Joan Price was a high school English teacher for 22 years. She was divorced and never had kids. It wasn’t until she was 57–decades after any Hollywood rom-com director would think it possible–that she met the 64-year-old man who would sweep her off her feet.
“It was instant lust and then turned into the great love affair of my life,” she recounts. “We eventually married. I lost him to cancer. But along the way, we were having such a glorious sex life that I didn’t understand why this was such a hush-hush topic.” Price saw a culture that wanted to grandmother her and books that were urging her to settle into her “golden years.” “They were all gloom and doom, ‘You’ve dried up, forget about it, and play bingo,'” she laughs. “I didn’t have grandchildren or play bingo, but I did have a great sex life.”
Fourteen years later, Price is the energetic face offering practical sex advice to seniors who don’t lose their libidos just because they’ve been on this earth a little bit longer than the rest of us. While research on senior sexuality lagged until the ’90s, we now have a pretty clear picture that stereotypes around sex and aging are wrong. A majority of seniors are sexually active into their 70s. A majority of that subset still have vaginal intercourse, while many masturbate and practice oral sex. A quarter of all people who are sexually active between ages 75 and 85 reported having sex at least once a week. And without the concern of getting pregnant, many opt not to use protection and so sexually transmitted infection (STI) rates can actually balloon later in life.
The erotic video site Pornhub confirms that people over 55 comprise 11% of its audience (people over 65 represent 4%)–which is in line with the demographic balance across the internet in general. People from 55 to 64 are 245% more likely to search for “mature amateur” and 167% more likely to search “hot granny,” illustrating that older people aren’t just having sex in real life; they desire their peers in fantasies.
And still, news headlines treat the proven-normal practice of senior sexuality as shocking, even laughable. “Our culture has this horror of old wrinkly people having sex at all,” Price says. “And having good sex? Who could be?”
But it’s exactly this phenomenon that’s created incredible opportunity for Price and others in the sex wellness industry to change things, as the aging population is becoming the majority of our population. “Here’s this huge demographic. We would rather buy from companies that didn’t see us as invisible,” says Price. “That saw us as not only active and present and visible but as desirable. Valuable.”
In response, Price publishes a blog and newsletter that answers reader questions and reviews vibrators, taking concerns like arthritis into account. She recently completed her fourth book–this one on sex when grieving the loss of a loved one. And she has just filmed an explicit educational video, helping teach seniors how to have sex as they age.
As she points out, aging does change sex and for all sorts of reasons. Many issues are biological. Women in particular can face a loss of desire. They also have more trouble lubricating, and their vaginal walls may tighten, making penetration difficult. Men will most often have problems getting or maintaining erections. And then, of course, there are the tolls of aging on our bodies for everyone that can interfere with sex–the loss of strength and flexibility, chronic conditions, and surgeries can make the logistics of sex difficult or even impossible.
The even trickier problems can be about the social dynamics that change as you age. Price, who gets more emails every day than she can possibly respond to, answers questions like: What happens to your sex life when your partner gets Alzheimer’s–is it possible to desire them? Is it okay to desire them? What do you do when the partner in your life has passed and you are left with sexual desire–a combination of guilt and game that’s decades out of practice? “I get a lot of questions about dating,” says Price. “‘I’m widowed, haven’t had sex in 30 years. What do I expect when I’m dating?'”
But in Price’s mind, none of this should thwart a healthy sex life–and it doesn’t have to, so long we can all unlearn some of what society has taught us. “I’m honored really to be doing it because it’s helping so many people, but I’m also a little anger that this has to be so difficult for people as they age–to continue seeing ourselves as sexual beings–because our culture does not see us that way,” says Price.
Price’s core, practical teaching, if she has one, is to urge people to draw no distinction between penetrative and non-penetrative sex. Because while many seniors can continue having traditional intercourse, others can’t, and they should just learn to work around that hurdle. She is quick to point out that sex toys–while often imagined for the young and kinky–are actually useful tools for overcoming the practical challenges of sex and aging. But in a marketing world that champions the 18-24 demographic and the promise of eternal youth, they aren’t always marketed that way.
Case in point: A sex toy brand called Hot Octopuss developed a vibrator for men that can wrap around a penis, even when flaccid. Its hands-free stimulation can actually give some men orgasms without erections. At the same time, its outer shell can vibrate for a partner, allowing a couple to grind to climax together. This sort of tool is right in Price’s wheelhouse–just the sort of thing she would want to promote to her readers–because it enables sex without intercourse.
“When I first saw their website, it was very stark white on black, lots of photos of young people with tattoos. I said to them, ‘Your product is perfect for my age group. Instead of young people with tattoos, put some older people on there,'” says Price. “The next time I looked, here are some old people with tattoos. Now the website is full of old people!”
