Gray-haired customers sometimes sidle up to Smitten Kitten owner Jennifer Pritchett and say with a smile, “Bet you don’t get someone my age in here often.”
The owner of the south Minneapolis adult store smiles right back. “And then I say, ‘Well, you’re wrong. We see people your age every day,’ ” said Pritchett.
Conventional wisdom holds that couples in their golden years prefer to limit their affection to holding hands, a peck on the cheek, maybe a little nighttime cuddle. But a growing body of research reveals that America’s seniors are plenty active between the sheets.
A study published in March in the Archives of Sexual Behavior noted a decline in sexual frequency among Americans of all ages. The sole exception: people over 70.
In the most recent survey for the study, which has been conducted since 1972, millennials and Gen X’ers showed a drop in the number of times they have sex per year, compared with previous years. But the baby boomers and their parents are having sex more often than their cohorts reported in the past.
The study and others like it seem to indicate that the quality — not just the quantity — of sex improves with age. The National Commission on Aging reported that the majority of the over-70 set find sex to be more emotionally and physically satisfying than when they were middle-aged.
Those conclusions are in line with a 2015 British study that found half of men and almost a third of women above 70 reported having sex at least twice a month. It was the first British study on sexual health to include octogenarians. It documented that a sizable minority of those in their 80s still masturbate and have sex.
Many people are, especially younger people.
“We see a consistent disbelief that older people are sexually active,” said Jim Firman, president and CEO of the National Council on Aging.
But Firman is adamant that those antiquated, ageist attitudes shouldn’t put a damper on the love lives of older Americans.
“We can’t let expectations of younger people control what we do,” he said. “Physical contact is a universal need and should be normalized and encouraged as part of aging. We should break those taboos or exceptions that say otherwise.”
Different, but ‘still hot’
Pritchett is all about breaking taboos.
In addition to its selection of vibrators, lubricants and videos, Smitten Kitten maintains a lending library. The books that fly off the shelves the fastest are about sex in later life.
“That’s kind of telling about how hungry people are for this information,” Pritchett said. “Sex ed in school is based around reproduction. When you’re older, family planning is not part of your sexuality. What’s left is pleasure.”
The most popular of the books on the store’s shelf were written by Joan Price, who bills herself as an “advocate for ageless sexuality.” Her bestsellers include “The Ultimate Guide to Sex After 50,” “Naked at Our Age: Talking Out Loud About Senior Sex” and “Better Than I Ever Expected: Straight Talk About Sex After Sixty.”
“My mission is to help people maintain or regain a satisfying sex life, with or without a partner” said Price, 73, who lives in California and regularly lectures, blogs and offers webinars on topics such as senior-friendly sex toys and satisfying sex without penetration.
Price said she got interested in creating content about sexuality for underserved seniors when, at 57, she met a man and “had the best sex of my life.” The longtime health and fitness writer couldn’t find any resources that reflected her experience, so she tackled the subject herself, becoming an erotic cheerleader for her cohorts.
“Sex has no expiration date, but things change — our bodies, our hormones, our relationships,” she said. “Expectations have to change. Responses are slower, we need more sensation, more stimulation to be aroused. We may have to redefine or reframe sex, but it can still be hot.”
Price, who’ll lead workshops at Smitten Kitten on June 4-5, preaches about the importance of communication between older partners.
Silenced by sex shaming
For Carol Watson, 67, flexibility is the key.
Still bawdy about her body, the Minneapolis woman is semiretired from her work at a nonprofit but retains a full-time interest in intimacy.
Starting when she went to college in 1967, she said, she’s “cut a wide swath.”
“That was the Summer of Love, the year birth control pills became readily available,” said the married mother of two adult children. “There was no AIDS, no Hep-C, nothing that couldn’t be solved with a shot of penicillin. We were the generation that could have sex without consequences — and we did. I’ve had many partners and no regrets.”
When her libido flagged a decade ago, Watson asked her doctor for an estrogen prescription for both a patch and cream.
“I’m happy sex is still part of my life. It keeps me young,” she said. “It’s stress relief, validation. It’s about joy.”
Describing herself as “on the far end of the bell curve,” Watson enjoys sex several times a week, within her marriage and with other partners, and said she has no plans to slow down.
“My mother died at 92 and Dad lived to be 96. I’m going to live to be 120 and I’m not willing to let sex fade into the distance.”
Watson’s frankness makes her a bit of an outlier.
While sex may be more common among older adults than younger ones, talking about senior sex still seems off limits. And that only perpetuates the myth that seniors have little interest in it.
“It’s still a sex-shaming society for older people and they internalize that,” said Pritchett. “It’s too bad because the shame keeps seniors in the dark. Old bodies are just as worthy of pleasure as young ones.”
Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based freelance broadcaster and writer.