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Dr. Pepper Schwartz has advice about sexual performance for people 50+

Dr. Pepper Schwartz has advice about sexual performance for people 50+
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Popular sexologist Pepper Schwartz is professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Washington, and she’s the longtime resident psychologist for reality TV hit Married at First Sight, where she picked up her fizzy professional nickname, Dr. Pepper.

At 77, Schwartz has been in the business of sex for about half a century. She’s the author or co-author of 25 books on the subjects of love, sexuality and commitment, two of which are New York Times bestsellers, and was the longtime sex columnist for AARP Magazine. Schwartz has spent thousands of hours interviewing LGBTQ+ subjects for her work, and counts sexuality among older adults as one of her specialties.

She also loves sex.

According to Dr. Pepper lore, the married and twice-divorced Schwartz once made it with a hotel bellhop in the ruins of the Parthenon. She also likes chocolate in bed.

Schwartz’s latest book, Relationship Rx: Prescriptions for Lasting Love and Deeper Connection, written with Dr. Jessica Griffin, is out in February, just in time for Valentine’s Day.

In a wide-ranging interview about sexuality in older LGBTQ+ adults, Dr. Pepper was funny, insightful, and full of laughter. In the second of two parts of our interview, we talked about sexual performance in people over 50, and how changing your game in bed can bring contentment and connection.

What are some of the challenges that sexually active older people face?

Well, there are some real ones. You know, for example, the longer you live, the more likely you are to be battling some fairly serious medical problem, whether it’s heart or kidneys, or a bad back, or bad knees. All of those just increase percentage-wise as we age. We’re gonna die of something. And so, those things start to happen more. And then the drugs you need to control them. Heart medicine. Diabetes medicine. Those things really make erections much more difficult. And you know, anything that has antihistamines — a woman’s endocrine system is going to stop helping them lubricate easily after menopause. And then everybody, if they’re taking an antidepressant, and Lord, sometimes I think the whole country’s 50% depressed. I once gave a lecture and asked them how many were on anti-depressants and I think it was almost half the room. I mean, it was huge. I was like, “Oh, my God.”

How do antidepressants affect sexual performance?

Those dampen the ability to have an orgasm or sometimes sexual feeling or ability. They dampen those desires, but so does depression. You know, if we go up or down the list, can anybody have sex and enjoy it over 60 or so? But, they do. People’s sexuality is a gift, I think, and most people want to retain whatever they can of it and so they will, you know, try and work hard to get past the limits that age or illness puts on them. Or they’ll have different kinds of sexuality. Maybe all of it won’t be penetrative. Maybe all of it won’t be orgasm-focused, but it will feel good and it’ll make them feel connected to themselves as well as their partner.

What are some of the solutions to those challenges?

Well, I think the important thing is, first of all, to find a doctor who knows sexual medicine and gives a damn about whether or not you’re sexually functional. One of the things they can do is calibrate the dose of your set of antidepressants and there are some antidepressants that not only don’t seem to stop sexual arousal but, in fact, can increase it. Wellbutrin is an anti-anxiety drug and not everybody can tolerate it, but, I’ve certainly heard people refer to it as something that increased their sexual desire as opposed to decreasing it. And so they need to know these huge classes and choices that within these drugs, maybe one calibration stops your sexual interest, the other calibration doesn’t. But you need somebody who knows what they’re doing because they’re very powerful.

Are doctors in general concerned with a patient’s sexual health and comfortable talking about it?

Doctors who care, a lot of doctors — and you can’t blame them when it’s heart medications or cancer medications — they just want to save your life and they’re not thinking about what it’s doing to your sex life. But if you become an advocate for yourself, you can find out what are your best choices given what you want. To be able to still relate to your partner, or yourself, and still date, etc. So I think the important thing is to know that there are some choices out there. Of course, your first thing is to save your life, but you want to make sure that those options are out there that you can make informed decisions about. I think, also, things like new positions and figuring out — a lot of studies seem to see testosterone is greatest in the morning. Well, change yourself from a night person to a morning person. You know, things like that.

Do older sexually active people get STDs as often as younger ones do?

Oh, God, yes, although they don’t think they do. You know, one of the big problems has been the nursing homes in Miami. There was one that had gay men. And yes, there were lots of sexually transmitted diseases. These people didn’t use any protection because they felt like they were older, and that was their protection. I’m not sure why they felt that way. But they somehow felt that there had been an expiration date on getting diseases, and of course, it was just magical thinking.