Joan’s story might sound like an exaggeration, but it’s not. Today, Hot Octopuss walks a fine line of branding, showing the gradient of sexuality across age groups, and that’s because the company took some unpaid, unsolicited criticism to heart. “She gave us her views, that if we wanted to be inclusive, we need to think about how we looked to someone who is more mature,” says Julia Margo, cofounder of Hot Octopuss. “Since, we’ve used more inclusive imagery. That’s what we’re trying to do as a company. It’s very difficult to find imagery of older people who’ve been photographed to look sexy and sexual, so it’s actually much harder than it should be. But we make a special effort to make sure we do.”
Hot Octopuss has gone so far as to include aging in its FAQs. And it’s all paid off in a meaningful way to their bottom line. Today, half of the company’s customer base is over 45 years old. They receive frequent testimonials from older couples who report how a few battery-operated devices have enabled a satisfying sex life when all else failed. “When you hear things like that, you obviously want to keep feeding that demand, because there’s a massive demand,” says Margo. “As a business, you want to make money, but you want to serve a purpose.”
Demystifying senior sex
Now, Price has made the leap from writing about sex to making videos about it. Five years ago, Price met Jessica Drake–an adult film star who became a certified sex educator–at a sex education conference. Since the ’90s, Drake has been under contract with a company called Wicked Pictures, which produces big budget adult films aimed at couples. Around 2010, long before she met price, Drake pitched herself, not as a performer, but as a writer and director for a new series that would teach people about sex.
“She was about 70, and I wasn’t 40 yet. Something in Joan really resonated with me. I took to her immediately,” recounts Drake. They grabbed a meal together. And in the relatively small world of sex education trade shows and speaking events, they bumped into each other again and again.
“I thought to myself, I want to do something with her, but I don’t know what that’s going to be,” says Drake. Around the same time, Drake was touring sex shops across the United States to offer advice and promote products. Sex shop operators often serve as the sex educators of their communities, answering all sorts of questions from customers on a daily basis. “I ask them what topics they’d like to see in the future. Something that had been really coming up was sex and aging,” Drake says. “They were phrasing it in all different ways. I was getting things like, ‘Why don’t you address sex and menopause?’ or ‘[what happens] when couples are together a long time and don’t want to do it anymore?'”
Two years ago, at another conference, Drake and Price discussed making a Wicked Sex guide to sex and aging. “Initially she expressed some reluctance . . . because while my series are educational, make no mistake, they demonstrate hard-core sex. Joan was afraid her fan base would be scared to have explicit content in their product,” says Drake. So Price polled some of her users on the idea. She got positive feedback. She then cowrote, codirected, and narrated a guide to sex for couples over 60 in Los Angeles last April.
Casting the film was a story unto itself. It was so hard to find participants that talent was flown in from all over the United States rather than pulled from the L.A. area (as is the case with most adult film shoots). The four stars–who are not models or actors but everyday people–were all first timers on camera. They demonstrate positions that are less likely to exacerbate injuries, toy use, and communication. They even give their own testimonials of how sex has changed over the course of their lives.
“I think doing this project helps to combat what we are fed by society about ageism, when we’re made to feel like sex has an expiration date, or casual sex is not something older people do,” says Drake. “My goal for making this movie was to give people who are older permission to claim their sexuality.”
The unique emotional circumstances of sex and older age
As the video guide is being edited, Price awaits the release of her fourth book this August, about sex and grieving, or navigating sexuality after losing someone you loved. While it’s not her most explicit book, it may be Price’s most personal, digging deep into the emotional pains of losing lifelong partners, only to be left with a desire for intimacy.
“It might seem like a narrow niche, but it’s so important. When people are grieving a loss of a partner, they don’t know what to do with their sexual feelings . . . is it okay to have them?” says Price. “People will tell you how you should act because it’s too soon or not soon enough. They’ll say wait, ‘How can you betray your deceased spouse by dating someone else,’ but on the other hand, ‘Isn’t it time you stepped out already?’ It’s very destructive behavior from well-meaning loved ones.” But of course, it’s no one’s business but your own.
The topic of loss is one Price has tackled for a long time–at least since her book Naked at Our Age was published in 2011. Sometimes partners die; other times, their memory and personalities alter with conditions like Alzheimer’s Disease. People with Alzheimer’s can lose their sex drive, or in rare cases they become hypersexual, talking about and desiring sex constantly. Meanwhile, their partners may still desire them–and act on their desires. Or they might feel too much like a caregiver to feel romantic anymore. In any case, as someone loses their mental faculties, the option for sexual consent may disappear, at which time experts recommend you find nonsexual ways of exploring intimacy. And while some may frown upon the idea, the Alzheimer’s Association gives permission for people to date again, if it feels right, when their partners are afflicted with the disease.
Which is to say, societally, we’re still quite ignorant about what the social norms of aging and sexuality should be, because even a few decades in, we’re still overcoming our dated notions of sex and aging as a society. “I don’t know what type of sex life my grandparents had because who’d ask them. Who knows? We don’t have any comparative studies on sexuality from 1800 to 1900, versus 2000,” says Price. “I have people in my family who have never read any of my books. There’s nothing I’m doing that is creepy in any way. I’m just bringing this out in the open.”