How Sex Changes With Aging (I)

Author :- Russell Stambaugh June 10, 2020, 9:50 a.m.
How Sex Changes With Aging (I)

This article is the first installment of an adaptation of Russel Stambaugh’s blog post, titled, “Kink, Sex, and Aging”.  The author has been notified and is in compliance with this post. The original one can be accessed here - https://elephantinthehottub.com/2019/08/kink-sex-and-aging.

This article is a brief overview of some of the ways aging interacts with being kinky. It involves the histories of kink, sex and aging. Kink is a subculture, and not just one community, but many small ones. That means that many of the strengths and problems of the general culture infiltrate kink subcultures.  


Erik Erickson’s Model of Aging

The model of aging implicit in this essay derives from Erik Erikson. Erikson transformed Freud’s developmental theory – think: oral, anal, phallic, and Oedipal phases — which was originally a biological theory of development, into a psycho-social developmental theory and expanded it to cover the entire lifespan.

Erikson’s model of adjustment outlines development at different life stages as a kind of socio-emotional obstacle course. It is only reasonable to expect the definition of good sex is would be changed by these developmental transitions as the context of some of our sexual activity changes with them.  And, like an obstacle course, just because you handle one developmental stage with facility, the next poses new challenges that require different strategies and emotional skills to navigate effectively. Applied to sexuality, having a great sex life in young adulthood does not necessarily predict that sex will be great in middle age or old age. 

How Sex and Aging are Viewed in Our Society

In the general society, we tend not to think of sex and aging in this context. Youth is idealized, porn and entertainment are filled with hard, young healthy and vigorous bodies, and our attention is rivetted by the representations of sexuality in the prime ages of mate-finding and reproduction. This is highly dysfunctional as the stability of our long-term sexual relationships has been going down, and people have not only sexual desires, but mate finding needs throughout the adolescent and adult portions of the lifespan. Marriage is getting postponed, couples are having fewer children, and alternative sexual and relationship lifestyles are reframing traditional relationship expectations faster than our media representations about what makes sex and relationships satisfying.

The Work of Kleinpaltz and Ménard

Peggy Kleinpaltz and Dana Ménard have described exactly this in their work on how different people at different ages describe optimal sexual experiences. When you are 16-21, optimal sex might mean getting any partnered sexual experiences at all! By their fifties, most people have come to terms with optimal sex as building the kind of family they desire. At menopause, optimal sexual experiences must overcome hormonal changes, and as one encounters illnesses and disabilities associated with aging, optimal experience is framed by those. Kleinplatz and Ménard’s data strongly show that when you interview a sample of older people with longer histories of sexual experience, the descriptions of what constitutes a peak sexual experience gets reframed as we age, and is much more multidimensional than just achieving conception, or having a powerful orgasm. Here are the main characteristics of optimal sex experiences described by their research subjects:

Being present, focused and embodied.

Feeling connection, alignment, being in synch.

Experiencing intense sexual and erotic intimacy.

Enjoying extraordinary communication, heightened empathy.

Feeling authentic, being genuine, uninhibited, transparent.

Feeling transcendence, bliss, peace, transformation or healing.

Feelings of exploration, interpersonal risk taking, or fun.

Being vulnerable and experiencing surrender

Less often mentioned factors included intense sensation and orgasm; or feelings of lust, desire, or sexual attraction. The emphasis in these adjectives on connection, transcendence, communication and intimacy does sound a very great deal different than sexual utilitarianism, and like the opposite of isolation, alienation and loneliness that surround death, partner, and relationship loss that are commonly encountered in age. Encouragingly, Kleinpaltz and Ménard’s descriptions also sound like the kinds of sexual experiences sought by alt-sex participants, although people hope from these kinds of experiences through conventional sexuality, too. Their work suggests that it might be productive to look at the experiences of the alt-sex communities for insights about how we might retain the satisfactions of sexuality in the face of the problems of aging.