The European Court of Human Rights issued a decision on July 24, 2017 rejecting a ruling of a Portuguese court based on “the assumption that sexuality is not as important for a 50-year old woman and mother of two children as for someone of a younger age….” (majority ruling as quoted by Sewell Chan in the NYT on July 25, 2017.)
Ample evidence from epidemiologic studies - for example, in America, in the Netherlands, in Sweden, in Australia - shows that sexual relationships remain important to men and to women across the lifespan and easily adapt to changes associated with aging. This recognition has gained acceptance in modern culture and is reflected in initiatives as varied as the creation of a protected space for older couples who form sexual relationships who live at the Hebrew Home for the Elderly in Riverdale and the convening of an illustrious panel of international scientists (an endocrinologist, a psychologist, a gynecologist and a urologist) who declared that “frequent sexual activity can be prescribed as a medicine in order to improve both general and sexual health of individuals and of the couples.” Note that “sex” is not necessarily limited to intercourse . In research into the lives of older adults, the definition of “sexual behavior” includes “physical tenderness” and many forms of touching.
Here are a few of the documented benefits of sexual behavior between two people who have a relationship, although not necessarily a married one, later in life, assuming that they are consenting and health risks are not present:
At the level of hormones, for both men and women:
1. Sex brings pleasure. Dopamine, released during orgasm, is associated with our basic reward system.
2.. Sex increases oxytocin, the “cuddle” hormone, and, by doing so, promotes bonding, positive feelings of attachment, and trust.
3. Sex increases testosterone in both men and women. According To McMahon, frequency of sex in younger men appears to protect them from prostate cancer later in life. And according to Bitzer, it enhances the physiology of sexual functioning in women, preventing chronic cystitis, eventual prolapse, and incontenance in women. It is associated with increased survival in men, especially from heart attacks
At the level of behavior:
4. Sex is movement – and movement is related to happier moods, regardless of what time of day, at least in the (generally younger) 10,000+ people who participated in a random time-sampling study using a smart-phone app to track movement and collect self-report data. People who moved – regardless whether the movement was “exercise” or not - recorded happier moods and had higher life satisfaction, according to University of Cambridge, England researchers.
5. Sex can be exercise. Just how much “exercise” may be controversial, but, generally, judicious exercise is considered good for our health in many ways at any age.
6. Sex IS fun. A 2004 national study showed sex as the #1 activity associated with self-reported happiness.
At the level of emotion:
7. Because of the pleasure, sex is associated with increased subjective reports of positive feelings. [
9. Physical activity is related to greater life satisfaction.
At the level of cognition:
10. Sex enhances self-esteem. At any age, people feel better when they are sought after by other people. Having a partner who wants to be with you in such a close and connected way increases feelings of self-worth, the lynch-pin of psychological health according to theories of psychological health that derived from Adlerian principles.
11. Sex allows people to believe have something of value to give. Increasing data documenting the benefits of generosity to happiness and quality of life. Being a responsive sexual partner is an act of great generosity.
At the interpersonal level:
14. Relationship intimacy and sex are synergistic, each promoting the other.
15. Within long-term marriages, sexual contact helps sustain the marriage even as other stresses associated with aging threaten to challenge it. For example, in one study of couples over 50 who had been married at least 20 years, impediments or barriers to sexual behaviors were of minimal importance as long as physical intimacy continued.
At the cultural level:
16. Attidues towards sexual behavior vary dramatically among people of different cultural backgrounds. Europeans may be more likely to see the pleasures of physical intimacy as integral to living a good life than do Americans, with our emphasis on the attractiveness of youth. If there is a secret to aging well, French women must know it.
17. Being consistent within one’s cultural view of aging can bring a sense of coherence to one’s identity. Sense of coherence is associated with health and longevity.
18. At the same time, feeling rejection of a part of the self within one’s culture based on an external characteristic like gender or number of years living in this world – i.e., sexism or ageism - can create conflict and leave one feeling diminished. This has negative health consequences.
19. Generation differences in sexual attitudes and practices support the extent to which people shift to be consistent with their peers. As later life sexual behavior becomes more mainstream, engaging it is stands to be more comfortable socially.
Finally, at a spiritual level:
20. Being able to take care of someone else sexually invokes feelings of gratitude, a source of appreciation for our resources.
21. And it requires generosity, tuning in to the needs and wants of another person and reaching out to fill them.
22. Through all of the above, sexual behavior between two people who want to come together to enjoy each other through physical touching can be can be a powerful way to communicate love.
Therefore, as the European Court of Human Rights affirmed, sexual behavior in people 50 and older has an important role to play in quality of life ”physical and psychological relevance for the self-fulfillment”. as well as promoting the welfare of men. The court decision was a wise one, providing institutional support for one of our most basic drives and greatest interpersonal needs.
Copyright 2017 Roni Beth Tower
Visit me at miracleatmidlife.com