Few stereotypes of gay life are as persistent as that of the sexually starved older man. Gay life has traditionally centered on the young and the beautiful. This issue is a particularly hot one for gay men because regardless of age, they have a strong interest in sex. In the memorable phrase of one writer, “Sexuality isn’t what we do; it’s who we are.”
To investigate the reality behind the stereotype I reviewed 19 books published between 1996 and 2014, all of which deal in whole and in part with sexuality in gay men 50 years of age or older. While such men have significant problems, the consensus is that most are at least as happy in their sexual life as age peers who are straight. Four themes emerged in my review.
More than half of gay men over 50 at times complain of loneliness. For some the emotional landscape is so bleak that their attitude is “wistful yearning,” in the words of one writer. Some have given up completely, prey to the overwhelming sadness of too many emotional losses, too many occasions of grief.
For straight men, the best bulwark against loneliness is marriage. Compared to them, many more gays (an estimated 40–60 percent) are single. The option for gay men to marry is new, and far from universal. Will this enhance the chances that life will be more satisfying in the sexual area life? With too little data, it’s too early to tell.
More than a third of gay men over 50 have been in heterosexual marriages, and a few remain married. However, It’s unlikely that such relationships satisfy many gay spouses.
A surprising number of gay men have children. Exact percentages are not available, but the current estimate is from 35 to 60 percent. Individual experiences vary, of course, but many gay men have good relationships with their children and, in turn, with their grandchildren. Relationships with the younger generations can be deeply rewarding.
While most gay men are unmarried, they usually live in a network of other relationships, which form a stable social structure. Many have a “chosen” family rather a biological one. This is necessary particularly for men rejected by or estranged from their family of origin. Chosen family members are those to whom the gay person feels emotionally close. These friendships count. Building families connected with love “effectively counteracts the alienation of homophobia,” in one writer’s eloquent phrase. Investing in such families counteracts loneliness, and it replaces grief with a fresh sense of human possibilities.
The characteristic gay sense of humor is another bulwark against loneliness and chronic grief. Sometimes cutting, sometimes anarchic, gay humor at its best is life-enhancing. Part of what makes life in chosen families zestful is the sparkle of gay humor.
In our culture the stigma against growing older is “ageism.” This stigma is pronounced in the gay community, given its emphasis on youth and physical beauty .For men who bought into the conventional standards of gay attractiveness, aging can be terrifying.
It need not be dreary. Compared with younger counterparts, older gay guys worry less about being known, identified or exposed as homosexual. Many men have an increased sense of stability. They have “crisis competence,” the strength that comes with having met and mastered substantial life problems such as the AIDS epidemic. They have come through the firestorm with a richer and more supportive sense of community. They’ve become caretakers and being in that role has enriched their lives. They marshal the strengths they used to fight the stigma about their sexuality to overcome the stigma attached to aging. The most successful mature gay men are resilient: they rebound after setbacks, they keep going, and they stay optimistic.
Furthermore, “old” isn’t what it used to be. Because of better diet, more exercise, and more effective medical treatments, we all have about a decade more of vibrant life than did our predecessors. Even the biological model of aging is shifting. The prior conceptual model was that our brain function is at its best in the teenage years but then goes relentlessly downhill into senescence. The new model acknowledges that some brain functions, such as immediate and short-term memory, do decline. Others, such as the capacity for complex cognitive processing, rise steadily through life until well into the sixties and beyond.
Gay men, like increasing numbers of persons in the general population, are shifting their views of aging towards seeing it as potentially full and rich. They don’t deny the reality of old age and of death, but this new attitude allows many mature men to have a zestful sexual life. There are too many obviously vital elders to support the stereotype of inevitable decline.
The prominent health issue that never leaves gay men is the specter of HIV. At least in the sexual practices of older men, age unfortunately is not bringing wisdom. Men over 50 remain as vulnerable to contracting STDIs and HIV infection as any in the cohort of gay men.
