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The Real Sexual Life of Aging Americans

Senior Sex

by DAVID ROSEN

Seniors are engaging in more sexual activity, enjoying it more and sex is extending longer in life than previously estimated.

This is the principal finding of a much-heralded survey of the sexual life of American seniors, those 57- to 85-years-of-age, recently published in the New England Journal of Medicine. The study was directed by the University of Chicago’s National Social Life, Health and Aging Project and fielded through its National Opinion Research Center (NORC); it was funded by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services’ National Institute on Aging.

The study provides a revealing snapshot of the sexual state of America’s aging population. Seniors are a sizable and growing segment of the U.S. population. The Census Bureau estimates that in 2000 there were 31 million people 65- to 84-years (12.4% of the total population); it projects this cohort to increase to 47.3 million by 2020 (16.3%); and to more than double to 66 million by 2050 (20.7%). As the baby-boomers age, American sex life is begin transformed.

Today’s aging population is the ’60s-generation coming to maturity. As it ages, this generation is imbued with a different value system and a different sense of physicality than that of their parents’ generation. It extends its sexual values and appetites to what were once considered more unconventional or illicit, including deviant practices and pleasures. However, one would learn relatively little of this development from the Chicago study.

* * *

Dr. Stacy Tessler Lindau, an assistant professor of obstetrics, gynecology and of medicine-geriatrics at the University of Chicago, is the study’s lead author.

The survey is based on a nationally representative sample of 3005 adults, 1,550 women and 1,455 men. Most who participated in the study were married, but, among those 75- to 85-years, more than one-third (37%) of women had spouses compared to more than two-thirds (71%) of men. Among the sample, 10 percent were black and more than 6 percent were Hispanic.

In keeping with patriarchal conventions, more men than women felt that sex was important. The study found that only 13 percent of men but 35 percent of women said sex was "not at all important." However, it found that among those 57- to 64-years, almost three-fourths (73%) reported sexual activity; among those 65- to 74-years, sexual activity declined to nearly one-half (53%); and among people 75- to 85-years, it further declined to about one-quarter (26%). Sexual interest declines with age ­ but the age is no longer fixed with retirement.

Among those sexually active, about half of both men and women had at least one troubling sexual problem. Among men, the most prevalent sexual problem was erectile dysfunction (37%) and 14 percent reported using medication or supplements like Viagra to improve sexual function. Among women, these problems ranged from low desire (43%), difficulty with vaginal lubrication (39%) and inability to climax (34%). Much of this reported decline in female interest in sexual activity is attributed to menopause and the accompanying drop-off of estrogen that makes many women less interested in sex; one wonders why there is no female version of Viagra?

One of the study’s major limitations is that only sexually active seniors participated, suggesting that findings about sexual problems are likely to be underestimated. Nevertheless, as sexual activity among older adults extends later into life, a growing segment Americans over 50-years (15%) are reported to have newly diagnosed HIV infections. [NEJM, August 23, 2007, pp. 762-74]

(The study is also noteworthy because it tested how a host of physical functions, including sight, taste, hearing and smell, influenced peoples experience and enjoyment of sex.)

* * *

Ignorance is bliss, especially when it comes to sex. In the U.S., ignorance is a function of both not knowing and a manifestation of the nonstop onslaught of the distraction industry. Together, they conspire to confuse, deny and falsify the truth of most people’s sexual life.

What do we really know about our own sex life let alone that of anyone else? The apparent sex lives of celebrities are cannon fodder for the distraction industry, the ceaseless spectacle of entertainment, fashion and advertising. The media’s superficial voyeurism only serves to ensure that the critical questions are not addressed. And the legion of "sex-perts," from Dr. Ruth to Dan Savage and the countless wannabees who clutter the media, only add to the general confusion and ignorance.

The principal "scientific" source for data on the sex lives of Americans comes from large-scale research studies like those conducted by Chicago’s NORC and other groups. Questions about these studies involve both methodological limitations and ideological assumptions.

