Is sex necessary? It’s a question that has puzzled scientists for generations. After all, if sponges, for instance, can asexually reproduce with enough variability to drive evolutionary adaptation, the hype about mammalian genitalia feels overblown. There’s no clear answer to why sex happened, but the question of its necessity is rapidly being resolved by science. Conception outside of coitus is common at this point and humans are distancing themselves even further from the reproductive process. In early May, biologists publishing in Nature explained how they kept human embryos alive in a petri dish for almost 14 days, proving that human life can mature outside of the mother’s womb. So-called “ex situ” pregnancy is just the unlinking of the sex-pregnancy-baby chain. It points to the decoupled future of couples. It points to our species’ sexual endgame: behaving like the elderly.
The elderly have been engaged in post-reproductive sex for some time and their age does not preclude the types of behavior we might more readily associate with younger people. As the Netflix series Grace and Frankie documents, couples break up, randy singles get after it, and sexual preferences change. What the show and its aging-yet-active characters tells us is this: Sex is, for most people, an important part of a physically and psychologically fulfilling life. It’s a lifestyle factor.
The biological underpinnings of the benefits of post-reproductive sex have been documented by Ken Robbins, a clinical professor of geriatric psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “Social connections and human touch help ward off the depression and loneliness that old age and institutional living can bring,” he recently told the AARP.
Echoing this idea, experts in geriatric sexual health, publishing in the journal Perspectives in Biology and Medicine in 2005, proposed that physicians treat health and sex as closely entwined ideas, especially in older communities. Senior sex, they wrote, “enhances the beneficial effects and minimizes the detrimental effects of aging on the health of both individuals in the relationship, and also acts as a buffer against chronic illness, physical disability, medication use, cognitive decline, depression, and social isolation at older ages.”
The authors also pointed out the socioeconomic perks to being a salacious senior: Older individuals in a sexual relationship tend to think of their health as something that’s shared between two (or more) people, the authors write; so, if one partner has the “resources” to stay healthy, they’ll share in order to help the other stay healthy as well. Put the opposite way, they suggested that seniors whose partners are chronically ill will have worse sex lives — and therefore overall health — than their less active peers. The findings of a large survey carried out by the National Institute on Aging echoed this idea, showing that healthy older adults were much more likely to report being sexually active.
If senior citizens’ sex lives are a window into the future of sex, we’ve got a lot of ugly-bumping to look forward to in the post-pregnancy era.
While pop culture may not glamorize elderly sex, eldercare professionals work in sexually eventful environments: A 2014 study sponsored by the CDC found that more than half of men and 40 percent of women over the age of 60 are still sexually active, and in 2007, a survey of over 3,000 Americans found that a third of sexually active seniors between 75 and 85 gave or received oral sex. Retirees are even more randy across the pond: The British Longitudinal Study of Aging, a survey of 7,000 Brits, found that over 31% of British men between 80 and 90 still masturbate and have sex.
Those activities, one might point out, may be the future of sex, but they are also its present. And that’s true enough. The reality is that post-reproductive sex isn’t something that will arrive one day when a metal uterus hits the market. It’s more of a movement, one that has gained significant ground since the pill was popularized around the middle of the last century. The tipping point, it can be argued, it not the end of natural conception but the end of natural conception as the key element of sexual decision making. At some point — and this point has certainly been reached in some communities — STDs will be more of a limiting factor than concerns about conception. Currently, STD rates among the elderly are climbing rapidly as surveys indicate that fogies often do less to protect themselves than their sexually inexperienced grandkids. In a sense, old people behave as though there is no limiting factor at all.
What do we learn from that? That people want to do what they want to do. As medical technology and straight-up medication mitigates risks, orgies aren’t going to break out in the street. The social norms of each generation will dictate each generation’s sexual behavior. Until aging itself is halted, there can’t be a future of sex shared by all.
The end of the birth control revolution means we’ll no longer be slaves to the cumbersome machinations of the human body, but it doesn’t mean sex will be less significant. When we cease wanting, we have a tendency to cease breathing as well.