Throughout all stages of adult life in the U.S., single women outnumber single men. And as women age, that puts them at a disadvantage if they are interested in establishing an intimate relationship with men in their 50s, 60s, and beyond.
But the key word here is “if.” Emerging research is providing some surprising insights about how women in those age groups feel about sex, dating, and long-term relationships.
The importance of sexual attraction
When it comes to views about sex, a 2015 study published in the journal Psychology of Aging provides an interesting perspective. Data were analyzed from nearly 6,000 people who used the online dating site e-Harmony to determine the amount of importance users placed on sexual attraction. The study examined both gender and age differences.
Those ages 40 to 59 were classified as middle-aged; those who were older were separated into two groups: ages 60 to 74 and 75 and up.
People in the older age categories and in the upper range of the middle-aged group all rated sexual attraction as slightly less important than younger users did, but still highly valued it as a goal. “Contrary to the stereotype, older adults still value sexual attraction quite highly,” the study concluded.
When looking specifically at gender, though, the researchers found that men in all age groups valued sexual attraction more than women did, while women in all age groups ranked characteristics like personality and kindness much higher than sexual attraction.
Aging not a factor in sexuality
But that doesn’t mean women age 50 and up don’t have much of a sex life. In fact, a 2016 study titled “Older Women in New Romantic Relationships: Understanding the Meaning and Importance of Sex in Later Life” found that none of the participants (who ranged in age from 64 to 77) felt that aging had negatively affected their own sexuality.
Some of the women who’d had unfulfilling sex lives in their earlier relationships said they had given up on having sex until their most recent dating partner or husband came along and reignited sexual passion. For others sex in their new relationships was satisfying, but was not as important to them as it was when they were younger.
As one study participant who had remarried expressed it, sex was “the icing on the cake. But I like cake without icing, you know?”
Who’s marriage shy?
It’s also a misconception to assume that women 50 and up who are widows, divorcees, or are otherwise single have their sights set on remarrying, forming a long-term relationship, or even just dating again.
“At this stage in life, especially for women who have been a caregiver for a deceased spouse, independence is very important,” says Wendy Watson, co-author of a 2011 study, “Dating for Older Women: Experiences and Meanings of Dating in Later Life,”. Her research found that women often are the ones who are marriage shy.
Other studies specifically investigating dating in later life also have found that previously married women enjoy the company of men, but do not desire remarriage, she says. The women often view dating as a step toward losing their independence because men want marriage.
In structured in-depth interviews that Watson conducted for the study with 14 single women in their 60s and 70s, those who still remained open to dating had a different attitude about it than they’d had when they were younger.
One woman explained that she likes having a dating companion with whom she can do things she enjoys, but she “doesn’t need a man to be happy” and would consider a long-term relationship, but “definitely not" marriage.
“Dating was seen as an enhancement to life,” the authors noted. “If it happens that would be nice; if it does not, life is nice as it already is."
Andrea Rock is freelance journalist who specializes in health topics. Her work has earned her the American Academy of Family Physicians Award for Outstanding Journalistic Achievement In Reporting and Writing on Family Medicine and Health Care, the National Magazine Award for Journalism in the Public Interest, and the Society of Professional Journalists Award for Investigative Reporting. She was a senior writer and editor for Consumer Reports for more than a decade, and is the author of The Mind at Night: The New Science of How and Why We Dream. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Money, SELF, O Magazine, and Ladies’ Home Journal.