For example, criticism has been raised about the accuracy of the interviewee-selection process, the validity of what is reported and whether the findings are nationally projectable. As one critic, the Harvard biologist Richard Lewontin, observed about Chicago’s earlier National Health and Social Life Survey and published as "Social Organization of Sexuality, "What is billed as a study of ‘Sexual Practices in the U.S.,’ is, after all, a study of an indissoluble jumble of practices, attitudes, personal myths, and posturing." ["Sex, Lies, and Social Science," New York Review of Books, April 20, May 25 and June 8, 1995]

A deeper criticism concerns the questions asked. Over the last two decades, various U.S. agencies, the principal funders of most of the major studies, have been battlegrounds over political correctness. The Christian fundamentalist movement exerted considerable influence over research methodology, specifically the questions that were asked. Astutely, they concealed their political agenda behind a host of rationales, including personal privacy and fiduciary responsibility.

In 1989, when the AIDS epidemic was at its peak, Dr. Louis W. Sullivan, Bush-the-elder’s secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, insisted that he restricted the questions asked about sexual practice in order to insure that the government did not intrude into the most personal aspects of American’s lives.

Richard G. Darman, Bush’s director of the Office of Management and Budget, insisted that, under the requirements of the Paper Work Reduction Act, he had to restrict a pilot survey of 2,300 Americans to learn intimate details of their sexual lives: ”I have a great deal of difficulty understanding how many of the questions are related to essential public interests.”

In 1991, "Nature" magazine came out against the politicalization of sex research, both in the U.S. and in Britain under Thatcher: " a reluctance to learn about human sexuality in contemporary society and the circumstances that motivate people to engage in various forms of activity is just plain dangerous to public health." [Nature, 3 October 1991, vol. 353, p. 371.]

As the new century began, the conservative momentum intensified. In the summer of 2003, a group of conservative members of Congress pushed aggressively to limit sex studies. For example, they forced an audit of publicly funded sex studies, questioning the value of research derived from, for example, Asian prostitutes in San Francisco and everyday sexual risk-taking. They forced the National Institute of Mental Health to pull funding from Boston University’s Sexuality and Research Treatment Program, a program that had operated for twenty years. As congressman Jeff Flake (R-AZ) rationalized, "these particular [NIH] grants are simply not a wise use of taxpayer money."

Nevertheless, in the face of these methodological and ideological limitations, federally-financed studies provide a useful point-of-departure to begin to map-out the sex life of Americas. They establish the proverbial center of the mythic bell curve, thus defining what is normal, acceptable, conventional.

However, the proverbial center of the bell curse, the acceptable, says nothing about the boundaries of sex life nor how sex life, even the most conventional, changes over time. And without these additional dimensions to understand popular sex life, one can not fully understanding the significant changes now reshaping sexual culture, nor appreciate one’s place in this process.

* * *

The Chicago study’s principal author, Dr. Stacy Tessler Lindau, provided a fuller insight into the actual sexual practices of older Americans in a very informative interview in "The Washington Post."

She points out that the study found that older people are generally sexually conservative. Only a small minority had more than one partner and a few reported that they paid for sex. Men routinely engage in vaginal intercourse, oral sex and masturbation. Over 50 percent of women between the ages of 57- and 75-years of age masturbated. According to Lindau, the proportion of each gender reported giving and receiving oral sex "matched up perfectly." She adds, "This gives us pretty good reassurance that men and women are telling the same story."

Condom use appears to be uncommon among older adults. However, Dr. Lindau notes for men to use a condom properly, it requires a full erection.Unfortunately, she noted that "[m]any older men do not experience full erection until after intercourse has occurred."

"We know less about lesbian, gay, bisexual, transexual relationships in later years," she admits. "In our study, we report on the number of men and women who said they had a same sex partner in the prior 12 months. This should not be construed as a measure of homosexuality in the older population." Finally, the study did not survey participants’ use of fetishes or other more deviant sexual practices. [Washington Post, August 23, 2007]

* * *

A complementary, and more intriguing, insight into adult and senior erotic life is found in a 2004 AARP study, "Sexuality at Midlife & Beyond." The study focuses on AARP’s target audience, those 45-years and older, and is a followup of an earlier, 1999, study. The generational change in sexual attitudes is suggested by two indicators: an increase in reports of self-stimulation (up to 20% from 12%) and oral sex (up to 19% from 14%) over the intervening five-year period.

