BY HOLLY ST. LIFER
If your immediate response is, “To have an orgasm of course!” that’s true. But a lot more motivates our sexual decisions.
Your relationship status has a lot to do with it. Many women who are in long ones built on years of trust and caring find their mates are more generous, playful, understanding and more open to discussion of touchy topics. Sex also releases the day’s tensions, usually halts bickering, and restores our perspective that life’s a lot more fun than just work, focusing on the kids’ needs, and paying bills.
Experts call this receptive desire. “It’s when you have sex for reasons other than genital tension,” says psychologist Laurie Mintz, Ph.D., and author of A Tired Woman’s Guide to Passionate Sex. “Using this model is akin to knowing that your car can be cold when you start it, but will warm up while you drive. You can still experience a pleasant drive, even in the winter time,” she wrote in a Psychology Today blog post.
Although receptive sex is what we have most often, many women think if they don’t feel horny there’s something wrong with them. But the reality is we’re just not driven by sexual desire like men are. A new study published in the American Journal of Medicine found 67 percent of over 800 older women, with an average age of 67, said they achieved orgasm most of the time although 40 percent said they never or almost never felt sexual desire. “Except for early on in a relationship when we’re still in the daydreaming phase and fueled by intense attraction, women in general, regardless of age, don’t think about it nearly as much,” says Cindy Meston, Ph.D., director of the Sexual Psychophysiology Lab at the University of Texas at Austin, and author of Why Women Have Sex.
If you’re unattached, your reasons for having sex might be simply to derive pleasure and have fun. In fact, there are a growing number of older women — Anne Bancroft in The Graduate comes to mind — who scoff at the stereotype of the dumpy matron who’s no longer connected to her feminine essence and sexuality. “I see a new movement taking place involving 50- and 60- year-old women who want to be honored as sexual beings. They’re divorced or widowed and prefer to live alone and just date. They’re not looking for a provider, they’ve earned their money and status,” says Ilene Serlin, Ph.D., past president of the San Francisco Psychological Association, now in private practice. These modern babes aren’t all “cougars,” but they do share a collective freedom earlier generations didn’t.
When we’re in our 20’s and 30’s, we want to have sex to experiment with different people and positions so we can learn the ropes, lure a provider and mate, and satisfy our curiosities. We want to fit in, beat out rivals, try to get a person to love us. Few, if any, of these incentives apply later on. For many older women, the sexual experience is “been there, done that,” says Meston.
Still, with the ushering in of Viagra, keeping your man is one motivator common to women regardless of age. Old guys aren’t nodding off in front of the TV anymore. At least not every night, anyway. They can be sexually active well into their 90’s. And they have more drive. “Women have been taught or have seen enough on TV to fear that if they don’t spend sufficient time in bed making sure their partner is gratified, he may go elsewhere,” says Meston. She calls this mate guarding.
As we age, sexual intimacy can become deeper and more poignant. “Older couples may turn to lovemaking to soothe them during sad times, like the death or serious illness of someone close to them,” says Mintz. It also makes us feel healthier. Even when achy joints or more serious conditions like cancer or a heart attack become libido killers, tenderness and a dose of humor can help rekindle desire and keep the sex satisfying. It’s reviving. And maybe that jolt of vitality is the biggest motivator of all. After all, in our culture sex and youth are synonymous. Those orgasms keep us feeling significant, connected and alive.
Holly St. Lifer is a health reporter who specializes in aging science. Her works appears regularly in AARP The Magazine, Prevention, More, SELF, and Shape among many other publications. She formerly wrote the blog, “Fit After 40″ for The Huffington Post. She teaches journalism at New York University.