A recent issue of the AARP magazine1 included a letter from a concerned spouse who reported that her husband was spending a lot of time viewing Internet pornography. The magazine’s response? The woman should not be concerned or judgmental, but use the opportunity to find out what her husband really wants out of sex. Completely glossing over the poor woman’s pain and frustration, the magazine actually encouraged her to contribute to the further breakdown of intimacy in her marriage.
The response further argued that the husband’s online porn viewing doesn’t necessarily mean he wasn’t interested in his wife; it’s just that she probably wasn’t able to provide what he wanted. Huh? While the magazine tried to answer a real question about sex in the golden years, it missed the truth that self-serving sexuality is as damaging in older age as it is at every other time in life.
This raises the question: can older adults safely enjoy sexual intimacy and, if so, can they also destroy it?
As the developmental process of aging progresses, dramatic changes occur in how we express our sexuality.2 But I also believe certain aspects of sexuality remain unchanged throughout life, even with new challenges presented by age.
Scholars within both the scientific community and the culture at large have recently noted that older adults remain concerned for their sexuality. Moreover, as a Christian counselor, I’ve observed the need for a rich and accurate view of aging which includes our sexuality.
For example, as we age physically, we would hope to enjoy greater spiritual maturity gained through years of experience. Also, the aging of the physical body and its eventual death is the God-ordained vehicle that ushers us into His presence, where spiritual union with God will far eclipse the sexual union we experienced with another here on earth. With these ideas in mind, we can make various accommodations that nurture sexual health within the larger scope of our spirituality.
Research bears out what we learn daily by experience: as we age, we experience changes in physiology, sensory abilities, sleep, personality, sexual function, cognition, and even emotions, such as how we grieve.3 Studies also note, “Age-related physiological changes do not render a meaningful sexual relationship impossible or even necessarily difficult.”4
Many studies report that a positive attitude, health, and the sensitivity received from and toward one’s partner are important keys to maintaining a satisfactory sex life. If we add to these qualities our Christian beliefs about marriage and sacrificial service, the aging of our sexuality is far less daunting.
Research indicates that the sexual complaints of older men are most often due to erectile dysfunction and premature ejaculation. As women age, they most often suffer sexual interference due to anxiety and depression.5 Of course, all these symptoms can be treated in a variety of ways, including medication and professional counseling.
I believe, however, that it is possible for us to miss an important point here. Pornographic images and ideas plaster our culture and wrongly emphasize orgasm as proof of good sex. Mature people – regardless of age – know that orgasm is proof of a physiological release, but not necessarily proof of true, loving intimacy. Therefore, when a couple experiences physiological roadblocks, they can still be great lovers to each other in their detour.
As aging Christians, we need to ground ourselves in the truth of our tri-part design. We have bodies, minds, and spirits. Good sex – as God intends it – connects all three in marriage, not just our bodies. In this way, God has equipped us to continue to enjoy sex even when some of the physical beauty and stamina of youth has expired.
I believe there is an authentic solution for us as we age. Even when various aspects of our sexuality are undergoing dramatic changes, we can nurture our spouses more comprehensively with a multifaceted love that has stood the test of time.