues. I am on Tamoxifen and anti depressants. I do worry about cancer quite a lot. Also the fact that my husband had an affair with another woman in 2010 which I didn’t know about (obviously!) this has affected my self esteem.
Female 46-55 married 21-30 years, has sex monthly
“I had lost weight prior to meeting my partner. Since meeting I have put that weight back on plus some more. I don’t feel sexy. I would love to have saucy underwear etc but I tend to go for practical and comfortable underwear due to the size of my bust. I’m pretty stressed at work. I comfort eat and then feel fat and eat some more to comfort myself again. My confidence isn’t great because I’ve put weight back on. My partner has some issues staying hard but is that because I’m not attractive enough?” Female, 25-35, married 2-5 years, has sex monthly.
“My husband has diabetes and it has affected his erectile function. This has affected his sexual confidence. I’m affected if I gain weight – hate myself and don’t want sex. When I lose it again (a constant process..) my libido returns immediately. And if we stay in a hotel room, it’s like it was when we met…” Female 46-55 married 11-15 years, has sex monthly.
Menopause, ill health and sexual dysfunction
In later life, menopause, ill health and sexual dysfunction are obviously major factors. And some couples have had to cope with multiple issues
“Prostrate Cancer 2002, Deep X Ray treatment. Wife had a new heart valve 2005. I had a sub acrhnoid haemorrhage 2005” Male aged 76-85, married 41-50 years, has sex weekly.
“Menopause has had a dramatic effect on my libido and therefore the reduction in the number of times I initiate sex. It (menopause) has reduced my libido and also the elasticity of my vagina. My husband takes statins and this has probably reduced his ability to have erections regularly too. As I have aged I need physical contact and affection to get in the mood whereas my husband needs more sex to experience intimacy and be more physically affectionate, so we are somewhat stuck.” Female, aged 56-65, second marriage 11-15 years, has sex monthly
Some people physically can’t have sex, at least, not with the person you are married to.
An effusive male, protests “ I have been married since 1994 and have never had sex with my wife due to her vaginisimus. We tried many forms of counselling but it didn’t help… I got more into using Coke. BIG mistake!! I now have a 31 year old Russian girlfriend, but the relationship is just about sex and nothing else. I’d rather have sex with the woman I love and married 18 years ago!!” Male, aged 35-45, married 18 years, never has sex.
Medical issues such as erectile dysfunction, Peyrones, vaginal pain, thrush, hysterectomy, hypertension and arthritis crop up all through the narratives. There is no doubt that people have to work harder to keep a physical relationship alive as they get older but those that manage it, by any means, really feel the benefits.
“Sex is far better than any pills for curing aches and pains and providing the feel good factor” Female, aged 56-65, cohabiting 6-10 years, has sex weekly
“Getting older reduces desire, sadly, but certainly doesn’t eliminate it altogether! At 74 I find I need an orgasm far less often, but I still fancy my Mrs a great deal! A lot of the time though, a good cuddle is enough!” Male, aged 66-75, married 16-20, has sex monthly.
Copyright © 2012 Suzi Godson. All rights reserved. No part of this article or the information it contains may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, translated, or transmitted in any form, or by any means, without written permission from the author.