Do drugs like Viagra figure into that thinking?

It’s had a very stimulating effect on people’s sexuality. Sorry. Because, particularly for men, and obviously lesbians could care less, but for men, you know, it’s depressing, and to some men, humiliating, if they can’t get and sustain an erection. So the fact that these medicines and a few other things, the shots, you name it, can pretty much guarantee erection in most men, it makes it so much easier for them to feel confident, you know, of executing a sexual experience without failure.

Why do you think sexually active older people are ridiculed?

I think we’re in a society that equates sexual attractiveness with youth. If you are going to set up, like the Greeks did, like many cultures did, a specific body type, a specific moment in life, that is the only beautiful moment in life, then everyone else is going to be open to ridicule and afraid of it and have a lot of self-loathing. I think a lot of it goes into psychology where then people will oppress themselves. You know, I’m not gonna be sexual. I’m not gonna take my clothes off in the day. I’m not going to presume that I have, you know, animal magnetism. And, you know, no, no, no, no. Well, it’s going to show up in what people do and how they feel about doing it.

Would you describe sex between older people as just as beautiful as sex between younger people?

You know, I was gonna say for me, sure. I know the comparison. I think a lot of people if they were honest, will say no, it’s not the same. It’s not as athletic and there may be other things that make it not so beautiful. Maybe your knees hurt or the erection isn’t as hard or the orgasm doesn’t go on as long, or things like that. But if the word wasn’t beautiful, but rather, can it be as satisfying? I think there’s quite a lot of people who would say, yeah, it could be as satisfying and I’m just happy to be with this partner that I’m with, as I’ve been with a partner when I was 25. And that they might probably be more likely say I’m more happy, I’m more fulfilled with my partner now than they would have said when they were younger.

What kind of advice would you give to a single individual who is wary of going out and trying to find sex or romance at an older age?

What I would say to them is, there’s a lot of people just like you, just as worried, just as insecure, just as heavy or just as thin, just as whatever. And this is my prejudice: everybody does want that. It’s a very high percentage rate. And to find a place where it’s not just a meat market, where there’s some reason to meet each other. There are all these kinds of gay clubs and lesbian teams and, you know, travel groups and all this stuff. And what I tell people is, if you wanted a job, you wouldn’t sit home waiting for someone to knock on your door and say, I’ve got a job for you. You’d know that you have to go out, and look for a job. You’re gonna get some rejections, but sooner or later, you’re gonna find something that will support you, and hopefully, you enjoy it, too. You can’t always get both, but you have a good shot at it.

Maybe you’ve been out of the game for a while. How do you overcome your insecurity?

I would just say that, don’t think you’re the only imperfect creature out there. All of us are imperfect, in some ways. And the question is, do you really want this? There are a lot of these social environments that don’t put you in contention with the 25-year-old hard bodies. So don’t go in environments where it’s only 25-year-old hard bodies because yeah, you will get depressed and fail, but don’t do that. You don’t have to do that.

What advice do you have for a couple in a long-term relationship, men or women, to freshen up their sex life?

Well, I think, first of all, I would say, have a sense of conscious purpose that you know that this is something that deserves to be refreshed and supported. Think of it as part of your health. You know, it’s blood flow, it’s exercise, it raises your respiration. I mean, really, it’s good for you. And the second thing is, orgasms, in particular, produce oxytocin, which is the bliss drug. So, it really does make you have an overall feeling of contentment and connection. You know, why not — why wouldn’t you want to keep that production of oxytocin in your system to share between you and your partner?

What if you’re both just too lazy to get to it?

We all get lazy, we get tired. You know, well, “Maybe let’s not do that tonight.” Then tonight becomes tomorrow night, the next night, whenever. And then you’ve got to say, “No. Like, we don’t have to have violins to say ‘Let’s attend to each other.'” People say, “Oh, I don’t  want to schedule anything.” You schedule dating when you’re younger, you can schedule this. And it still feels good. Do you know? But it’s something you do for each other. And if you’re gay male or lesbian, bisexual or hopefully transgender or heterosexual, this is something partners can give to each other, and everybody benefits, you know?

It increases affection and increases pleasure and it makes you remember that you’re still you.

The Pepper Schwartz Endowed Professorship in Sexuality and Aging at the University of Minnesota supports expanded scientific research into positive sexual health and aging well. You can make a gift here.