SHANGHAI — Every Wednesday afternoon, Xue Xiaoqing grabs her favorite purse and heads to a beauty salon in the city’s leafy former French Concession. There, the 70-year-old receives special massage therapy that her therapist has coyly named “private maintenance.”
The treatment for vaginal dryness is designed to help Xue improve her sex life with her husband. After a year of weekly sessions, she says she feels much younger and more confident. “I want to keep having sex until I can no longer walk,” she tells Sixth Tone.
Xue is one of a growing number of elderly Chinese who are rejecting traditional cultural mores and embracing their sexuality as a source of health and happiness.
Like many of her peers, Xue, a retired teacher, used to feel intense pressure to refrain from intercourse. Chinese culture has long stressed that sex should be for procreation only, and making love after menopause was considered both unhealthy and immoral.
“I felt guilty whenever I had sex and tried to suppress any sexual thoughts,” says Xue. She cites a common proverb to explain her feelings: “An old man who desires sex disrespects the elderly and brings misfortune on his family.”
But things changed for the 70-year-old when her beautician recommended she give the massages a try. “The therapist told me women in the West have sex into their 80s, and we can achieve that, too,” says Xue.
Quietly, millions of other retirees are joining the silver sexual revolution. Though 85% of young Chinese believe their parents never have sex, according to a recent survey, research suggests that most of the respondents are mistaken.
A 2018 report by researchers at Renmin University of China found that 53% of Chinese people aged between 55 and 61 had sex at least once a month. The number of elderly respondents that reported having an active sex life, meanwhile, rose from 25% in 2000 to 39% in 2015.
Zhang Ying, a professional matchmaker from Kunshan, a city roughly 70 kilometers west of Shanghai, says she has noticed an attitude shift among her elderly clients in recent years: As income levels rise, they are looking for more than just economic security — they are increasingly prioritizing their emotional needs.
“Almost all my clients emphasize that they want to have a sex life after they remarry,” says Zhang.
Personal information from a matchmaking event in Suzhou, Jiangsu province, Feb. 23, 2019. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone
Though media discussion of this trend remains rare in China, it is no longer taboo. A growing number of commentators are advocating “scientific sexual knowledge” and encouraging the elderly to keep on having sex “until the end.”
And as public awareness of sexual health issues grows, more retirees are seeking treatments to prolong their sex lives. Zhou Yujing opened a female beauty clinic specializing in sex-related therapies in the eastern city of Hangzhou in 2017. She says nearly 10% of her patients are aged 60 or over.
“This number is already larger than I expected,” says Zhou, adding that she expects to attract more older patients as society becomes increasingly open. The 33-year-old surveyed the mothers of dozens of her friends before starting her business, and she was struck by how many chafed against the patriarchal values they had internalized as young women.
“They all wanted to have sex, but moral hang-ups prevented them from doing so,” says Zhou. “If a woman stops having sex after childbirth or menopause, she’s being unfair to herself.”
An elderly man gives a rose to his wife in Suining, Sichuan province, May 19, 2018. Liu Changsong/VCG
Yuan Baohong — secretary general of the China Health Care Association, a Beijing-based nongovernmental organization — encourages elderly patients to pursue an active sex life, arguing that it can offer mental and physical benefits.
“When they have sex, older people feel they are actively engaging in life, rather than retreating from it,” says Yuan. “The self-confidence and positive mental state this fosters can help prolong their lives.”
For Yuan, sex can be an effective cure for the loneliness and negativity that often affect elderly patients. Though many understandably feel unable to move on after they lose their partners, this often heightens their sense of alienation, he says.
“Because their (sexual) needs can’t be understood by their children or society, they often feel distressed or depressed,” says Yuan. “Their moods can become volatile, and they sometimes lose their tempers for no reason.”
At an Ikea store in downtown Shanghai, however, more than 100 single elderly residents are actively searching for a new partner. Groups of retirees meet at the store’s second-floor café twice per week, many of whom attend multiple meetups each month.
