Skip to content

Super sex for seniors?

April 20th, 2006

Dr Petra

Over the last couple of days there’s been extensive newspaper coverage of a story that claims the baby boomer generation are enjoying great sex.

The global survey of 300,000 people in 29 countries asked people about their sex lives, relationships and physical functioning. Results indicated those in long term relationships living in countries with higher levels of gender equality report better sex lives, with those in the over-40 age group claiming to be most sexually satisfied. 70-80% of respondents in the 40+ age group reported having sex in the previous year.

All this is very encouraging for those concerned about the future of their sex lives. It also seems to challenge some of the stereotypes of older people being sexless.

However, before we get all excited, as usual I’m inviting you to have a look at this data more closely.

It isn’t truly a ‘global survey’
Although it’s an impressively large sample across 29 countries, African countries are barely included, nor is most of Eastern Europe or South Asia. So the results are more representative of participants who were based in a selection of countries rather than a global portrait of sexual functioning.

Even though the study covered different countries, the analysis wasn’t particularly sophisticated, so it hasn’t differentiated between those from low social income backgrounds, traditional communities or some ethnic minorities where women may be in a more unequal position even within Western cultures.

The research was only based on those willing to answer sex questions

Many participants were recruited via cold-calling, and as we know this isn’t the best way to sample in sensitive sex research. So only those who were willing and able to answer questions were included, and of course those are going to be more likely to have something positive to say about sex.

The survey was biased in favour of a Western audience

The way surveys are understood and responded to varies globally and this issue would affect this research. More specifically, this survey was based on Western concepts of sexual attitudes and behaviour, which may mean the views and values of non-Western audiences weren’t captured.

The survey seemed liberal but isn’t going to help unequal societies

We already know in countries with high gender inequality and where women are in unequal positions there are many problems women report with sex and relationships. This includes lower sexual satisfaction, and higher rates of coercion and exploitation. That’s if they’re permitted to respond to surveys at all – in many places their family or community prevents women from talking to researchers.

So although this research tells us nothing we don’t know about gender inequalities and negative impact on sex, the study does nothing to help those who are in such cultures. The research is funded by a drug company and like all drug companies it’s not interested in cultures who don’t have the cash to pay for drugs. It’s hardly fair research to highlight inequality with no plans to tackle it.

Data from the survey was analysed in a way that enhanced sex scores

This research has consistently combined scores to get answers (this release is just one in a long line of stories coming from the global survey). One combination was to lump together those over 40. This produces problems since most 40 year olds are enjoying very active sex lives, whereas those in their 80s may be having less sex. By combining these age groups it implies that those in their more senior years are having lots more sex than they really are.

The other data that was combined was participants’ answers on the questionnaire. Anything from a ‘maybe’ to ‘strongly agree’ answer was lumped together to form an ‘agree’ score. This means that participants who may be less positive about sex are shown to be keener than they might really be.

There’s a reason why the researchers may have gone for these approaches, can you guess what?

There was a conflict of interest behind the study

Pfizer funded this research. Their interest in sexual behaviour is partly due to the need to market their product Viagra, and partly to increase interest in sexual functioning whilst they search to find products for premature ejaculation and female sexual dysfunction. Predictably, news reports didn’t pick up on this although they did plug the study and mentioned the pharmaceutical company behind it frequently.

So what’s the conflict of interest? In case you’d not guessed it, it’s in Pfizer’s interest to increase our interest in sex. If they can persuade us that people in their senior years are having a lot of sex, then those who are in their senior years who aren’t having lots of sex may start to worry. It’s then possible to exploit those worries and an increased level of sexual expectation to promote drugs for sexual functioning.

Which is a possible reason why the data was combined for analysis. If you use data that’s more reflective of younger participants and seems more positive about sex, then you’ll make it seem like more people are having lots of great sex as they get older.

But the most interesting thing about this story isn’t the hidden secrets of the research (that aren’t really so difficult to find). It’s an illustration of how short a memory the media has.

Just last week the press were hopping up and down about the way pharmaceuticals are involved in ‘disease mongering’, reporting on an international healthcare conference that highlighted this problem.

Yet this global sex study didn’t come under any scrutiny. The press reported it as fact. They failed to answer the crucial question you should always ask when a research story comes your way….

Who ran this study?
Is there any conflict of interest here?
What’s the real angle of this research?

There are many positive studies that do show those in their 80s are enjoying passionate, fabulous and amazing relationships. That may include people who have an active sex life, or those who enjoy other pleasures. However, most reputable research on seniors acknowledges the many issues that affect the sex and relationships of older people – and most importantly it doesn’t make out that everyone should be having the sex lives of forty year olds when they’re octogenarians.

But then, that research isn’t trying to create a market for medications.

Comments are closed.