Age Changes in Sexual Behavior

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Today, sex appears to be more popular than ever. Both the frequency of sexual intercourse and the variety of techniques used are appreciably greater than they were prior to the 1960s (Rosen & Hall, 1984). In one study, it was found that three-fourths of all 19-year-olds reported having sexual intercourse. Apparently, a sizable number of this group was quite busy in college. An estimated 28% of males and 29% of females in their freshman year of college reported having had premarital intercourse, but these figures had risen to 82% and 86%, respectively, by their senior year (Centers for Disease Control, 1992). Statistics such as these provide support for the description of late adolescence and early adulthood as a time of "raging hormones," a characterization that seems truer for males than for females. In males, the sexual urge reaches a peak during the late teens or early twenties, but not until a decade or so later has it reached its peak in females. This observation provides support for the suggestion that young men should seek mates 10 years older rather than 5 years younger than they.

Masters, Johnson, and Kolodny (1991) describe the sexual behavior of young adults in terms of a number of patterns-experimenters,seekers, and traditionalists. Experimenters employ proficiency and variety in their sexual behavior, seekers view sex as a way of finding an ideal marriage partner, while traditionalists limit sexual intercourse to more serious relationships. With regard to their interest in marriage, cohabitation—at least, for a time—has become quite popular among today's youth. During the 1980s and 1990s, however, the fear of contracting AIDS began to put a damper on casual sex.1

It is estimated that the average young-adult American couple has sexual intercourse two to three times per week (Masters et al., 1991). As indicated by Figure 6-1, the frequency of sexual intercourse declines every decade after people reach their thirties. The modest decline in the frequency of intercourse during the fifth decade is attributable in some degree to career interests, family concerns, other obligations, and a decline in the energy level of the partners. The Coolidge effect, manifested in extramarital sex, also suggests that boredom with the same partner may play a role in the decline.2 The need for variety appears to be more characteristic of men than of women who engage in extramarital affairs.3 Married women who become involved with other men usually do so for emotional reasons rather than for sex or variety. These extramarital affairs may be intense and enduring, but most seem to be "one-night stands" (Masters et al., 1991). Chronological age is, of course, not the only demographic factor that is related to sexual activity: Ethnicity, culture, socioeconomic status, religion, educational level, and marital status are others. Attitude toward sex and the warmth of the relationship between partners also affect sexual behavior (Crooks & Bauer, 1980; Geer, O'Donohue, & Schorman, 1986).

Despite the decline in the frequency of sexual intercourse in middle- and late adulthood, sexual interest does not usually drop dramatically until people reach their seventies. Even so, many "sexy senior citizens" in their seventies and eighties continue to enjoy sexual intercourse (Pfeiffer et al., 1974; Schover, 1986). The decline in sexual activity, but not in sexual capacity, is more marked for women than for men. In addition to biological changes with age, fatigue, boredom, poor physical health, and fear of failure may contribute to the decline in sexual interest and activity seen in older adult men. Older women also experience these problems, which, along with other distractions, may leave them little time to be interested in sex. For the typical married woman or widow, however, it is her husband's behavior and physical condition that are the principal cause of the decline in her sexual functioning. Because of her unwillingness or inability to find another sexual partner, the

1In the United States, during 1995, an estimated 643 people aged 15-24,30,465 people aged 25-44,and 10,202 people aged 45-64died of AIDS (Rosenberg et al., 1996).

2The Coolidge effect refers to the observation that males who find themselves unable to copulate with one partner can often perform vigorously with a new partner. This "effect" was named after President Calvin Coolidge. The story goes that, while touring a poultry farm, Mrs. Coolidge asked the farmer how so many eggs could be produced when he had such a small number of roosters. The farmer explained that each of the roosters did his duty several times a day. "Perhaps you could point that out to Mr. Coolidge," exclaimed Mrs. Coolidge in a loud voice. On overhearing the remark, President Coolidge inquired as to whether each rooster serviced the same hen each time. The farmer answered, "No, there are many hens for each rooster." "Perhaps you could point that out to Mrs. Coolidge," responded the President.

3Therecord for most marriages was held by Glynn "Scotty" Wolfe until his death in 1997. During his 89 years, Mr. Wolfe tied the knot 29 times! (Moehringer, 1997)

18-29 30-39 40-49 50-59 Age Interval (Years)


Figure 6-1 Weekly sexual intercourse frequency by American adults. (Based on data from Smith, 1990.)

18-29 30-39 40-49 50-59 Age Interval (Years)


Figure 6-1 Weekly sexual intercourse frequency by American adults. (Based on data from Smith, 1990.)

older woman is relegated by her husband's decision to a state of sexual abstinence. Although being a widower or otherwise unmarried does not necessarily reduce the sexual activity of older men, most sexual activity for older women takes place within a marital relationship. Ninety percent of the older women who were interviewed in a study conducted at Duke University (Pfeiffer et al., 1974) reported that they stopped having sexual intercourse at a median age of 60, compared with 68 for males, when their husbands died or became ill or impotent. Even when both partners were healthy, the husband was almost always the one who made the decision to terminate sexual intercourse.

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