It strikes me as one of life’s cruellest jokes that men reach their sexual peak at 18, while women typically take until age 30 or later to reach theirs. The discrepancy sounds like a formula for universal heterosexual frustration, until you realize that the definition of sexual peak has nothing to do with how willing or good a lover you are. That ability comes with experience and caring – and there is nothing to stop it from improving with age, says Dr. Saul H. Rosenthal, medical director of the Sexual Therapy Clinic of San Antonia and author of Sex Over Forty.
Cultivating expertise requires an intermingling of the physical, emotional and intellectual. “You have to be aware of what’s going on in your body and your partner’s body,” Rosenthal writes. “You need to adapt to those changes with a willing and enthusiastic use of your imagination – and a spirit of innovation.”
At the pinnacle of sexuality, 1 20-year-old man produces about a teaspoon of semen a day. He can get aroused just thinking about sex, and aroused again only minutes after orgasm, thanks to his high level of testosterone. A decade later, the level has begun its gradual decline. One result is that by age 40, many men require more direct stimulation during foreplay to experience erection. At 50, semen production may be less than half what it was at 20. Some 60-year-old men typically ejaculate only one out of every two or three times they have intercourse. After 70, the refractory period – the time it takes to achieve erection again after climaxing – lengthens. What took one to two minutes at 17 takes one or two days by 70.
Among women, production of the female sex hormone, estrogen, reaches its height at age 30, bringing with it rapid vaginal lubrication, increased desire and more intense orgasm. AT 40, a woman is still capable of conceiving, but a decade later, she will probably be approaching or have gone through menopause, during which hormone levels decline precipitously. Menopause creates physical changes in the vagina, including dryness and fragility, but regular sexual activity apparently ameliorates this condition. Relieved of worry about pregnancy, many women find sex more pleasurable. At 60, a woman’s orgasms may be more frequent than earlier in life, says Dr. Helen Singer Kaplan, director of the Human Sexuality Program at The New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center, because female orgasm is, in part, “a learning process.”
The male and female physiological changes that occur with age provide a fertile ground for a more leisurely enjoyment of sex, especially the “second language of sex,” as named by Dr. Robert N. Butler, author of Sex After Sixty. “When people are young,” Butler says, “sex tends to be urgent and explosive. It’s concerned largely with physical pleasure and, in many cases, the conception of children. This ‘first language of sex’ is biological and instinctive – and wonderfully exciting. But sex is not just a matter of athletics and production. Some people recognize this early on and simultaneously develop a second language of sex, which is emotional and communicative as well as physical.”
In fact, studies by Dr. William H. Masters and Virginia Johnson of the Masters & Johnson Institute in St. Louis suggest that sexual enjoyment in middle age is the best barometer of lifelong pleasure. “Sex is a natural function,” Masters says. “Just because we age doesn’t mean we stop functioning effectively.”
Kaplan, whose survey of the literature on the subject shows that 70 percent of people in their 70s engage in sex regularly, believes that sex experts a positive effect on longevity. “Although no studies have yet proven this to be true,” she says, “it’s the consensus of the medical community.”
Today’s emphasis on fitness and health maintenance may exaggerate our expectations of future sex, suggests Dr. William R. Hazzard, director of the J. Paul Sticht Center on Aging at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. “I fear we may swing from thinking there’s no sex after 60,” he says, “to thinking there’s no diminution.”
Indeed, according to Dr. Lonnie Barbach of the University of California, San Francisco, and author of several books on women’s sexuality, including For Yourself (Doubleday, 1975), societal changes will push people to maintain their sex lives as they age. “Today’s 30-year-olds are not like those of 60 years ago,” Barbach says. It will no doubt prove easier for them to remain sexually active as they grow older, she believes, given our knowledge about sex, but they also will face more pressure to do so.