On a humid Thursday in August, several attendees in their 60s and 70s tell Sixth Tone they are hoping to find a new spouse at that day’s coffee date, while others say they are simply looking for a friend with benefits. Many openly speak about their previous marriages and desire for emotional intimacy, though most prefer not to discuss their sex lives.
Elderly people talk to each other at an Ikea store in Shanghai, Oct. 11, 2016. VCG
But Wu Xiangui doesn’t shy away. The 68-year-old strides across the cafeteria, remarking to Sixth Tone that he is searching for a “target.” He says he has dated three women since his wife passed away four years ago.
“China is now an aging society, so why is it shameful to talk about the sexual problems of the elderly?” asks Wu. “Everyone has the same desire for intimacy, regardless of age.”
According to Wu, most of the regulars at Ikea have not found suitable life partners despite years of searching, but many have become “old lovers” who meet weekly. They share meals and sing karaoke together and often have one-night stands. “It’s just a need that is understandable and should be understood,” says Wu.
Experts observe that clear gender differences remain among elderly Chinese regarding attitudes toward sex, with men more likely to support the idea that older people have “normal sexual needs.” This is partly due to cultural conditioning, and also a result of the physical changes women undergo during menopause, according to Zhou, the Hangzhou-based sex therapist.
“Women’s inner vulvar mucosa gradually declines with age,” says Zhou. “This can make penetration painful, and slowly, women become sexually apathetic.”
The contrast between the sexes can sometimes create tensions within heterosexual couples, as Zhang Weibin attests. The 60-year-old has been married for more than three decades, but he says he and his wife last made love eight years ago, shortly before his wife started having menopause.
“Ever since then, her sexual desire started to decline,” says Zhang. He adds that he can “solve the problem by himself,” but admits that he has thought about having an affair.
“I think the ancient Chinese were wise,” says Zhang. “They allowed men to marry younger women when their first wives weren’t able to have sex with them anymore.”
For other couples, however, retirement provides the time and space to rekindle their sex lives. Zhuang Xin, a 58-year-old former state-owned enterprise employee from Hangzhou, says she and her husband have sex at least three times per month.
“It’s not as passionate or as long as before, but I see sex as a way for us to show affection for each other,” says Zhuang.
Many of Zhuang’s friends complain about their unsatisfying sex lives, but Zhuang says that old age also brings advantages. “My husband doesn’t need to use a condom now,” she says. “The pleasure is much greater for both of us.”
The couple is able to keep the conjugal flames burning because both make an effort to spice things up, according to Zhuang. They change into each other’s favorite underwear and pajamas for special occasions. On Zhuang’s 52nd birthday, her husband cooked her a romantic candelit dinner and bought her a dildo as a gift. “He was ill back then, but he still cared about my needs,” recalls Zhuang.
An elderly couple takes a break near a field of flowers in Chongqing, March 16, 2018. VCG
Mao Yongyi, who owns a sex shop in Shanghai, says he is receiving more and more orders from middle-aged and elderly people. He also notes that there is a marked difference between his older male and female customers: Women usually purchase lubricants and vibrators, whereas men tend to favor BDSM products.
“Elderly women who come to the shop know that it’s normal to have sexual needs, though they are still concerned about society’s opinions,” says Mao. “But if a man still has a sexual partner at this age, he’ll be particularly confident, feeling awesome about himself.”
But both genders have one thing in common, which is that sex helps them maintain their youth, according to Mao. One of his male customers, 83, needs assistance walking but still purchases bondage gear, while his oldest female customer, 76, is a joy to talk to, he says.
“I can tell she has a stable sex life, because she’s glowing and looks so young for her age,” says Mao.
A few blocks away from Mao’s sex shop, Xue has just finished her therapy session at the beauty salon. She fixes her hair and takes a sip of her favorite green tea. “If young people take it for granted that sex is exclusive to them, it’s only because they are not old yet,” she says.
Editor: Dominic Morgan.
(Header image: E+/VCG)