Personal Health

Do Men Have a Sexual Advantage in the Post-Viagra World?

According to a new study, older men say they have great sex lives; older women, not so much. But those results may not be all they're cracked up to be.

"Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I'm 64?" The Beatles' enduring question wafted through my speakers as I pored over what, at first glance, seemed to be troubling new data about women and sex from a major university.

Older men have great sex lives; older women, not so much. Those were the findings of the recent study from the University of Chicago -- at least if you learned about the study from the popular media. But the simple deduction that turned up in some headlines about the study read more like old stereotypes than scientific conclusions.

"Men have shorter life spans than women on average, but when it comes to sexual life expectancy, the guys have the advantage," read a blurb on the Fox News Web site. "Women tend to live longer than men, but men have longer—and better—sex lives in their later years, new research shows," the editors of declared. "Women may live longer, but it appears men are more likely to go out with a smile," wrote a reporter for the Montreal Gazette.

In fact, the gender differences appear striking. From the study summary:

"These gender differences increased with age and were greatest among the 75 to 85 year old group: 38.9% of men compared with 16.8% of women were sexually active, 70.8% versus 50.9% of those who were sexually active had a good quality sex life, and 41.2% versus 11.4% were interested in sex."

There you go! Women may have longer average life expectancy but men win in the number of years of active sex they can expect to have, both at age 30 and at age 55, as the study demonstrates. Who wins? Those who live longer or those who have more nookie?

If that sounds a bit childish for you, how about an evolutionary argument? The NPR blog offers us one when discussing the study:

It's a stereotype, the aging man still keenly interested in sex, the aging woman, not so much. Some University of Chicago researchers have added statistical support for the cliche, with data indicating that, yes, more men of a certain age do seem more excited by sex than women of the same age. The study doesn't get into why this should be. It does make you wonder why the difference. One possible theory is that as far as nature is concerned, sex is really about reproduction despite the moral, cultural overlay we humans place on it. If that's so, then men's longer interest in sex relative to women would make sense since it would somewhat track the differences in male and female fertility.

Yup. All those men between the ages of 75 and 85 were perfectly capable of siring children long before the introduction of Viagra and friends, and the quality and motility (spontaneous mobility) of sperm did not decrease with increasing age. In the essentialist world, at least.

If this theory strikes you as dubious as it does me, why don't we spend a few minutes looking at the questions asked by the researchers. We might as well begin by seeing what they mean by "sex."

The two sets of data the study employed (one from 1995-'96 and one from 2005-'06) define sex a little differently. One simply asks whether the respondent had "had sex with anyone"; the other specifies sex as "any mutually voluntary activity with another person that involves sexual contact, whether or not intercourse or orgasm occurs."

Masturbation is not sex under those definitions. You got to have a partner! Keep that in mind when interpreting the results the study found. For instance, when people were asked about their interest in sex it did not include their interest in sex just with themselves.

This matters when looking at the differences between older men and older women, because heterosexual women, on average, partner with men older than themselves. As the lead author of the study, Stacy Tessler Lindau, notes: "Women outlive their marriages and their relationships." Sex with a partner is tricky to arrange if you no longer have a partner or if your partner is older than you and in poor health. One survey found that among the 75-85 age group 72 percent of men but only 39 percent of women had a partner.

What happens to that male "advantage" in sexual life expectancy when this difference is taken into account? The one those headlines trumpeted?

It disappears. Partnered men and women can expect roughly the same average number of sexually active years, both at age 30 and at age 55 (the ages for which the study applied the calculations). Older women, too, might go out with a smile on their lips if they were all provided with suitable partners. 

Or might they not? After all, the study does establish that about half of sexually active older women report that the quality of their (partnered) sex life is not good. One half! But wait a little: Almost a third of older sexually active men report the same thing. Thus, while there is a clear gender difference in reported satisfaction with partnered sex, it is not one where all older men have a good time and all older women do not.

Could this quality difference have anything to do with the introduction of Viagra and other treatments for erectile dysfunction? Better still, could Viagra-and-friends, first introduced in 1998, explain why the two data sets the study used produced different results on older mens' interest in sex? "Significantly more men aged 57-64 in the later life cohort reported an interest in sex than men of the same age surveyed 10 years earlier" says the study. In contrast, the reported sexual interest of women did not change much between the cohorts.

This casts further doubt on the essentialist theory that the quality of one's sex life matches the presumed life cycle of one's fertility. If the greater sexual interest of older men is purely evolutionary, it should not change in a mere decade. But change it did, and at the same time as drugs allowing penetrative sex for many more men entered the marketplace. Coincidence?

There is no Viagra for those older women who experience problems with penetrative sex. Even estrogen replacement therapy -- which can help with such problems as vaginal dryness --has now been found to have health risks and is no longer recommended as a long-term strategy.

What is a woman going to say about her interest in partnered sex if the sex itself is uncomfortable, never mind how high her libido might otherwise be? Practical problems with sexual intercourse are likely to decrease expressed desire in both sexes, but only men currently have good medical solutions to some of them. Add that consideration to the greater probability that older heterosexual women either no longer have sexual partners or have partners too ill for sex and the essentialist explanation looks even less essential.

Finally, there's the question of getting honest answers about sex and the related question concerning gender differences in what the respondents might believe is expected from them. Women in the oldest cohort in the study may have been brought up in a world where a lady just did not talk about sex. And men are taught from adolescence that sexual prowess is the ultimate measure of their masculinity.

If you doubt the possibility of prevarication among these survey respondents, you need only look at the adding-up problem in surveys that inquire about the number of sexual partners a person has had. Typically, heterosexual men report more sexual partners than heterosexual women within the same community. Absent a few very busy women or frequent male trips outside the area, this result is incompatible with all survey respondents telling the truth.

All these are good reasons to slow down before we attribute the age-related findings of this study to nothing but eternal differences between the libidos of men and women.

The primary focus of the University of Chicago study is the positive correlation between good health and being sexually active; not which gender gets the better sex life. Who knows, with better health at older ages, the invention of a truly efficient female equivalent for Viagra, and the erosion of taboos against older women finding younger partners, all those who wish might one day be able to continue partnered sex until they, indeed, die with a smile on their lips.

J. Goodrich is an economist. Her writing has been published in The American Prospect, Ms. magazine and on various political Web sites. She blogs at Echidne of the Snakes.