Introduction

A Darwinian sees man as devoted to reproducing himself. The decline of fertility with age makes one question the purpose of sexuality in the senium. Is it simply the remains of a once useful behaviour, a vestigial characteristic, whose expression has no biological function, except possibly to hasten death in that coitus exposes the participants to predators? Primates use grooming as a means of bonding; the need to fondle, cuddle, and touch is demonstrated as much by the possession of pets by the single elderly, as by the petting of the elderly couple. Humans largely confine such grooming between adults to the sexual act, and this is its function in old age. It is the means by which a couple retain their mutual affection, which with a disability becomes more essential for their survival, for example the blind husband carrying the supplies for his arthritic wife.

Unfortunately most surveys concentrate on hard data like the frequency of coitus and information about other forms of intimacy are lost. Sexual activity is private, usually conducted within the confines of the home, and is now symbolized by psychological privacy—a dislike of betraying the secrets of the bedroom to the social scientist. For example, Solstad and Hertoft(l) found an incidence of erectile failure in 4 per cent of 51-year-olds assessed by questionnaire, but when 100 of this sample were interviewed they admitted much more dysfunction. On the questionnaire none admitted more than occasional impotence, whereas 7 per cent of the same group admitted this on interview.

Furthermore, attempts to relate changes to ageing are subject to the cohort effect. The sexual activity of those brought up in the 1920s is different from that of people whose childhood was during the Second World War and has nothing to do with age.

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