Andrew Smiler says changes in male sexuality in mid-life aren’t just about things going downhill.
One of my favorite questions to ask college students is “when do you plan to stop having sex?” None of them ever plans to stop; the only answers that even allow the possibility are things like “when I can’t walk anymore” or “when my partner of 50 years passes away.”
My classes are usually full of middle class American teens or 20s. They can’t imagine their parents – or anyone they really consider “old” – having sex, even though they expect to do it. I don’t know if that’s a personal-level example of American Exceptionalism or not, but it does say a lot about the younger generation’s expectations that adults, and especially seniors, not be “Naked at Our Age.”
Most men don’t stop having at midlife, but many heterosexual men experience a change in the way they do sex as they get older. I’ve not seen any research on gay men, so I don’t know if it’s the same or different for them. I’d guess a little of both, because that’s usually the case.
In many ways, men have a fundamental shift in how they approach and experience sex that effects many different aspects of their sex life. Here are some of the most common changes.
Changing Bodies, Changing Activities: Men’s bodies change throughout their lives. Once guys hit their 40s, some guys start noticing the losses starting to take place. Lingering aches and pains, combined with other injuries, can impact our sex lives. Your knees – or your partner’s knees – may not tolerate certain positions anymore. Shortness of breath, decreases in stamina or energy, and obesity also influence the possibilities. On average, as men age they report less interest in sex, which can appear as either less interest in general or less frequent desire for sex. With older age, men are more likely to report occasional (or frequent) difficulty obtaining or keeping an erection.
These changes lead many men, or more accurately many couples, to be sexual in different ways. One of the most obvious is a shift away from penetrative sex – penis in vagina or anus – towards mutual masturbation.
Less Heat, More Warmth: Looking back, older men often talk about how much more intense their sexual feelings were during their 20s. It’s about their “fiery urges”; in some cases, the little head really is doing the thinking for the big head. For many straight men, this is coupled with pressures to have children, making it even more important to get that penis – and those sperm – inside that vagina.
In midlife and beyond, there’s a lot less pressure. If kids were part of the equation, it’s no longer about conceiving them; instead, it’s about getting them out of the house. It’s not just procreation, it’s also the intensity; those ‘fiery urges’ give way to the “freedom of intimacy” according to researcher Linn Sandberg. The definition of pleasure often becomes broader, providing the couple with many more options beyond penetrative sex leading to orgasm. Re-discovering a partner’s body, as well as a guy’s own body, and an emphasis on the role of emotional intimacy are central here. So is slowing down and taking more time for sex, something nearly impossible when the kids are still in the house.
Less Individualistic, More Coupled: Many guys in their teens and 20s are focused on penetrative sex in which the goal is to “just empty out and move on.” At this age, they rarely talk about the emotional aspects of sex like feeling connected to their partner even though most guys say it’s important. In some very important ways, and at certain times, it’s sex for sex’s sake, not sex as part of what couples do.
In midlife and beyond, many men report greater interest in and willingness to help their partner achieve orgasm without penetration. Their behavior shifts to a more caring and connected approach in which they prioritize their partner’s pleasure. As part of the shift, many men began asking their partners what they like and don’t like. Although those are questions that our elders were rarely taught to ask, they’re also questions that many people stop asking their long term partners. As our bodies change, the ways we experience pleasure often change. It’s a good question to ask your partner periodically.
Men in midlife and beyond talk about their feelings of connection and love for their partners much more often and more easily than younger guys. They’re clearer about how these feelings influence the ways they’re sexual with their partners. At this age, sex is something the couple does together that helps them stay close and connected. I’m not sure which is chicken and which is egg, and I don’t think that’s the right metaphor; sex and emotional connection are important and they feed each other.
These age-related changes in men’s approach to sexuality are important for maintaining a fulfilling sex life. The notion that sexual pleasure can be found in many ways, often called sensuality, is an important change and one that can be made at any age. Understanding these normative changes also means that guys aren’t doomed to using Viagra or Cialis for half their life; using those drugs is completely optional.
Here’s wishing you a happy, healthy, and long sex life, in broader ways than my students probably imagine it.
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