Joel Kann, 70, knew he was aging when other grey-haired men started offering him their seats on the bus. Bonnie Nilsen, 71, knew it when she looked in the mirror one day and saw her mother. Still, neither of them ever felt old—like they’d gone through some major shift in their physical, mental, or sexual selves. But both say they've had people look at them, or hear their ages, and clearly instantly mentally write them off as desexualized beings.
That is not surprising given the fact that, for well over a century, American culture has embraced and perpetuated the idea that, as we age, our sexualities naturally wither away. As such, we rarely depict older people as sexual. When we do, it’s usually as a joke. The image of the sexless elder is so widespread that even medical professionals often omit older people in studies on sexuality and neglect to talk about sexual health during check ups. (Is it any wonder why STI rates among older adults are so high?) Perhaps the only time most people think about the intersection of sex and old age is viagra commercials—or when we hear reports about the (sadly common) phenomenon of elder caregiver and nursing home sexual abuse. And that is far from an affirming recognition of senior citizens’ sexual lives and selves.
As people age, their bodies usually do change in ways that affect sex. Those with penises tend to lose sensitivity. Their erections often get less firm and frequent and may take more stimulation to achieve or maintain, and their ejaculations are often weaker. Those with vaginas may take longer to get aroused and produce less natural lubrication, which can make sex less comfortable. Across the board, libidos tend to decrease and orgasms may feel less intense.
Non-sexual health conditions from arthritis to depression to heart disease can compound these issues, or lead to chronic pain, fatigue, or other symptoms that make sex difficult to have. Treatments for these conditions can likewise have side effects that take a toll on sex drive or capacity. On top of all of that, changes in skin appearance, muscle tone, and weight that often accompany aging can lead to body image issues that put a crimp in many people’s sexual confidence.
A few studies suggest that people aged 60 to 82 tend to engage in physical intimacy less often than their younger peers. Yet several studies also suggest that many older adults still have and value sex—some more than they did as middle-aged adults. Most sexually active seniors say the sex they’re having is as good as, if not better than, the sex they had earlier in life. (People often report they have more confidence and fewer distractions in life in general, freeing them up to truly focus on and enjoy sex.) Many older adults believe a vibrant sex life is important to their overall wellbeing. Quite a few also wish they could have more sex, and note that their sex lives are often limited not by health issues, but because they lack a partner.
In an effort to push back on the desexualization of older people, VICE recently spoke to Bonnie and Joel, who have been having sex with each other on and off since college and became a couple eight years ago, about how they navigate sex and sexuality in their 70s. Bonnie and Joel are the first to admit that they may not be typical seniors. The polyamorous and sexually adventurous couple recently had sex on camera for porn performer and producer jessica drake and sex educator Joan Price’s Guide to Wicked Sex: Senior Sex educational adult video. Yet for all that is unique about their story, it still touches on many experiences that will resonate with older adults of all stripes.
Bonnie: [When we first had sex in college,] we had this immediate connection—I don’t know what happened there. Part of it was sexual but there was something else going on there.
We actually only had sex twice [in college]: the one time at my apartment and the one time at your apartment when your wife was away. Our sex was the typical 20-year-olds looking at each other and ripping off each other’s clothes and falling off the bed [type of sex].
We stayed in touch on and off through the early 70s, but then lost track of each other.
Bonnie: In 2008 I put a couple of websites up about myself. I am a self-taught web developer. I guess he found me. [That fall I was 60 and] I went to the east coast for my father’s funeral and stayed at my brother’s house in New Jersey for a few weeks as we sorted through my parents’ house. And I invited Joel to come up. It was just immediate—I looked at him and said, “oh my god…”
Joel: I was living in North Carolina and she said, “do you want to come up and meet?” I thought really meet—go out for coffee. I showed up and she was standing outside with her overnight bag.
Bonnie: We’d already talked about getting a hotel room!
Joel: No, I don’t think so! And she jumped into my car with her bag and said, “Let’s go!”
Bonnie: We had one night together.
Joel: That was the first time that I had sex with you and you squirted. I’d never been with a women who squirted before. I was like, whoa, what’s this? I don’t know what it is, but it feels good.
Bonnie: Because Joel was still married, he backed off. He didn’t want to hurt his wife—totally understandable. He was, I think, kind of shocked that we had connected again. So for the next couple of years we stayed in touch on Facebook, writing emails to each other. Then in 2011, I was getting on with my life up in British Columbia and got a message from Joel saying, “Hey, would you be interested in going to a medical conference with me in Victoria, on Vancouver Island?”
Joel: I’d realized there was something there. I really liked her. My marriage was pretty much over. It was not an angry, terrible marriage. It had just died. I hadn’t had sex with my wife in almost 10 years. So I looked for a conference near her and Victoria was a close one. I said, let me see if she’ll come. We met up there and spent five days [together].
Bonnie: Which was amazing. We both fell in love again.
Joel: We met at the airport, went to the hotel lounge, said some nice things, then said, “okay, up to the room.” A soon as the door closed, clothes started coming off. We fucked over a chair by a window overlooking the parking lot and imagined that other people were looking at us.
