An ILC-UK Valentine’s Day Special: Sexual desire and sexual activities in later life

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Romantic relationships are a fundamental part of people’s life – not just at a young age, but throughout the life-course. And yet, sexuality among older people is understudied at best, and neglected at worst.

As a Valentine’s day special, the ILC-UK is publishing a series of blogs dedicated to love and sex in later life.

The first blog maps how often English men and women aged 65+ think about sex and how often they engage in sexual activities.

To this end, we carried out some empirical analyses using the latest available data from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA) 2012.

Our first findings corroborate the stereotypes according to which men have a higher sexual desire than women, and younger people have a higher sexual desire than the older ones. In other words, when asked “How often did you think about sex during the past month?” only 1 in 4 men aged 65 and over answered “Never” as opposed to 1 in 2 women. Furthermore, by focusing on people with a high sex drive, i.e. those who claim to think about sex every day, an ever larger gender gap emerges, with 1 in 7 men reporting a high sex drive as opposed to 1 in 52 women!

With respect to ageing, we found that after age 85, the proportion of men or women thinking about sex relatively often drops virtually to zero.

Figure 1: Sexual desire by age group – Men
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Source: our elaborations from ELSA 2012; weighted data; unweighted Observations: 1,405.

Figure 2: Sexual desire by age group – Women
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Source: our elaborations from ELSA 2012; weighted data; unweighted observations: 1,677

But this is hardly shocking news, so we turned to investigate sexual activities among older people in search for more original insights.

We found that only 60% of men and 37% of women aged 65+ had any sexual activity in the past year, and among them only half had or attempted to have sexual intercourse in the past month. However, even though the oldest old may not think about sex very often, at least 1 in 4 men and 1 in 10 women aged 85+ had sex in the last year.

Figure 3: Sexual activity by gender and age group
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Source: our elaborations from ELSA 2012; weighted data; unweighted Observations 1,405 men and 1,677 women

What is the relationship between high sex drive and sexual activities?

To investigate the relationship between sexual desire and sexual activities, we split our sample into two groups: a group including only those who think about sex often (i.e. more than once a week) and another including all the others.

The results reported in figure 4 reveal a positive association between sexual desire and sexual activity, with men and women in the first group significantly more likely to engage in sexual activities.

Figure 4: Sexual activity by gender and sexual desire
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Source: our elaborations from ELSA 2012; weighted data; unweighted Observations 1,405 men and 1,677 women

The positive association between thinking about sex and sexual activity may not come as a surprise, but the fact that sexual desire has a much stronger impact on women probably does.

While on average, men aged 65+ think about sex and engage in sexual activity more often than their female counterparts, older women who think about sex quite often are also more likely to engage in sexual activity than men.

Other studies have highlighted the role of health, as opposed to ageing, in influencing older people’s sex life. And undoubtedly, healthy individuals report both a higher sexual desire and more frequent sexual activities. However, even after taking take the role of health into account, we find that sexual desire – i.e. just thinking about sex often or very often – is the strongest driver for sexual activity in later life.

In the next blog, we will investigate the drivers behind remarrying. In other words, we will answer the following questions: how many older people are likely to remarry after experiencing divorce/widowhood? What are the socio-demographic drivers of remarrying? Does sexual desire play a role?

Author: Cesira Urzì Brancati, Research Fellow

Partners Programme Logo 1The International Longevity Centre – UK is able to undertake original research and analysis because of the support of our Partners Programme. For more information about our Partners, and the Partners Programme itself, please click here.

One thought on “An ILC-UK Valentine’s Day Special: Sexual desire and sexual activities in later life

  1. As a healthy 77 years young and in a second marriage, I’m happy to report both my marriage, and my sex life are thriving.
    Phil Parker

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