The romantic comedy It’s Complicated could double as a case study of what it means to be a baby boomer today. Jane, a divorced businesswoman played by Meryl Streep, is dating her architect and sleeping with her ex-husband. “I have so much energy recently, probably as a result of all the sex I’m having,” she clucks to a roomful of her girlfriends, who are titillated at the news. “Turns out I’m a bit of a slut!”
That punchy scene had audiences roaring: “they virtually cheer,” wrote David Gritten in the Telegraph earlier this year. It also became a social touchstone: “Once again the baby boomer generation is dictating its own rules as it gets older,” wrote Gritten, “in this case, living out the exquisite little secret that you can be 60 and still have a splendid sex life.”
In fact, several surveys over the last couple of years demonstrate that baby boomers—that massive group born between 1946 and 1965, of which there are 10 million in Canada—are plenty frisky. Forty-one per cent of middle-aged Canadians considered themselves “sexually adventurous,” according to a 2009 survey by Leger Marketing for Eli Lilly, maker of anti-impotence medication. Nearly half of boomers reported shedding their sexual inhibitions since turning 50, and feeling sexually satisfied. In the U.S., 85 per cent of male boomers and 61 per cent of female boomers surveyed by a polling firm said that sexual satisfaction was “critical” to their relationships and quality of life, according to AARP, which advocates for the over-50 crowd. And a 2008 survey on a British lifestyle website for older adults found that 37 per cent of single boomers would have sex on the first date—double the number for Generation Xers.
In this, the first of a three-part series examining the well-being and lifestyle of baby boomers, Maclean’s explores their sex lives, and discovers that as they age, “their sexuality is not diminished,” says David McKenzie, a sex and relationship therapist in Vancouver. Despite the stereotype that getting old means forfeiting intimacy or combatting sexual dysfunction, experts say that there are a number of aspects of middle age and later that actually make for a better sex life.
Just ask Dr. Gerald Brock, a urologist and sex medicine specialist in London, Ont. He sees 2,500 patients a year, mostly baby boomers. While more and more men visit him for treatment of erectile dysfunction now that drugs are available, Brock says that with age many other men are liberated from a problem they had when they were younger: premature ejaculation, which affects one in three men across all ages. “As you get older, there tends to be more of a delay and greater control,” explains Brock, which means that intimacy doesn’t have to be rushed. “So that aspect of sexual function improves with age.”
Women, meanwhile, often see Brock because of vaginal dryness or discomfort during sex. But he says these issues can often be remedied with common products such as personal lubricants. As menopause sets in, women no longer worry about getting pregnant, continues Brock, who is a professor at the University of Western Ontario. They usually become more “in touch with their bodies and comfortable explaining to their partner what works for them and what doesn’t.” This may explain another positive impact of aging on sex: “As women get older, their ability to reach orgasm can actually be enhanced,” says Brock, “and the ‘quality’ of the orgasm can be enhanced as well.”
There are also lifestyle changes occurring among boomers that enable better sex lives. Many of them are achieving financial freedom, scaling back on their careers or retiring. That means more opportunity for spontaneity, and time to spend with a partner at home, over romantic dinners or on vacation. “Boomers have sexual intimacy opportunities that are non-conventional,” explains Brock. “It doesn’t have to be first thing in the morning or just before bed. It can be little retreats during the day as well.”
Boomers are also enjoying a new-found freedom from raising children, says Barbara Mitchell, a sociology and gerontology professor at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C. “The kids have left home, and now they can refocus the spotlight on their relationship.” The opportunity to rediscover themselves can be invigorating—many start exercising, pampering themselves and reconnecting with their sexuality.
This can boost the chemistry between a couple, says McKenzie—or it can highlight the need for a new start. Some spouses feel like strangers after the kids move out and work is over. “Suddenly, they’re forced on each other,” he explains, and they don’t like it. As a liberal-minded lot—boomers, of course, shaped the sexual revolution of the ’60s and ’70s, with its free love and sexual empowerment ethos—they appear less fussed about breaking it off when the time is right. That may help explain why people over 50 have the highest divorce rate, notes Mitchell.
When divorce happens, there is no shortage of resources to help boomers find their next partner—whether they’re looking for a casual encounter or a lifelong companion. Websites such as Lavalife Prime, Boomer Cupid, and Midlife Matchmaker all create “a much wider net to meet people who are single,” says Mitchell. There is also a slew of books offering boomers tips on relationships and sex, adds Mitchell, who is the review editor of the Canadian Journal on Aging. A rudimentary search turns up Boomer’s Guide to Sex That (Still) Sizzles, Sex Over Fifty, Baby Boomer Bachelorette, and Older, Wiser, Sexually Smarter, which includes the chapter “From problems to possibilities: sexuality, aging, disabilities and chronic illness.”
Even Health Canada has a brochure on sex late in life. While not aimed specifically at boomers, the list of reasons to have sex is enticing, especially if one is as concerned about staying young as this generation is famous for: having sex can apparently strengthen bones and muscles, boost the immune system, prevent wrinkles around the eyes, and is the exercise equivalent of walking up two flights of stairs.
There is one serious worry among experts, however, when discussing boomer sex: that they’re not doing it safely. Only one in five boomers who are single and sexually active said they use condoms regularly, according to the annual AARP sex survey, which was released in May. “The idea of protection wasn’t part of their normal repertoire” when newly single boomers first dated years ago, explains Brock. Others wrongly assume the medications for issues such as erectile dysfunction contain protection, he adds, or that with age they are less susceptible to sexually transmitted infections. Now, researchers are seeing cases of STIs and HIV among older adults. Fortunately, says Mitchell, the growing appreciation of these facts has ignited sex education campaigns that target this group.
Next year, the oldest baby boomers will officially become senior citizens. Given what we know about their active sexual lives today, experts predict no slowing down. “We’ll continue to see a reduction in the views that once you become a certain age you aren’t allowed to be sexual or to have good sexual relationships,” says Mitchell. “I’m pretty positive about the future being rosy for baby boomers.” Maybe even red-hot.