Despite aging bones and decades spent sharing the conjugal bed, old married people just might do it better.
That's what Peggy Kleinplatz of the faculty of medicine at the University of Ottawa discovered after putting out a call for "great lovers" across Canada and the United States. She and her team were deluged with married people who boasted that they'd enjoyed their unions - and sex lives - for a quarter of a century.
Dr. Kleinplatz's findings, published in the current issue of the Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality, suggest what many people in long-term relationships believe: that great sex flourishes in relationships that deepen with maturity.
"It has nothing to do with try this position and try this sex toy. None of that turned out to be relevant," Dr. Kleinplatz said. "What turned out to be relevant was being able to be fully absorbed in each other in the moment."
Through long interviews with 30 men and women over the age of 60 who had been in relationships of 25 years or longer, several ingredients for "great sex" emerged: being present; connection; deep sexual and erotic intimacy; extraordinary communication; interpersonal risk-taking and exploration; authenticity; vulnerability, and transcendence.
"Optimal sex gets surprisingly better with experience and becomes self-perpetuating," Dr. Kleinplatz writes in one of her articles on the topic. "Aging may be an asset towards optimal sexual development."
Dr. Kleinplatz was well aware that aging husbands and wives don't typically come to mind when thinking of steamy lovemaking: "Usually when we think of old, married people we think of people to whom sex is a thing of the past, to whom Viagra ads are marketed," she said.
But she sought out the demographic because they "have a lifetime of sexual experience." Some interviewees were married to each other, while others were widows and widowers who recalled their sex lives.
Interviewees said that sex became "greater" when it became slower, less focused on orgasm and less "goal-directed" in general.
"Young people … they're just too anxious," one interviewee said. When older, "instead of rushing by the windows in a train, one watches the scenery," another woman explained. And with experience, one learned that "the great relief of sexual urges is not the same as great sex."
The findings go against how popular culture portrays fantastic sex, a depiction that stresses performance, technique and novelty. This image of sex sends mixed messages that create unrealistic expectations, anxiety, shame and guilt, Dr. Kleinplatz said.
"If you go to any newsstand checkout … you're going to see magazines blaring headlines at you about 'Tips for how to make your partner want you,' 'How to make his thighs go up in flames,' 'How to keep her coming back for more,' and all that drivel."
Those headlines mean people tend to think of sexuality as "requiring mechanical aptitude," Dr. Kleinplatz said.
Her own study, however, found "people who are elderly, who are disabled, who are chronically ill, having optimal sexuality in their 60s, 70s and 80s."
"Just because you are mechanically skilled and all your parts are in working order does not necessarily mean that you're going to be experiencing optimal sexuality. Functional sexuality is in no way optimal sexuality," Dr. Kleinplatz said.
Her team also conducted interviews with 20 sex therapists and with 20 people who identified themselves as members of a "sexual minority group" including lesbian, gay and transgendered - and as great lovers.
"Despite quite varied backgrounds, they pretty well all describe it in ways that are remarkably similar, even including a lot of the same language," Dr. Kleinplatz said.
She concludes in her article: "Perhaps this picture can promote optimal sexual development and put a dent in predominant myths, thereby helping to prevent sexual problems."