More older people are having sex, but it's easier for men than women to strike lucky
In Irish tradition, it used to be said that old age was the time for "telling your beads" (saying the Rosary in preparation for the next world) but now, we are informed, it's time for a renewal of sexual activity. The Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing reports, cheerily, that two-thirds of people over 50 are sexually active these days, and even for those over 75, more than a fifth of them are still regularly "having sex", as they put it, not very romantically (or erotically).
Quite a few people over 60 in the Republic are marrying, too: 12 years ago, 232 men over 60 wed; in 2015, this had risen to 420. Many had been married before so it was the second time around - but it does tend to show there is relationship commitment.
Mind you, for all our changed attitudes towards sexual freedom, there is still a distinct link between sex and marriage. The study showed that married people have more sex than those who are single, separated or divorced - certainly among the older group. Being married for those heading for pensionable age tends to mean a steadier sex life.
But a gender-biased pattern also emerges. When older men marry, their brides are usually in a younger age group. Of the 420 men over 60 who married in 2015, only 156 of their brides were around the same age. This is a similar overall pattern to previous statistics.
As time goes on, this difference between males and females is emphasised. More than a fifth of those over 75 are still sexually active - 23% - but the study tells us that "older men have more sex than older women, and the decline in women's sexual activity is more rapid".
The sociologists believe this is because women are more likely to be widowed than men: men usually die first. To me, this is a superficial analysis. I believe that men, as a group - not all men - are hardwired by biology to be attracted to younger women, so that when they dump a first wife, they frequently choose a younger woman as the second.
The advent of Viagra has been a tremendous boost for older men. The great anxiety, for older guys, is the loss of potency, and the greatest mockery that an older man fears is a reputation that he "can't get it up". The French-Russian novelist Romain Gary wrote an autobiographical book about this worry: the French slang for having an erection is bander, and the entire book was about an ageing man's inability to bander. In the end, he shot himself in the head. Poor Romain Gary. If only he had had that little blue pill, he could have gone on into his dotage.
The anxiety, for older women who still want to be involved in a sexual relationship, is the difficulty of finding a boyfriend. (The word 'partner' is so cold and businesslike and removed from romance, as though we were auditing accounts.) I write an advice page for The Oldie magazine, and the experience has made me aware of the way the market is skewed against older women. Many a gal in her 60s and 70s is eager to 'date', as it's put, but where are the men? They go onto dating sites on the internet, they join clubs, they advertise and respond to adverts, but they return to the old saw: a good man is hard to find.
Whenever a widower or a divorce becomes available in the senior years, there's often a queue of women fussing around him. One correspondent dubbed these 'the casserole ladies'; she once brought a casserole lunch to an elderly widower in her block of flats, meaning to be kind. He answered the door with something of a rebuff: "Oh, Esther has already brought me a lunch casserole, thank you." There seemed to be a plethora of ladies of a certain age keen to court him.
There are inequalities that neither law nor custom can change, and these are the inequalities inherent in nature. Older men are always going to be attracted to, and aroused by, younger women, and rich older men will always have their pick. (Look at Donald Trump: each succeeding wife younger.) Indissoluble lifelong marriage was one way for women to deter ageing men from being led astray by their hormones, even if it had its restrictions and vexations. My sister once heard a woman say on a Brooklyn bus: "Look, honey, you're either fightin' or lonely. Better be fightin'."
Yet individuals are infinitely variable, and there's a literature springing up about sex and romance among the oldies: it's called 'grandma lit'. Hilary Boyd, who wrote Thursdays in the Park (about a grandmother who meets a lover while taking the grandkids to the park) is credited with inventing it. Jack Nicholson and Diane Keaton did an oldsters' romcom together, Something's Gotta Give, although the sex scenes were notably decorous: another law of nature (and Hollywood) is that naked bodies on screen for erotic purposes must be young, lithe and flawless.
It's fine and dandy that older people should be encouraged to enjoy their sex lives. And there have probably always been a few vigorous and randy oldsters around.
When Dermot MacMurrough abducted Dervorgilla, wife of the King of Breifne, in 1152, he was 42, and she was described as being "of advanced years" - so she was probably well over 50. And that's the episode that started all the trouble!