In addition to concerns about HIV, gay men are subject to the ills the flesh is heir to: heart disease, cancer, arthritis and other diseases. An estimated 33 to 45 percent of gay men have a chronic illness or disability. Even these are less onerous than before, given medical advances and slowly increased access to care.
Particularly important to gay men are problems with sexual function as they age. Erections don’t happen so often or so readily, and they may be less full. The refractory period between orgasms is longer. In one study almost 40% of gay men over 50 acknowledged sexual difficulties in a typical year, with two–thirds of the problems stemming from biological causes.
Medications of many sorts, including antihypertensives and antidepressants, decrease libido and genital function. Chronic medical illness can take the sizzle out of sex life. So do the sexual side effects of some surgeries, notoriously those after prostatectomy for cancer.
Mature gay men refuse to let these changes and difficulties deter them. Problems with “the plumbing” are no longer insuperable. They’re well aware that many other men their age have the same problems. The availability of medications for erectile dysfunction, Viagra and others, has made it possible for many men to have fuller and happier sexual lives.
Older gay men have the same desire for physical and emotional intimacy as do younger ones. As they age, however, they may be able to step off what one writer described as “the unconscious, relentless, mechanical treadmill of desire.”
They’re still active sexually. The pattern of sexual activity a man had in his youth tends to persist as he ages. In several surveys, as many as three quarters of gay men report being happy with their sexual life. In some studies over half of these men reported having sex at least once a week with a partner and this is in addition to the masturbating that most men also do.
They know more about what turns them on and are less self-conscious about asking for it. Having more free time, less stressful work lives, and more self-acceptance contribute to an enhanced sense of sexual possibilities.
The highly valued sexual experience tends to shift from the drive directly to orgasm to a fuller erotic life. Affection, cuddling and emotional closeness are increasingly important. Instead of a quick orgasm, gay men in this age group reach for what one author calls, “compassion, creativity, and patience” in their sexual life.
Some gay men are finding that their sex life is better than ever. In some ways, no one is more surprised about this phenomenon than they are. Much younger men are attracted to them in the Daddy/Son dynamic. This well–known arrangement between a much older man and a much younger one can serve many functions. Sometimes these are pathologic, such as the exploitation of one by the other for sexual gratification or economic gain. Many men, however, find these relationships productive; the older man mentors the younger, the younger’s attentions enliven the life of the older, and both enjoy the sexual dynamics.
The range of sexual options for older gay men has dramatically increased. Formerly restricted to cruising on the street, picking up men in bars, and having anonymous sex in bathhouses, gay men are now exploring the Internet. Through sites such as SilverDaddies and many others, men can set up sexual encounters not just nearby but also in other locales, including foreign countries. Although the assumption is that encounters through these sites are for “quick and dirty” sex, users can indicate on their profiles that they are interested in a long-term relationship. Sometimes such relationships evolve from this unlikely source.
Taken together, my review of trends in gay men over 50 shows that they want sex and value it highly. Many have full and satisfying sexual lives. They are healthier and living longer, often more resilient for having met formidable life challenges in their youth. Men who are in relationships do better than those who are socially isolated. The pattern of gratification tends to shift from explicit genital contacts to other, more generalized erotic practices such as holding and cuddling. The possibilities for sexual connection are broadening, including new options such as the Internet. Older gay men who take a forward-looking, optimistic approach to life in general are more likely to have a satisfying sexual life.
Brian B. Doyle, MD, CM, is a Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Family and Community Medicine at Georgetown University School of Medicine. As a gay man he is interested in helping other gay men thrive.. Brian’s website is briandoyle.onar.cc. He intends to expand his therapeutic reach by interviewing gay men who are doing well in their lives, sexually and otherwise. If readers are interested, for interviews or other contacts, you can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Brian maintains a private solo practice with special interests in anxiety and affective disorders and in adult ADHD. He has authored Understanding and Treating Adults with ADHD, published by APPI Press.