We fucked twice that night, [then] once or twice a day [thereafter]. Bonnie started taking out lingerie and sex toys and rope and I said, “this is going to be interesting!” I ended up tying you to the rafters in the hotel room. [I was in my early 60s and] it was, I think, the first time I had anal sex in my life.
We both cried when we had to separate because we hadn’t really made any plans other than that. It was like: What are we going to do? This feels so good. We’re in love. Now I have to go back and decide if I’m going to leave my wife for you. And I eventually did. Then Bonnie eventually moved [to Raleigh, North Carolina] to be with me.
Bonnie: When we got back together [in 2008], our sex drive was good and the sex felt amazing. It still is. But it has changed.
I have had fibromyalgia for over 20 years and that hits you. You’re going through life in your 40s and suddenly [you feel like] you’re in your 80s. Everything hurts. If you turn or move too quickly, you’ll strain a joint. It can put me in bed for a day. But then get up the next day like, okay, here we go again.
Joel: As I’ve gotten older, I have joints that ache a bit more. I tend to ignore that. But certainly, I can’t perform on the same level as I did when I was younger. I’m not quite as acrobatic as I was.
And when you’re young, you can get several erections in a day, no problem. But as you get older, that gets to one a day, sometimes once every couple of days. If the stimulus is good, I can get them a couple times a day. But to ejaculate a couple times a day is rare. Sometimes [my erections] are a little soft, particularly if I’m using a condom or with new partners or having sex in public.
I’ve used Cialis and Viagra with new partners. But when Bonnie and I are together, I don’t have real problems [with erections]. Usually they are spontaneous, or [develop] with a little bit of stimulation.
I will [sometimes] have an orgasm and no or little ejaculate will come out. [It's called] retrograde ejaculation because of swelling in the prostate—the ejaculate goes into the bladder instead of out through the urethra. Then it slowly comes out the next couple of times you urinate. The first couple of times it happened, it was like, wow, what’s that?
Bonnie: My sexual desire is definitely lower than it was [as well]. I could have sex one time a week. But we usually wind up having sex two to three times a week. That’s usually because Joel approaches me. And that’s fine. I’m not being forced into it. I’m more like, oh, okay, this is fun.
Joel: Eight years ago, we were having sex every day, sometimes a couple of times a day. Even now that her libido has dropped a bit, Bonnie is still more sexual than any woman I’ve ever [been with], at any age.
Bonnie: I’ve been thinking lately that I hardly ever masturbate. I used to masturbate almost every day. If I reminded myself to masturbate more, it would probably get my sex drive up again.
Joel: I also enjoy when she masturbates, whether I’m there or not. Just hearing about it is a turn on.
Things are different. Sometimes it takes more planning to have sex. It’s not always spontaneous.
Bonnie: The biggest thing between us is that we communicate well and have a sense of each other.
Joel: She told me about her fibromyalgia and how when [an attack] hits you, you wouldn’t be sure whether you’d want me to touch you for a day—whether you’d want me to hold you or stay away. We talked about that a lot—how that doesn’t mean you’re rejecting me. She warned me when we got back together: “You’re starting a relationship with someone with chronic pain. Are you sure you know what you’re getting into?” As a physician, I’d dealt with people with chronic pain and chronic fatigue, but not personally—not on this level. So it was learning what to do, what works, what doesn’t work, and communicating a lot: “What position are you comfortable in? How are you feeling now compared to the last time we had sex? What are you up for? What are you not up for?”
Bonnie: For me, it’s been learning to say. “no, I’m not into it right now.” If Joel wants to have sex, I’d love to. But my body sometimes [doesn’t].
Joel: Or [she’ll say], “I need to be on my side.” Or, “I don’t know if I can be on top for long.”
I had to learn how to feel comfortable being the one who more often than not initiates sex, but [also to] not be afraid when she can’t or doesn’t want to [have sex]—to not take that personally. It helps that she has such a great libido and is so adventurous. It wasn’t like I wasn’t getting any sex.
Bonnie: We’ve basically tried everything. And we still do. Just a lot less [often than we used to]. We just recently went to a Halloween party in Durham. It was a BDSM party.
Joel: I tied her to a cross and flogged her in front of a bunch of people. And we were into swinging for a while. Then we got into polyamory—this fits us better, getting to know someone and bringing them into our lives rather than just a quick hookup and then never seeing people together again.
Bonnie: [I don’t have many sexual relationships with other people these days.] With fibromyalgia, it’s like: Here’s somebody else who’s going to have to learn what to do with my body. I don’t really want to get into that. But I’m fine with Joel having other partners.
Joel: My sex life is better than at any other time, even during the "free love" era of the 60s and 70s.
Bonnie: When you were hitchhiking and fucking everybody you met on the road.
Joel: [One thing we want to say to other older people is:] Don’t let preconceived notions define you. You don’t have to act a certain way just because you’re getting older. There are things that change. Try to understand, physiologically, what’s going on and how you can adapt to that.
If you can’t get an erection, there are many ways to please your partner. With your hands. With your mouth. You don’t have to concentrate on penis-in-vagina sex to have a good sex life.
Bonnie: People like us are out here saying, “you can still have a great sex life in spite of changes.”
Joel: In spite of aches and pains.
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