More insight in revealed in a series of findings concerning sexual activities and more kinkier sex that repondents have tried or would like to try. These are summerized as follows:

* Sex engaged in once a week during the past 6 months: intercourse (males at 41%, females at 31%), self-stimulation (males at 34%, females at 8%) and oral sex (males at 19%, females at 10%).

* More kinkier sex practices engaged in by those reporting: viewing porn (males at 33%, females at 24%), playing with sex toys (males at 21%, females at 18%), attending a strip club (males at 21%, females at 6%), engage in mild b&d (males at 6%, females at 4%), have had public sex (males at 15%, females at 8%) cross dressing (males at 3%, females at 1%) and engage in swinging (males at 2%, females at 1%).

* More interest in kinkier sex practices by those reporting: view porn (males at 43%, females at 26%), play with sex toys (males at 33%, females at 21%), attend a strip club (males at 19%, females at 8%), engage in mild b&d (males at 12%, females at 4%), have public sex (males at 15%, females at 5%), cross dress (males at 4%, females at 2%) and engage in swinging (males at 10%, females at 1%).

The AARP study is fundementally different from the recent Chicago study. The age cohorts are different, with the AARP sample being significantly wider, thus likely schewing the findings with the presence of a younger demographic. The sample population is different, with the AARP sample being members of an organization that is a political action group (PAC) combined with an insurance and marketing company, thus likely schewing the findings with the presence of a more self-conscious (activist, educated) demographic.

Nevertheless, because of the issues addressed (especially concerning more kinkier sex), the study is an invaluable insight into what normally is never assessed in more conventional reports.

* * *

The America population is aging. The outlines of nation’s future is suggested by what is taking place in Japan, with a growing elderly population and a shrinking youth cohort to support them. The Chicgo study reveals how, like a swelling sunami, the expanding adult demographic is beginning to redefine cultural life, particularly sexual life.

In commenting on the Chicago study, John Bancroft, MD, director emeritus of the Kinsey Institute, identified the underlying mindset that informs traditional American sexuality: "We live in a very phallocentric society in which men grow up to focus on their erections as being all-important." He added, "[h]ere is an important difference between men and women. What the penis is doing is much more central to the man’s sexual experience than the woman’s genitalia are to hers. She tends to focus on her feelings."[WebMed, August 30, 2007]

Aging Americans need not deny their sexuality. Betty Dodson, the legendary sexual pioneer, is now 78-years-old. She was recently profiled in a documentary, "Still Doing It: The Intimate Lives of Women Over 65," in which she admits, "Your body is not prime time." She goes on, insisting that "[o]lder people have every right to not have sex." Nevertheless, she reveals her courtship with a much younger man; he was 26, she was 73 years-old. As she reflects, "You have fewer orgasms, but they’re more appreciated and more enjoyed."

Former President Bill Clinton and Senator Larry Craig are part of the Chicago study’s age cohort. Their sexual experiences are revealing as to the underlying proclivities of certain men of this generation. How many of Clinton’s family, friends and associates were witness to his abusive relations with women (i.e., trysts) before his debacle in the Oval Office? How long did the friends, family and Senate colleagues know or suspect the apparent homoerotic proclivities of their associate?

Both are political men who probably felt compelled, driven, by powerful erotic desires that were beyond their control. Clinton and Craig express the underlying tension of today’s (male) sexual culture, the sexual proclivities of a generation still in the full power of life. As they age, as this power declines, this generation will ontinue to reflect society’s underlying sexual tension: on one side, the increasingly-enhanced desire engendered by a consumerist secular society and, on the other, the crushing Christian morality that imposes shame and guilt on those who live out their desires. Each generation struggles to resolve this contradiction in its own way.

DAVID ROSEN can be reached at drosen@ix.netcom.com.