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Interview: Men Reveal Surprising Intimacy


Viagra hit the North American markets in 1998, sparking a buying spree. Since then, sexual health has been narrowly defined by the ability to have intercourse.

But, according to a recent study, men understand their sexual lives in new ways as they age. Sexuality is more about touch, closeness and other forms of intimacy.

Just Feeling a Naked Body Close to You: Men, Sexuality and Intimacy in Later Life illuminates how older men perceive their sexuality. Linn Sandberg from the University of Stockholm is author of the study, which appeared in the journal Sexualities (Vol. 16, No. 3/4, 2013).

AHB reached Dr. Sandberg in Stockholm, Sweden.

Ruth Dempsey: Why did you want to study sexuality in later life?

Linn Sandberg: Sexuality today is understood as part of positive aging. This shift challenges persistant ideas of old age as a time of asexuality. I wanted to learn how older people themselves perceive their sexuality.

RD: Why focus on older men?

LS: Masculinity is often associated with sexual assertion and potency. And later life is often associated with a decline in sexual function. I wanted to understand how older men themselves experience sexuality while aging: Is impotence and change in erectile function always a problem?

RD: Can you give me a brief description of the men in your study?

LS: The qualitative study involved 22 participants. All were heterosexual white men of Swedish background. They were born between 1922 and 1942, and they were between 67 and 87 years of age at the time of the study. They came from middle and working class backgrounds. Most lived with a female partner although some men were divorced, single or widowed.

RD: So what did the study find?

LS: Several of my interviewees expressed concerns about declining sexual function. At the same time, intimacy emerged as a central theme. Men showed a surprising ability to focus on sexual practices other than penile-vaginal intercourse.

I was struck by how men repeatedly used words like "closeness," "warmth" and "touch" to describe what makes sex in later life meaningful.

RD: Can you give me an example?

LS: One man described how he and his wife slept in separate beds and how before they got up in the morning, he always crawled into her bed to feel the warmth of her body and scratch her back to connect with her.

Another 84-year-old said being sexual with his wife meant engaging in mutual masturbation, holding each other, hugging and kissing. "I value those things just as much today as the regular intercourse in youth," he said.

In several studies, some older men and women de-emphasize the importance of intercourse, but rather stress cuddling, touch and other forms of closeness.

RD: So, as their bodies aged, the men came to understand themselves in new ways?

LS: Yes. Men noted how sexuality earlier in life, during adolescence and midlife centered on having intercourse. In later life, they experienced sexuality in terms of touch and sensuality. This made them feel freer, happier and more alive.

As one 69-year-old man remarked, "It's more carefree now compared to when you were younger." Intimacy could be something sexual, it could involve fondling and lead to orgasms. It may also involve holding someone's hand or giving a compliment.

In my study, sexuality in the lives of older men comes across as more free but also more considerate and unselfish.

RD: But today, aging men are expected to remain "forever functional."

LS: That's right. Today, maintaining sexual activity is considered a way for men to retain their masculinity and postpone aging.

The emphasis on older men's sexual function is to a large extent spurred by financial interest. Barbara Marshall and Stephen Katz from Trent University (Peterborough, Ont., Canada) have argued that while erectile changes were previously understood as signs of natural aging, they have now been renamed and transformed into a pathology: erectile dysfunction, spawning a billion-dollar industry.

RD: Also today, an active sex life is linked to healthy aging. What about those who choose not be sexually active?

LS: This is an important issue. The increasing focus on sexuality, as part of healthy aging, puts pressure on older people to maintain an active sex life. As a result, those who are unable or uninterested, may feel marginalized. The assumption here is that aging looks one way. We need to honour the many ways in which people age.

RD: Some say health professionals ignore older people's sexual health due to their age. What is the situation in Sweden?

LS: Well, the idea of Sweden as being a "sex-crazed" country is surely exaggerated. It is true that we have had sex education in schools for a very long time. Sex education became compulsory in Swedish primary schools in 1955, but I doubt sex is the first thing on the agenda for a lot of GPs when meeting seniors.

RD: Finally, what do you take away from your study?

LS: We need to listen to older people's complex experiences of sexuality. For men, sex in later life is not merely about "use it or lose it". It's about finding new and different ways of being sexual.

Just recently, Swedish media carried an item about younger and middle-age men taking Viagra as a way to secure hard penises every time. When older men in my study speak about sexuality, it is not all about "staying hard" but rather about getting intimate.